How the K.G.B. Started the War That Changed the Middle East
The caller was Yuri Kotov, an up-and-coming K.G.B. case officer. Two and a half years earlier, he had recruited a man whose K.G.B. code name was Boy, a prominent young member of Israel’s ruling Labor Party. Since then, Boy had given Kotov a wealth of information on the party, and from his reserves post in military intelligence. In K.G.B. documents recently deposited, by way of British intelligence, at the University of Cambridge, I found warm words of praise for Boy. “My handlers in the K.G.B.,” Boy told me recently, “informed me I was being groomed to become one of their top agents in the Middle East.” The K.G.B. was not wrong: Boy became a well-known figure in Israel and the United States.
Boy was, however, an Israeli patriot. He had notified the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, of Kotov’s overtures, and he was told to play along. He passed the Soviets information supplied by Israeli intelligence, some of it fake and the rest harmless. The Shin Bet, who code-named him Orange, still treats the case as highly sensitive and bans publication of his name. In June 1967, Kotov and his comrades in Tel Aviv saw that Israel was preparing for war, something their superiors in Moscow were convinced was not going to happen despite Arab threats and offensive deployments. Nevertheless, the Soviets began asking their agents what was going on. The Shin Bet decided “to activate our double agents to try and prevent the war,” by feeding the Russians accurate information, Reuven Merhav, one of Orange’s handlers, told me.
The Shin Bet instructed Orange “to meet with Kotov, wearing my officer’s uniform and insignia, to tell him about Israel’s enormous deployment of forces along the border with Egypt, in preparation for a war, and that if the Soviet Union did not bring about a relaxation of tension and the withdrawal of the Egyptian army from Sinai, Israel would attack first.” Another double agent, Victor Grayevsky, a Polish journalist, was given the same orders. These reports were conveyed to Moscow, but they made no difference. Deception and disinformation that had been cooked up in the K.G.B.’s headquarters had already put Israel and its neighbors on a path to war.
The way that Soviet intelligence tried to reshape the balance of power in the Middle East is essential to understand the developments that led to the outbreak of the Six-Day War. But it also explains the mind-set of the people who grew up in the K.G.B. and run Russia today, and the ways in which they try to influence international politics. The K.G.B. used to call this modus operandi Active Measures. According to K.G.B. documents, they are “aimed at exerting useful influence on aspects of interest in the political life of a target country, including its foreign policy; misleading the adversary; undermining and weakening the adversary’s positions.”
The heads of the K.G.B. were deeply anti-Semitic, and saw in Israel and world Jewry “a danger which is only second to the main enemy, the United States.” The K.G.B. was intent on destabilizing Israel, totally disproportionate to the country’s strength or influence. In April 1967, as the United States was making gains in Vietnam, the Soviets decided to undertake dramatic Active Measures to weaken Israel — and thereby also deal a blow to the Americans. By conveying false information, the Soviets hoped to increase Syrian and Egyptian dependence on Moscow and deepen Egypt’s involvement in the Middle East’s tensions by making the Egyptians flex their muscles against Israel.
They hoped Egypt would respond by bolstering its standing and be able once again to move its army into Sinai. According to some sources, the Soviet Union even hoped that simmering tensions would compel President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to pull his army out of Yemen, where his involvement was annoying the Soviets. A crisis between Egypt and Israel could also slow down or stop the construction of Israel’s atomic reactor at Dimona, which the Soviets rightly saw as a strategic shift in the Middle East.
The Soviets exploited the May 13, 1967, visit by the deputy president of Egypt, Anwar el-Sadat, to the Kremlin to share with him “top secret” information that Israel was concentrating forces along its northern border and intended to attack Syria. K.G.B. leaders told Sadat that the Politburo expected Egypt to defend Syria, a Russian ally. “They knew very well that this was not merely incorrect information, but rather a blatant lie,” said General Shlomo Gazit, who served at the time as head of the research branch of Israeli Military Intelligence.
Israel was not actually concentrating its forces. In fact, Israeli intelligence was convinced in mid-1967 that Syria was immersed in internal strife, while Egypt was tied down in Yemen, and therefore there was no immediate danger of war. This was an accurate evaluation: Neither country actually wanted a war. But by mid-May the K.G.B. could not put the genie back in the bottle.
Sadat returned to Cairo that night to find that the K.G.B. station there had issued a similar warning. He hurried to Nasser’s residence, where the Egyptian leadership had convened for an emergency meeting. Nasser didn’t necessarily believe the Soviets’ reports — but he behaved as though he did. Even if Moscow was pushing Egypt and Syria to the brink of war, he was confident that it would work to his benefit. On May 15, the Egyptian president ordered his army to march into Sinai and then demanded that the United Nations pull its peacekeepers from the peninsula. Then he declared the Straits of Tiran, a choke point for Israel’s access to the Red Sea, closed to Israeli shipping. The Soviet Union backed these measures, believing that Israel wouldn’t dare to start a war in response and that even if the Israelis did want to strike, the United States would stop them.
Egypt’s moves came as a shock to the Israelis, who interpreted them as casus belli and began mobilizing forces to face the Egyptians. The Israeli military’s top brass put pressure on Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to approve a pre-emptive attack. The Israeli populace, imbued with a deep fear of a second Holocaust induced by Nasser’s violent threats, was gripped by anxiety. The military leadership, however, enjoying high-grade intelligence, was confident of victory. The staff members of the Soviet embassy in Israel — Yuri Kotov among them — were less confident than their bosses in Moscow that Israel could be cowed. They summoned their agents to try to understand what was happening. At the same time, the Shin Bet activated the double agents to persuade the Soviet Union to relax the tensions.
Eshkol tried to convince the Soviets that Israel was not planning to attack Syria. In the middle of the night, in his pajamas, he received the Soviet ambassador, Sergei Chuvakhin, and proposed they go on a tour of the Israel-Syria border to see that nothing out of the ordinary was underway there. Chuvakhin declined. When the Soviets realized that the situation might spin out of their control, they tried to head off a war. In a secret letter to President Lyndon Johnson, Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet premier, demanded that Johnson ensure Israel would not attack Syria or Egypt, while on a separate channel asking Egypt not to strike.
But at the same time, the Russians did nothing to persuade Nasser to withdraw his forces. Most of the experts in Moscow were certain that if war were to break out, Israel would be defeated within two weeks. The Soviets continued feeding their allies false information. The Russians also approved of Egyptian MiG flights (some say they were manned by Soviet pilots) over Israel’s atomic reactor in the Negev desert, an act that was perceived in Israel as a direct threat to its most secret and sensitive site.
On June 1, when it became clear that the United States wouldn’t or couldn’t open the Tiran Straits with an international flotilla, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Meir Amit, the head of the Mossad: “I read you very clearly. Go home, young man, that is where you need to be now.” Amit understood from McNamara’s response that he had obtained what he later described to me as a “flashing green light” to launch a pre-emptive attack. It came on June 5. Shortly after, the K.G.B. in Tel Aviv began receiving reports of Israeli victories and “were at a complete loss,” according to Reuven Merhav, who headed the Shin Bet’s counterespionage Soviet desk at the time. They were the first to grasp the dimensions of the disaster for the Soviet Union.
The Active Measure brought the exact opposite of what they had planned for. In six days, Israel had become the regional power and a more significant ally for the United States; Syria and Egypt were humiliated. American arms had won a knockout over the Soviets’ weaponry and military doctrines. On June 10, the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. Eight days later, a ship docked at Haifa and took aboard the embassy’s contents, as well as the staff, including the K.G.B. station. A minute after they vacated the building, Shin Bet operatives broke in and found that the K.G.B. had “not left anything behind,” according to Mr. Merhav. “I realized that an era had ended,” he said, but he reckoned that “the Middle East is far too important to them. They’ll be back.”
He was right. Russia is back, again playing a destructive, diabolical role in world politics. The technology for spreading disinformation and the use of that fake fact to spread friction and discord, to deceive and to menace, may have changed, but the mind-set has remained the same. With an old K.G.B. hand, Vladimir Putin, at the helm, Russia still sees Active Measures as a legitimate means of closing the gap between Russia and the West, and increasing Moscow’s influence across the globe — including in the Middle East.
The difference between June 1967 and today is that now they seem to be doing pretty well.