- Sep 14, 2020
Part 7 b
U.S.S.R The Soviet Union
and the Crisis
Nuclear Bluff, Tactics and advantages
The Great Powers and the Suez Crisis in 1956
I could have titled this paper " The Soviet Miracle ". I have to explain this " little provocation ". I think that the Suez crisis is a very rare case seeing a State -- the Soviet Union -- managing a major change in the balance of power without doing almost anything but bluff and with a very limited political and military investment. More, at the same time Moscow had to face a dangerous challenge in two countries (Poland and Hungary) with a very high value to its political, military and ideological security. I would like to show how this " miracle " could result. As the role of France, Great Britain United States and Israel are now well known, I will focus on the Soviet side. Getting access to the soviet archives we could now have a more accurate and comprehensive approach1.A New Policy
First, what was the Soviet position in the Middle Eastern balance of power before the Suez Crisis ?
Between 1949 and 1955, Moscow had almost no policy, no strategy no allies in the Middle East. After ending the strategic alliance with Israel in 1949, the Soviet policy was constrained by the internal factors during the last Stalin's years. The struggle for power at the top leadership, the different affairs and plots, especially the so-called "Zionist and cosmopolitan" one, led to the severing of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tel Aviv in February 1953 (resumed in July 1953). On the other hand, during these years, Soviet Union was unable to formulate a strategy to prevent the creation of a " Middle Eastern NATO " by the Western powers. If this project failed, it was more because of the contradictions of the western policy as the result of the Soviet one.
The come back of Moscow in the Middle East began in 1955 with the negotiations with Egypt about an arms deal and with the formulation of a new approach for the Soviet policy based upon both geopolitical and ideological factors.
According to Mohamed Heikal, Nasser's adviser, the negotiations about an arms deal between Moscow and Cairo started in may 1955 after the Bandung conference. Getting access to soviet archives we know now that the scenario was different. I have no room in the frame of this paper to go through the details of this affair but just about the main points. In October 1953, for the first time the Egyptian ambassador in Moscow talked to the soviet diplomat Zaïtsev about the possibility for its country to receive soviet arms2. In July 1954, Moscow gave a positive answer to Nasser3. But the Egyptian leader did not follow up the soviet offer because he was negotiating a new treaty with Great Britain. Cairo came back to Moscow's offer in April 19554 before the Bandung conference, after the signature of the Baghdad Pact and after the failure of the negotiations with the United States about an American military support to Egypt.
The Egyptians asked the Soviets that the negotiations took place in Prague in order to avoid a harsh reaction of the Western powers. So after Shepilov's trip in Cairo in July 19555, the arms deal was concluded in September 1955 in Prague6. On the eve of the Suez crisis, Moscow was selling tanks and fighters to Cairo and sending there military advisors. It was a successful but limited breakthrough in the western political and military monopoly in the Middle East. The conclusion of the Baghdad Pact in February 1955 speeded up the rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Egypt7. As Nasser refused to join it, Moscow considered the Egyptian leader as a potential ally. The alliance with Nasser could divided the Western powers, the Arab world, prevent any solving of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the creation a military anti soviet bloc in the Middle East.
Offensive in the Third World
This military co-operation between Soviet Union and a non socialist country was accompanied by a new ideological and geopolitical approach. As this aspect is very well-known, I just want to remind that the three pillars of the Khrushchev's foreign policy was peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world, opening up to the Third World and destalinization. The new policy towards the Third world was based upon an idea very clearly formulated by Ivan Maiksy, the former deputy minister of Foreign affairs, in a personal letter to Khrushchev in December 1955. According to Maisky, as the situation in Europe is frozen, the next stage of the struggle for the world domination of socialism will be the liberation of the colonized and semi colonized peoples from the capitalist exploitation. The loss of their colonies by the colonial powers will hasten the victory of socialism in Europe and in the United States8. This combined policy of peaceful coexistence and offensive in Third world was the pursuit of the leninist principles. The soviet perception of the international relations continued to be grounded on the friend/enemy categories and on the desire to compete with the capitalist world for the global hegemony.
Thus, on the eve of the Suez crisis the Soviet Union get a better position in the balance of power in the Middle East as in 1954 but the distribution of power remains in favour of the Western countries. Moscow had a new vague doctrine but not a policy to implement.
Failure of western policy
The roots of the Suez crisis lie no so much in the new Soviet-Egyptian relationship as in the failure of Operation Alpha which the United States and Great Britain tried to implement from the end of 1954 to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Until March 1956, Washington and London did not adopt a coercive policy in respect of Cairo, despite its rapprochement with Moscow. They were afraid that too much pressure on the Egyptian government might produce the opposite effect expected: Egypt might strengthen its alliance with the USSR. The two Western powers, and in particular the United States, preferred a policy which would allow them to pursue both their strategic goals (strengthening the Northern Tier pact) and their political goals (weakening Egyptian nationalism) as part of the policy of containment of the USSR. Participating in financing the construction of the Aswan Dam was viewed as part of this policy, designed to bring Nasser back into the Western side. But in March 1956, after the failure of the Alpha Project, the United States decided to adopt a new policy - called the Omega Project - with regard to Nasser. According to Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, this policy, which among other things involved suspending American aid to Egypt, financing anti--Nasser Iraqi propaganda, and supporting the Arab countries which distrusted the Egyptian leader, was intended to " let Colonel Nasser realize that he cannot cooperate as he is doing with the Soviet Union and at the same time enjoy most-favoured-nation treatment from the United States ". Nevertheless, Dulles added, it was necessary to " avoid any open break which would throw Nasser irrevocably into a Soviet satellite status and we would want to leave Nasser a bridge back to good relations with the West if he so desires ".9
However, Nasser's intransigence during the negotiations over financing the Aswan Dam, combined with the U.S. Congress's opposition to this project and Egypt's recognition of Communist China in April 1956,10 led to the crisis. Nasser took alone the decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. The Soviet Union did not play any role.
Even if the former KGB agent in Cairo, Vadim Kirpichenko, states that this possibility had been envisaged by the Soviet intelligence services,11 Nasser's gesture would certainly seem to have surprised the Kremlin leaders, given the time they took to react officially to the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Even the Yugoslav leaders, albeit close to Nasser, were not taken into his confidence, as attested by the exchange between the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Vladimir Semienov12 and the Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow.13
An unexepected opportunity
On July 28, the MID submitted to the Central Committee of the CPSU a series of measures for supporting Egypt and designed to show, through articles to be published in the Soviet press and a declaration by the MID, the legitimacy of Nasser's decision. The text was also intended as a warning to the Western powers who might be tempted " to make use of Israel for provocative purposes ".14 However, these measures remained of limited scope. On July 31, in a speech in Moscow, Khrushchev declared that in nationalizing the Canal, Egypt had simply exercised its sovereign right, that it had undertaken to respect the freedom of shipping in the Canal and that the USSR considered that " the policy of pressure on Egypt is wrong ", adding that " the Suez Canal issue can and must be resolved peacefully "15.
On August 2, France, Great Britain and the United States published a declaration proposing a conference to be held in London on August 16 in order to find a way out of the conflict. This conference was an American initiative. While Paris and London were tending towards a military solution, Washington tried to dissuade them.
The Soviet Union was invited to this conference as a signatory of the Constantinople Convention of 1888, which laid down the principles for using the Suez Canal. In all, 24 countries, including Egypt but not Israel, received invitations to London.16
First, the USSR was in favour of the proposal, presented to the Soviet ambassador by Nasser on August 3, to submit the matter to the United Nations Security Council.17 The politburo rejected this option, deciding that the USSR would attend the conference and asking Shepilov to draw up the list of delegation members and to prepare a set of draft instructions.18On August 9, the Soviet government published a declaration on the Suez issue. This text was the first official stand since the beginning of the crisis, Khrushchev's speech on July 31 having been unofficial. The USSR repeated its support for the Egyptian decision, which it called " an entirely legal act deriving from Egypt's sovereign rights ", denounced " the measures taken by the English and French governments ", calling them " completely unacceptable ", and a " challenge to the cause of peace ", and announcing that it would attend the London Conference, while criticizing the conditions and principles underlying its organization.
The London Conference : a Soviet success
Why did the USSR agree to take part in a conference organised by the Western powers and intended to promote their interests? In fact, beyond the Suez Canal problem, the Soviet leaders tried to take advantage of the opportunity - with which the West provided them - to become a key player in the Middle East as the United States, France and Great Britain.
The instructions reflected the political goals pursued by the USSR, which can be divided into three lines:
1) To support Egypt while showing that the USSR is seeking a balanced solution to the crisis. However, the Soviet delegation should not find itself in a situation in which its " declarations and its proposals could be interpreted as if the Soviet Union unconditionally supported one party's actions and ignored the interests of the other party, in particular those of England and France. "19 Particularly since the USSR has common interests with the Western powers on the other aspect of the Suez problem: freedom of shipping in the Canal.
2) The USSR's second goal was to reinforce its position in the Near East and in the Third World. For the first time since the end of the first Israel-Arab war in 1949, the USSR had an opportunity not to let the Western powers monopolize the Middle East. The Soviet leaders wanted to take advantage of this crisis in order to weaken the Western powers and develop their policy of rapprochement with the decolonized countries. In this way, Moscow tried to strike an alliance with the three main players of the Bandung Conference: Nasser, Nehru and Sukarno.
3) However, the USSR did not wish to see the conflict with Egypt, France and Great Britain degenerate into a military collision. This concern was not just a propaganda argument designed for public opinion. This point was stressed several times in the instructions.
On his return to Moscow, Shepilov presented a report to the presidium, and prepared a draft Central Committee resolution on the results of the London Conference. In this draft resolution, corrected by Souslov20, Shepilov emphasized that:
1. The nationalization of the Suez Canal was " a new and powerful blow to the colonialist positions which will impart momentum to the development of the fight by the peoples of the countries of the East against the unequal agreements imposed on them in the political and economic spheres. "21
2. The Suez crisis reflected the heightening of the internal contradictions of imperialism.
3. The USSR's was right to participate in this conference. " The Soviet Union had become a major world power. No problem in the Near and Middle East or no global problem in general can be settled without taking account of its opinion. "22
4. The creation of a common front in the speeches of the Soviet Union, India, Indonesia and Ceylon is an important political result of the London Conference. According to Shepilov, this unity made it possible to remove the danger of Western military intervention without, however, ruling it out it completely. Hence measures had to be taken in order to lessen international tension, unmask the antipopular plans of the aggressive circles of England, France and the United States, and strengthen the resistance of Egypt and the other Arab countries.”
While the London Conference was an unqualified success in the eyes of the Soviets, it did nothing to solve the problem triggered by the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. As Nasser rejected the London Conference proposals, France, Great Britain and Israel considered they could prepare their military operation.
Pressure and compromise
What strategy would the USSR adopt up until the unleashing of the attack at the end of October? Was it aware of the plans of Paris, London and Tel Aviv?
During the weeks after the London Conference, the USSR did not change the line it had laid down at the beginning of August. On September 11, Bulganin sent letters to the French and British prime ministers, highlighting the potential negative consequences of an armed intervention and pointing out that the USSR entirely recognized the rights and interests of France and Great Britain. On September 15, the Soviet government published a declaration following the French-British-American proposal to establish an association of Suez Canal users which would manage the Canal.23 Opposing this project, the USSR supported the Egyptian proposal, drawn up on September 1024 to convene a conference with the signatory states of the 1888 Convention in order to consider its revision. Moscow warned the Western powers against using force, while declaring its commitment to the freedom of shipping in the Canal and recognizing the importance of the Canal for France and Great Britain. However, above all, Moscow emphasized its Great Power status pointing out its concern about the situation and that any violation of the peace in the Near and Middle East would affect the security of the Soviet Union25 .
After the failure of the Users association's project, Paris and London took the Suez problem to the Security Council. Despite the potential Soviet veto, they thought that they would be able to prove to world public opinion how intransigent Nasser was being, thereby acquiring legitimacy for the military intervention being prepared.26 A few days before the Council session began, the MID's Information Committee analyzed the reasons behind the Franco-British request. Tugarinov envisaged three hypotheses:
1) France and Great Britain were aware that they were running the risk of the Soviet veto, but wanted to take advantage of it to show that the UN was incapable of solving the problem;
2) Resorting to the Security Council was intended to force the hand of the United States so that it would go along with the Franco-British plans. According to the author of this note, the United States could adopt a more conciliatory attitude to Egypt;
3) Paris and London wanted to reach a compromise with Egypt.27
However, Tugarinov did not indicate any preference for one of these hypotheses.
During the discussions in the Security Council, Shepilov defined the Soviet position along two sets of lines: initiating negotiations in order to discuss with Egypt the conditions for shipping in the Canal, and refusing any international control structure over the Canal. According to Mohamed Heikal, Shepilov urged the Egyptians to reject any compromise on the second point28. Moscow wanted to keep the control over the negotiations.
The discussions at the Security council resulted in a compromise. France and Great Britain presented a two-part resolution: the first part laid down the six principles which were intended both to guarantee the freedom of shipping in the Canal and to respect Egypt's sovereignty.29 The USSR voted in favour of this first part of the resolution, which was adopted unanimously by the Council. However, Moscow vetoed the second part of the resolution, which provided for Egypt to co-operate with the Canal Users Association " in order to ensure the proper functioning of the Canal ". Shepilov declared himself satisfied with the results obtained following these days of Security Council talks.30 This satisfaction was shared by Eisenhower, who stated, " It looks like here is a very great crisis that is behind us. "31
No military sanctions
What did the Soviet leaders know of the Anglo-Franco-Israeli military plans? According to the MID documents available to us, the Soviet diplomats ruled out the hypothesis of the use of force by France and Great Britain after the nationalizing of the Suez Canal. Thus in a report dated August 10, the MID Information Committee estimated that military sanctions against Egypt were unlikely for three main reasons: 1) the Arab world's support for Nasser and the risk that a blockade of the Canal would lead to the stoppage of oil transports through it, which could lead to a considerable degree of paralysis of the French and British economies; 2) the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy and other NATO members were opposed to military sanctions against Egypt; 3) leading English circles feared that Britain's participation with France in anti-Egyptian measures would be extremely negative for England's positions in Asia.32 We have seen that, after the first London conference, Shepilov thought that the threat of military intervention was over. At the beginning of October, Yuri Andropov, at that time Soviet ambassador to Budapest, sent a report concluding, on the basis of information collected by “Hungarian colleagues” among the Western embassies in Budapest, that there could not possibly be a war in the near future.33
The Soviet leaders also received reassuring information from high-ranking members of the British Labour Party visiting Moscow. On August 14, the MID's Information Committee sent a note to Khrushchev reporting a conversation between Guy Burgess, the former Soviet agent-British diplomat who had fled to Moscow in 1951, and Tom Driberg, a journalist who was a member of the Labour Party's Executive Committee.34 For Driberg, the threats of England and France were nothing but bluff, and would not be implemented. This note was read by Khrushev.35
Burgess and Driberg met again two months later to discuss the Labour Party's situation. In a report addressed to Khrushchev, Bulganin and Shepilov, Burgess expressed his view that Driberg was being over-optimistic.36 On October 19, Burgess met another leading figure from the left wing of the Labour Party, Koni Zilliacus,37 who stated that the British government had no idea how to extricate itself from the Suez crisis. Under Eden, the Cabinet was undertaking a policy of threat and bluff, because it knew that there would be no war between East and West over the Middle East.38 The text of this conversation was also sent to Khrushchev, who had met Zilliacus a few days earlier. On September 11, one of the Arab leaders of the Israeli Communist Party, Tawfik Toubi, stated to the Soviet ambassador in Tel Aviv " that Israel would not itself engage in armed conflict with the Arabs. [...] Israel might join a military operation intiated by the Western powers. But currently there is no information indicating that the Western powers will undertake a war. They understand that an armed conflict would threaten to lose them the entire Near East. "39
All of these elements indicate that the Soviet leaders received information which might lead them to think that France and Great Britain would not implement their threats of military reprisals.
However, they also received information which might lead them to draw the opposite conclusion. This information came from the KGB, the MID's Information Committee and the USSR Embassy in Israel.
War is inevitable