In 1970, Israel and the Soviet Union were at war, although neither side openly admitted it. The thinking was to keep the news from reaching the public, since it could conceivably escalate, provoking a strong US response, and possibly kicking off a third world war.
What exactly was this “secret” war between Israel and the Soviets? And how close was it to starting a massive global conflict?
The Soviets and Israelis didn’t start out as sparring partners: in 1947, the Soviet bloc supported the United Nations’ plan to partition British-controlled Palestine into an Arab State and a Jewish state.
But by the early 1950s, in the middle of the Cold War, the relationship between Israel and the Soviet Union had soured, mostly because the Soviets decided that Arab allegiance made more strategic, geopolitical, and economic sense and began shifting their support to countries like Egypt. In 1955, Moscow brokered an arms deal with Cairo that brought weapon platforms like MiG-15 fighter jets and T-34 tanks to the region. This continued into the next decade. From 1965 to 1970, the Soviets are estimated to have given Egypt over $1 billion in military aid, hoping that their alliance would give them an upper hand against the US.
Moscow’s Cold War strategy included building a navy with a global reach. They significantly expanded the number of ships they had in the Mediterranean after the 1967 Six Day War.
After the Six Day War, Israel and Egypt engaged in the War of Attrition for three years. Early on, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser had to address the fact that his air fleet was completely wiped out by Israeli forces during the 6 Day War. Moscow noticed Egypt’s vulnerability and offered to send weapons and personnel to bolster their defenses. The Soviets did this so they could study the American military vessels stationed in the Mediterranean. This, they hoped, would help swing the Cold War in their favor.
Egypt agreed to host Soviet forces, and soon after, Israeli intelligence stationed in the Sinai peninsula noticed Soviet planes and missiles positioned along the Suez Canal across from the Israeli outposts. In response, the Israeli Air Force was deployed to stop them, sparking the secret Israeli-Soviet war.
On June 30th, 1970, during a routine patrol, Israeli jets flew over Egyptian airspace and were downed by anti-aircraft missiles. The Israeli Air Force encountered an advanced Soviet air defense system that proved incredibly hard to overcome. Over the next month, the Soviet and Israeli militaries clashed on a daily basis.
Then, on July 30th, Israeli and Soviet fighter jets engaged in a dogfight dubbed “Operation Rimon 20.” This time the Israelis came out on top, but it didn’t change the big picture: Israel was in no position to win a sustained battle with the Soviets.
Luckily, the US was working on an agreement to end the Egyptian/Israeli battle, which was the public face of the conflict. Behind the scenes, Egyptian President Nasser flew to Moscow, where Soviet leaders pressed him to accept the US driven agreement, a baffling development because it seemed the Soviets were siding with their nemeses, the Americans. Nassar signed the agreement, and the War of Attrition came to an end a week into August 1970.
While the Israelis managed to shoot down five of the 24 Soviet MiGs, only sustaining damage to one of their own jets, they had no prospects for future victory.
Their only chance to curtail the Soviets’ advance into the Sinai was to invade Egypt, which the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, didn’t view as a viable option. Israel military leaders and politicians considered the signing of the agreement a victory since it ended the fighting, but in reality, Israel lost its mini war against the Soviets.
The battles weren’t publicly discussed at the time. Israel didn’t want to taunt the Soviet Union and invite more war, so opted not to draw attention to it. Similarly, the Soviets didn’t want to trigger an American intervention. The battles along the Suez were known and studied, but almost always as a part of the War of Attrition instead of what they were, a mini-war between Israel and the Soviets, and a fascinating side note to the ongoing Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US.
Military strategy often includes controlling the narrative of certain battles as a way to prevent others, and the Israelis and the Soviets were both aware of this in 1970.
Which was good news for the rest of the world, since it meant that World War III wasn’t about to start, and if it was, at least not along the Egyptian/Israeli border.