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A nuclear standoff. One leader is drunk. The other is delirious. The underlings scramble to avoid the worst. This is not an end-of-the-world Hollywood thriller, or an episode in President Trump’s erratic diplomacy. It is a story of how the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on a collision course in the Middle East.
The Yom Kippur War, fought over several weeks in October 1973, was a tumultuous conflict between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria. The war ended with a decisive victory for Israel, but even 45 years later, questions about the roles played by the two Cold War superpowers remain.
Now, new documents, collected and translated by the Wilson Center, show the Kremlin in disarray, desperately trying to help Egypt, one of its most important client states. For many years we thought the aggressive Soviet behavior during the war was a ploy to undercut American influence, or gain access to oil or warm-water ports. The new evidence suggests it was simply a case of bad crisis management.
On the morning of Oct. 6, 1973, taking advantage of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria began a coordinated assault on Israel in a bid to retake the territories lost in the Arab-Israeli War six years earlier. Bolstered by a Soviet airlift, the Egyptians and the Syrians made early gains before Israel reclaimed the initiative on the battlefield. Ignoring a United Nations Security Council call for a cease-fire, the Israelis pressed on.
Two weeks later in Washington, while the war continued, President Richard Nixon forced out his attorney general and deputy attorney general, then fired the special prosecutor Archibald Cox. This Saturday Night Massacre unleashed a political firestorm and Mr. Nixon, bending in the face of all the fury, sought solace in drink.
Late in the evening of Oct. 24, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger received an alarming letter from the Soviet general secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, addressed to the president. The situation in the Middle East had reached a dangerous point, Mr. Brezhnev told Mr. Nixon. Moscow and Washington had to act jointly to rein in the Israelis. And if the Americans demurred, the Soviets might act unilaterally and send in troops.
When Mr. Brezhnev’s message arrived, Mr. Nixon was reported to be indisposed; Mr. Kissinger and the White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig, decided not to wake him up. Instead, Mr. Kissinger called together a meeting of principals to consider America’s response. They moved the nuclear alert level to Defcon 3, the highest since the Cuban missile crisis.
Declassified documents reveal that the move was not just a reaction to mounting Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean, as was long reported, but to intelligence reports of a Soviet ship with nuclear cargo heading for the Egyptian port of Alexandria.
The obvious conclusion was that Moscow was opportunistically using the Watergate scandal to make inroads at Mr. Nixon’s expense. As Mr. Kissinger put it, “The Soviets see that he is, in their mind, nonfunctional.” As American forces around the world went on heightened alert, there were unanswered questions: Why would Mr. Brezhnev do something like this? Was he just bluffing?
Some of these questions now have answers. We know today that Mr. Brezhnev’s threat to send in troops was not the only crazy idea he had. At the height of the crisis, prodded by incessant pleas for help from Egypt’s president, Anwar el-Sadat (calls came in the middle of the night), the irate Soviet leader asked the Politburo to consider additional measures, like parking a Soviet naval force off Tel Aviv, or allowing Egypt to strike deep inside Israel with Soviet-supplied rockets.
These aggressive moves were very uncharacteristic of Mr. Brezhnev’s generally cautious approach to foreign policy. What happened? His daily schedule — recently declassified — tells a part of the story.
Since the outbreak of the fighting, Mr. Brezhnev often worked virtually around the clock, holding Politburo meetings during the day, receiving delegations at night and speaking to Cairo on the phone in between. On Oct. 22, he went to his favorite hunting lodge, Zavidovo, to recuperate. But according to his secretaries he stayed up at night, even calling his Kremlin office at 2 a.m. It was at Zavidovo that Mr. Brezhnev composed his letter to Mr. Nixon, and also his request to the Politburo, calling for tougher measures.
The letter was sent. But the tougher measures were quietly torpedoed. Someone in the Soviet leadership realized that the general secretary was going off the rails.
Then, on Oct. 29, the head of the K.G.B. (and Mr. Brezhnev’s eventual successor), Yuri Andropov, sent his boss a curious letter, warning him that the Americans and Mr. Sadat had conspired to overwork him by constantly keeping him engaged in difficult decision-making. This was “sabotage,” Mr. Andropov argued, pure and simple. The Americans and the Egyptians were trying to “keep us focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, creating overstrain for all, and especially for you.”
Mr. Andropov knew what Mr. Kissinger did not: Mr. Brezhnev had developed an addiction to sleeping pills that, combined with alcohol, was undermining his ability to think straight. Mr. Andropov learned of the addiction weeks before the war in the Middle East but refused to intervene. Mr. Brezhnev’s erratic behavior during the war convinced Mr. Andropov of the dangers of inaction. Some of the details remain murky but Mr. Andropov and possibly other senior leaders evidently played a quiet role in keeping their country’s leader from sleepwalking into a world war.
Mr. Brezhnev soon recovered his mental faculties. The American escalation to Defcon 3 had a sobering effect on him. The last thing he wanted was a nuclear war with the United States courtesy of an unreliable, trigger-happy Middle Eastern client.
Before too long, however, the Soviet Union was embroiled in conflicts in Africa and in 1979 invaded Afghanistan. It is doubtful that Mr. Brezhnev, his health worsening by the day, even realized the gravity of the situation. When he died, in November 1982, the Soviet empire was impossibly overextended and internationally isolated. All of that happened on Mr. Brezhnev’s watch, or, rather, while he slumbered.
Forty-five years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid a war. Some of that was thanks to intervention by Mr. Andropov and others, but at least some, undoubtedly, was pure luck for the Soviets. If there is a lesson today’s leaders should heed, it is that in the end, luck always runs out.
Sergey Radchenko (@DrRadchenko) is a professor of international relations at Cardiff University.