COMMENTARY: 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF FLIGHT 007
RIA Novosti // September 1, 2003
By Mikhail Prozumentshchikov, Deputy Director of the Russian State Archives of Recent History
Reprinted on Johnson's Russia List #7308 (2 September 2003) A CDI Project "http://www.cdi.org"
On the morning of 1 September 1983 the media in some countries reported the disappearance in the Far East of a South Korean KAL airlines Boeing-747 flying on New York-Anchorage-Seoul flight 007 and carrying 269 passengers.
On the same day, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt phoned the Russian embassy in Washington to say that American surveillance stations had managed to establish that an aircraft may have violated Soviet air space in the area and made a forced landing. He said the American services did not have any other information at the moment and that the South Korean authorities had asked the US to inquire about the fate of the airliner.
The Soviet leadership knew then perfectly well what happened to the liner. The South Korean aircraft, for an unknown reason, had veered sharply from its usual route and flew more than 500 kilometres deep into Soviet air space. For nearly two hours it proceeded over the Kamchatka peninsula, the Sea of Okhotsk and the island of Sakhalin, passing, moreover, above secret Soviet military facilities. All attempts by scrambled Soviet fighters (including tracer-warning shots) to force the intruder to leave the Soviet territory or land at a Soviet airfield failed. The Boeing, having passed Sakhalin, began heading towards neutral air space. The Soviet political and military leadership was faced with a difficult dilemma: either to let the plane go, understanding that it could have been collecting intelligence and thus would create an undesirable precedent for new spying missions; or to shoot the Boeing down, realising that the provocation (Moscow did not doubt it was a typical Cold War provocation) might involve a civilian passenger liner with people on board. The second point of view prevailed and at 3:38 a.m., south-west of Sakhalin, the aircraft vanished from air traffic control radar monitors.
On the morning of September 1, US Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger invited Soviet charge d'affaires O.M.Sokolov to the US Department of State and made an oral statement. According to that statement, a South Korean civilian airliner was deliberately attacked and destroyed by a Soviet aircraft. Half an hour later, at a briefing for journalists, a similar statement was made by US Secretary of State George Schultz, who demanded that the Soviet side explain the circumstances of the incident.
At the same time, in Tokyo, Soviet Ambassador to Japan Vladimir Pavlov was invited to the Japanese Foreign Ministry by E.Kato, director-general of the Europe and Oceania department, who conveyed to him the insistent request of the Japanese side "to urgently look into the facts and immediately inform" the Japanese government concerning the disappearance of the South Korean airliner.
Initially, the Soviet leadership attempted to conceal the truth about the incident. The embassies in Washington and Tokyo were urgently instructed to inform the US Department of State and the Japanese Foreign Ministry of an "aircraft of no established identity," which intruded into Soviet air space and, despite all signals from scrambled Soviet fighters, "continued its flight towards the Sea of Japan." On September 2, a TASS announcement of the same content was circulated to all countries, but it omitted the last paragraph, which was sent confidentially to the leaderships of the US and Japan and went as follows:
"In view of the request made by the American (Japanese) side we have taken measures to mount a search for this plane. As a result, we discovered in the area of Moneron Island the signs of a possible aircraft disaster. The search in the area is continuing."
The downing of a passenger liner and Soviet attempts to conceal the fact that a Soviet fighter was responsible led to a wave of indignation throughout the world. This indignation was exploited by many Soviet opponents for political purposes. US President Ronald Reagan, speaking on American television, described the Soviet action as a barbarous and terrorist act and claimed that the Soviet Union was prepared to promote its interests by violence and intimidation. A day of mourning was announced in the US, state flags were flown at half-mast (the victims included US Congressman Larry MacDonald), and an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council was called. With direct US support, a number of governments (Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the FRG, Japan and others) announced they were suspending air links with the USSR for a period of two weeks to two months. The US itself clamped down on Aeroflot, closing down its offices in the US and suspending all international contracts concluded with the Soviet airlines.
In these conditions the USSR had to mount a propaganda counter-offensive. Numerous statements made by the Soviet leadership and circulated by TASS indicated that the airliner, in violation of all international rules, "was flying without navigation lights, did not respond to radio signals of traffic control services, and made no attempts on its own part to establish such contact." The point made in the USSR was that the aircraft was on an openly spying mission, and "its route and the nature of its flight were not accidental." It pinned all the responsibility for the incident on the organisers of the "dirty provocation." The only vulnerable element of all these statements was that the Soviet Union never openly acknowledged the Soviet airforce had destroyed the airliner, although the text of statements intended for the outside world contained the words that "the Soviet leadership expresses regret over human casualties" and that "the Soviet side is conducting a search in the supposed area of the aircraft crash."
Large numbers of American, Japanese and Soviet planes and ships concentrated in the area of the incident. They did not so much as co-operate to look for the remnants of the airliner as interfered with each other's efforts and even deliberately provoked each other (US ships repeatedly announced in Russian that if Soviet planes flew over them, they would be shot down). But since the USSR, for natural reasons, knew better where the Boeing had been downed, and also thanks to a wind blowing towards the Soviet coast, the principal exhibits from the sunken plane came into Soviet hands. A role was also played by the depth of the sea where the airliner fell: it was not 80-100 metres as was thought at the start of the salvage operation, but 400-600 metres. Even with deepwater ships available to the USSR and the US, it was very problematical to retrieve anything, especially as the USSR was not particularly interested.
On 26 September 1983, in the port of Nevelsk on Sakhalin, according to an earlier understanding, Soviet representatives handed over to the Americans and the Japanese some of the articles recovered, as well as part of the information and documents relating to the liner. This did not satisfy the American side, which requested fuller information and all the objects found at the site. Moscow flatly rejected Washington's demands, which were that the right to search belonged only to the US, Japan and South Korea (whose passengers were aboard the liner), noting that the incident took place over Soviet territory and to ascertain all the circumstances, the USSR would itself conduct the investigation of and the search for the plane's fragments. The Soviet Union also refused to pay any compensation to the relatives of the victims, saying that those who committed this provocation had to do so. In this context, on 13 September 1983, all Soviet embassies in other countries were instructed to turn down any notes or appeals claiming material compensation and if such were received by mail to return them at once to the senders.
Despite the fact that a UN Security Council session and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) passed resolutions condemning the Soviet action, the Soviet Union did not alter its position on what had happened. A Politburo meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee decided that if such an incident were repeated the response of the Soviet armed forces would be the same - an intruder would be destroyed. The US, too, gradually reduced the pitch of its propaganda campaign. During a meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and George Schultz in Stockholm on 18 January 1984, the Secretary of State took up this issue only in the context of the need to set up an international air corridor in the Far East where a South Korean airliner had been recently lost ... so that flights along this route could be safe. Later on, the US occasionally raised the question of receiving complete information on the Boeing's loss, but invariably was told by the Soviet side that the USSR had long ago passed all the relevant information to the ICAO and had no additional data.
Reply from Jim Oberg
The commentary from Mikhail Prozumentshchikov, Deputy Director of the Russian State Archives of Recent History, on the “20TH ANNIVERSARY OF FLIGHT 007” (RIA Novosti // September 1, 2003) is shockingly inaccurate, misleading, and more worthy of the Soviet era than today.
The closing comment (“Later on, the US occasionally raised the question of receiving complete information on the Boeing's loss, but invariably was told by the Soviet side that the USSR had long ago passed all the relevant information to the ICAO and had no additional data.”) is the worst, because history showed the Soviets were liars to the last. After the collapse of Soviet power, the Yeltsin regime located and released major information, including the aircraft’s actual flight recorders, which formed the basis of a 1993 re-investigation of the disaster by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Prozumentshchikov’s closing with this false denial (rather than providing full information) appears to have the intention of making naive readers believe it.
Old Soviet-era lie, repeated: “For nearly two hours it proceeded over the Kamchatka peninsula, the Sea of Okhotsk and the island of Sakhalin, passing, moreover, above secret Soviet military facilities.“ FACT (ICAO, 1993): The aircraft flew a straight course, crossing Kamchatka and Sakhalin but at substantial distances from any known military facilities -- never “above” them. The course was straight and level, absolutely at variance with routes followed by US intelligence aircraft of that era.
Old Soviet-era lie, repeated: “All attempts by scrambled Soviet fighters (including tracer-warning shots) to force the intruder to leave the Soviet territory or land at a Soviet airfield failed.” FACT (ICAO, 1993): Any such Soviet attempts were totally ineffectual and the crew never showed any sign of recognizing their situation; the Soviet lead pilot later explained to Izvestia that he HAD no tracers but had been ordered to lie about it in news interviews. Prozumentshchikov is an accessory after the fact to that lie, and arguably wants us all to believe it still.
“Even with deepwater ships available to the USSR and the US, it was very problematical to retrieve anything, especially as the USSR was not particularly interested.” Conceals the fact that much WAS recovered, particularly the data recorder and voice recorder. Decoded in Soviet labs, they showed the course deviation was innocent.
“Moscow not[ed] that the incident took place over Soviet territory...” False. Documents released by the post-Soviet Russian government showed that the fatal attack had occurred over international waters, between Sakhalin and Moneron Island, NOT in Soviet air space. It was the imminent 'escape' of the plane, not its 'refusal' to answer, that prompted the shoot-to-kill order.
Sadly, it appears that Russian “recent history” is growing all the more indistinguishable from Soviet “history”: distorted, fabricated, self-justificatory, self-serving fiction.