The Bloody Border
By James Oberg
Chapter 3 from 'Uncovering Soviet Disasters'
Random House, 1988
"The protection of the USSR state border is a very important, inalienable par of the defense of the socialist fatherland. The USSR state border is inviolable. Any attempts to violate it are resolutely suppressed." Preamble to the "Law of the Border of the USSR
After five years of official silence Moscow revealed its version of an aerial tragedy on the USSR's southern border. But as in the metaphor of nested masks, what the Soviets uncovered was itself a counterfeit image, and beneath it was not so much heroic drama but bloody farce.
Soviet Air Force Captain Valentin Kulyapin realized he was still alive when he felt the blast of cold air on his face. His parachute had opened properly, and he was descending slowly toward the ground. His jet interceptor was plunging to the ground in flames. The intruder plane, its tail badly damaged by the collision Kulyapin had deliberately instigated, flew into a mountainside as the Russian pilot watched.
It was July 18, 1981, and the four crewmen of the chartered cargo airliner which had strayed across the Soviet border had just paid for their carelessness with their lives.
On a map the Soviet state border is just a line, like any other nation's political boundary. In real life, however, the Soviet border seems to be unique in the world. It comprises an invisible menace, a life-threatening zone which appears designed to destroy anyone who wittingly or unwittingly crosses it. Other nations have both borders and powerful military forces, but the United States, or Japan, or Sweden, or even China is not known to blow airborne intruders out of the air regularly. Such behavior is not normal by contemporary world standards.
While a simple ideological explanation might attribute such behavior to pure Soviet malevolence, the reasons for the occurrences are sometimes difficult to divine. In large part, however, technological failures and accidents seem to have conspired to reinforce instinctive Soviet paranoia, leading to murderous results.
The doomed aircraft this time, in mid-1981, was a Canadair Limited CL-44 transport, registration number LV-JTN, one of two owned by an obscure Argentine cargo line named 'Transporte Areo Rio Platense. Earlier in 1981 the aircraft had ostensibly been chartered through intermediaries to fly cargo from Larnaca (Cyprus) to Teheran (Iran). The airliner, as it turned out, first picked up the cargo in Tel Aviv before flying it to neutral Cyprus and on to war-torn Iran. The cargo consisted of weapons for the war against Iraq.
Aboard the aircraft on the return leg to Cyprus were three Argentine crew niembers and a British citizen. Hector Cordero was the pilot; Jose Burgueno and Hermete Boasso were his crew. Stuart McCafferty was officially listed as "purser," but he was a representative of the brokers handling the arms sale. On July 18 the crew was making its third round trip.
The aircraft departed Teheran and headed northwest toward Turkish airspace. Because of intermittent air-to-air combat along the Iran-Iraq border, the airplane (like most others flying between Iran and points west) flew as far north as possible, skirting the southern Soviet border along the Caucasus Mountains.
There the crewmen made their mistake. Instead of following a heading of about 300 degrees to the Turkish. border and then turning left to a heading of 240 degrees direct to Cyprus, the aircraft seems to have been on a course about 5 degrees farther to the right, to the north. That took it over a section of Soviet Azerbaijan which juts southward along the generally southeast-northwest trend of the border. It flew parallel to the border, but on the Soviet side, for ten or twenty minutes.
By Soviet accounts released five years later, the "intruder" disregarded all radio calls (nobody at any Iranian or Turkish control tower seems to have heard such calls) and then ignored signals from escorting Soviet planes. That the Soviet military had botched the contact procedures seems much more likely, considering the level of skill (or lack of it) shown on other, similar occasions.
Kulyapin was one of the Soviet pilots on alert at the time the aircraft was spotted. He was also the deputy squadron political officer, the zampolit, a position generally characterized less by flying skill than by ideological zeal. In air-to-ground communication he was "pilot 733." As he approached the target, he heard that jets from other bases were breaking off their intercepts prematurely as the result of low fuel reserves. He was the only pilot to catch up with the intruder.
Kulyapin was keyed up for combat, according to his thoughts as reported in the much later newspaper account. "Who would dare cross the border!" he marveled to himself. He rapidly visualized the terrain over which the intruder was flying and tried to imagine what targets worth spying on could be there.
As he, now alone, approached the target, his controllers radioed that the target was turning toward the b6rder (that is, toward the west). Kulvapin recalled feeling outraged. "What's this!" he wondered. "An evasive maneuver, a trick, or an attempt to slip out unpunished? He won't get away!" As he closed in from behind, he performed an IFF ("Identify- Friend or Foe") radar transponder interrogation, but there was no answer, which meant it was a foreign aircraft.
Kulyapin reported later that once he had caught up with the intruder aircraft, the "enemy" pilot had deliberately ignored him, even though he had performed all standard visual contact procedures. "They flew nose to nose.... Kulyapin saw the heads of the foreign pilots turned in his direction," the newspaper account later claimed. "He gave them the conventional signal to make a landing approach on a designated course. In response he got no reaction whatsoever."
As the young Russian pilot was paralleling the intruder off its left wing, it suddenly turned in to him, forcing him to dive and avoid collision. Kulyapin interpreted this as a hostile act designed to force him into a spin. "The intruders, it seemed, were counting on the Soviet pilot panicking and breaking up in the propellers when they made their sharp maneuver," claimed the newspaper account. This left turn also put the intruder on a course out of Soviet territory, toward the Araks River, which was already visible in the distance. Kulyapin was seized by anger. "Who's giving it to whom, huh!" he savagely thought. "Well, we'll see--let's fight."
Most likely the Argentine pilots were oblivious of the intercept and had just made the normal turn toward Cyprus, which was due at about this time. But the Soviet interpretation was entirely different: "The crew of the intruder aircraft arrogantly continued to move toward confrontation. They understood that the Soviet pilot would try to cut them off from the border, which was only a few kilometers away." By fantasizing such lines of thought in the minds of the foreign pilots, the official Soviet account was able to portray them as unambiguous enemies.
"I can't let them push me across the ribbon," Kulyapin realized, thinking of the nearby river border. "733 to base," he called out. "The intruder is not following my orders. He is trying to escape across the border."
Basing its decisions on the excited (if not by now hysterical) accounts by Kulyapin, ground control ordered that the obviously hostile intruder be shot down. Kulyapin's jet (of an unidentified type) evidently had no guns, but it did have missiles. However, Kulyapin concluded that he would be unable to drop back the mile or two needed for a good radar lock-on and missile launch in the few moments before the aircraft crossed the border.
Instead, since he was right up near the airliner, the zampolit instinctively decided to emulate the glorious Soviet heroes of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and ram the enemy plane. He announced his intentions to ground control and was asked to repeat them--but nobody ordered him not to carry out his attack.
Kulyapin looked ahead of him to where the river was growing nearer. On the ground he spotted a moving black spot. "The intruder aircraft's shadow fell on our territory," went the story. "An evil, nasty shadow."
The ramming plan was not entirely suicidal since the Russian pilot hoped to cripple the four-engine turboprop transport with strategic blows from the top of his own jet. To do this, he flew in close to the right side of the tail and began bumping into the stabilizer. Suddenly his canopy shattered and shards of glass sprayed around the cockpit, bouncing off his helmet and shoulders as he cringed. Nothing heavier hit him, so he pulled back on the control stick and rammed the intruder again.
His own jet began shaking violently as its control system failed. He grabbed the red ejection handles and pulled, noting that the cockpit clock read 14:44 Moscow summertime.
Kulyapin never heard the detonation as a tremendous force threw him upward, probably passing within feet of the tail of the airliner. But upon regaining his senses moments later he looked around him. The newspaper described what he saw. "Like an overturned autumn leaf the intruder aircraft was falling in a steep spiral: its right tail fin had been cut clean off." Kulyapin thought: "You never come out horizontal from that flight path." He watched the intruder crash and burn.
Western aviation experts who have examined Kulyapin's account of the encounter are highly skeptical. Pilots who have flown the CL-44 report that air turbulence behind the engines is so violent that it would have been impossible to control a throttled-down jet to hold a position directly behind and below one wing. The consensus is that Kulyapin misjudged a turn and hit the airliner by accident, afterward deciding to make up a story of glorious self-sacrifice.
The cargo plane was quickly reported overdue by the Argentine company, and a check with Turkish air traffic controllers revealed that radar had shown the aircraft disappearing into Soviet airspace. Still, the Soviets were at something of a loss to account for the event, and they took four days to announce that the foreign plane had crashed into a Soviet jet--and then blamed it for the collision. Said TASS: "The crew of the plane did not respond to any inquiries by Soviet ground air traffic control services and to attempts to render help to it, [but] continued the flight over the Soviet territory, performing dangerous maneuverings. Some time later the plane collided with a Soviet plane, was destroyed, and burned." Officially, at least at first, it was a negligent accident. Oddly, TASS never identified the nationality of the aircraft.
At first the Soviets ascribed no hostile intent to the irrtruder, but soon began the campaign to prove it had really been an "enemy" that deserved to be destroyed. Within two weeks propaganda distortions had begun. Although the plane, for example, had not been flying into Soviet airspace when it was destroyed but had been about to cross the border out of Soviet airspace, the Soviets conveniently changed its course 180 degrees as proof of aggressive intent. For example, on August 1 a Persian-language broadcast on the so-called National Voice of Iran (a Soviet-run facility which purported to be a native Iranian station) gave this version: "The Soviet Union's aviation authorities ordered the plane to land. However, the said plane, without paying the slightest heed to warnings by Soviet planes, continued its flight into the Soviet Union's airspace. At this point, there remains no alternative for any country, including the Soviet Union, but to prevent ful-ther flight of the aggressive plane and to neutralize it."
At the crash site thirty miles southeast of Yerevan (just across the border from the conjunction of Iran and Turkey, in the far-northwestern corner of Azerbaidjan), Soviet investigators doubtlessly combed the wreckage immediately. The bodies were moved to a morgue in Yerevan. No "spy gear" of any kind could have been found, or the world would have been loudly and self-righteously told about it. The aircraft's flight recorders (if any, and they probably existed) were removed and hidden away (the crew's final conversations would have proved its innocence), and if the Argentines ever asked for the recorders back, they were rebuffed.
But even with such physical evidence the Soviets would still be officially claiming five years later that the plane had been flying without markings. This might initially have been based purely on Kulyapin's testimony that "it was a four-engine military aircraft." Yet Leopoldo Brave, the Argentine ambassador to Moscow, had been allowed to visit the crash site, and he clearly saw the Argentine flag still distinctly painted on a surviving portion of wing. The Russian pilot should easily have been able to spot it as well.
The charred bodies of the crewmen were returned to Argentine and British authorities. Meanwhile. Moscow's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Zemskov, had assured the Argentine ambassador that the Soviet pilot had also been killed in the tragedy. Otherwise, the Argentine officials undoubtedly would have insisted on interviewing him.
Kulyapin, meanwhile, had actually walked away without a scratch (after learning to his relief that he had come down on the proper side of the border). He was duly decorated with the Order of the Red Banner, was sent to the Lenin Military Political Academy for further ideological training, and by 1986 had been posted as a deputy regimental political officer.
By then the Soviets had built up enough pride in his spirit of self-sacrifice that they were willing to boast publicly about it. The April 6, 1986, issue of Red Star published a large portrait of the heroic officer and gave a two-page account of his achievement. "The heroic deed performed by Kulyapin is practically legendary," the newspaper concluded. "But the pilot doesn't like to talk about it randomly at meetings or dinners, although he shares the experience of having rammed a jet [sic!] plane with his fellow airmen in detail. They may need to do it in battle to defeat the enemy. And survive!"
This account of Kulyapin's incredibly stupid feat, compounded by the Soviet air traffic control's failure to contact the doomed Argentine plane by radio, is important in that it reveals in detail the thought processes which might be going through the head of a typical Soviet pilot intercepting an "enemy" aircraft on his country's borders. It has happened numerous times before and since, often with similar tragic consequences.
A legendary hero of an earlier intrusion was a pilot named Boris Vegin. Supposedly he had shot down one intruder, perhaps about 1960. In an account published in 1973 he told a Soviet author about frequently watching enemy spy flights over international waters: Once a Soviet interceptor approached such a spy plane only to fall suddenly into the sea. "It was never recovered and the cause of the pilot's disaster remains unexplained," Vegin recounted. "Possibly the spy plane hit him..." The notion of armed spy planes ready to kill innocent Russian pilots woild encourage other pilots either to exercise caution or, as in Kulyapin's case, to display zealous combativeness.
Another pilot, identified only as "Captain G. Yeliseyev," had also rammed an "intruder" at some date in the 1970s ("a few years ago" from 1983). He died in the feat and received the USSR's highest posthumous military honors. Since there are no unaccounted-for Western planes near the Soviet border, the plane which Yeliseyev destroyed could well have been Soviet (there are reports of at least two cases in which Soviet planes were in fact mistakenly destroyed by Soviet air defense forces). Interestingly some details parallel Kulyapin's account (the pilot was a zampolit, and the intruder was trying to escape across the border), but others are quite different (he rammed the intruder at full throttle and was killed).
The eagerness shown by Kulyapin, Yeliseyev, and Vegin to defend the holy Soviet border, while extreme, was hardly unique, as other concrete examples show. On June 21, 1978, a Soviet jet blew an unarmed Iranian helicopter out of the air when it strayed across the border near Ashkhabad in foggy weather. All eight men aboard the training flight were killed. Claimed the Soviets: "It had ignored warnings to land." By now an observer may deduce a pattern in which such warnings, if ever really given, were totally ineffective because of major technical shortcomings in Soviet radio equipment.
The southern USSR border region's reputation was bad enough after the two aircraft losses in 1978 and 1981, but as the Iran-Iraq War dragged on, the region got even more dangerous. In 1984, for example, Alitalia pilot Benito Niolu told a Rome conference that the Iranian-Soviet border was a region of weak navigation signals where "being buzzed by fighters was commonplace" and "the risk of a mistake [is] great." On his weekly flight between Rome and Teheran he reported being "haunted by thoughts of a repetition of the shooting down by fighters of the Korean jumbo jet after straying into Soviet airspace last year." A spokesman for Alitalia, Italy's state airline, reported that the company didn't consider the route dangerous.
Just how easy it could be for the Soviets to destroy an innocent civil airliner by mistake was demonstrated in 1984 over the western Baltic Sea, near Gotland Island. The Swedish government claimed that on August 9, 1984, a Soviet jet fighter pursued -- arguably by mistake -- a civilian Airbus 310 jetliner and intruded thirty miles into Swedish airspace, at one point closing to within about a mile of the unaware airliner. Radio intercepts showed that the Sukhoi 15 fighter had armed and locked on its air-to-air missiles. The Soviets, on October 21, officially denied that any such thing had happened and claimed the jet was fifty miles from where the Swedish radars showed it.
They provided carefully labeled maps to demonstrate this and even had testimony from another pilot, who swore he was looking at the jet in question on maneuvers over the Baltic when the Swedes claimed it was over their territory, The conclusive proof offered by Soviet spokesman Vadim Zagladin was: "If` our jet really got as close, the Swedish aircraft would have been able to photograph it. All aircraft are equipped with photographic equipment, but there is no photograph!" When reminded that the jet was tracked directly behind the airliner, out of sight of any of the windows, Zagladin refused to back down: "Well, this is the situation -- no one saw it, no one heard it. And there is no other evidence." 'The Soviets just were not about to admit the possibility of equipment failure or human error on their part.
Previous experience with trigger-happy Soviet pilots in the Baltic Sea area had been even more frightening. Some encounters involved military aircraft and others involved civil aircraft, and it didn't seem as if` the Soviets could tell them apart. On April 8, 1950, a U.S. Navy patrol aircraft had been destroyed by Soviet aircraft only ninety miles southeast of Gotland Island, with the loss of ten American lives. Wreckage of the aircraft, including bullet-ridden landing gear, was recovered and helped establish its location when attacked. On June 13, 1952, a Swedish C-47 Dakota transport was shot down in the same area, with the loss of eight lives. Three days later a Swedish rescue aircraft (a Catalina seaplane) was shot down by two Soviet MIG-15s, but the crew ditched and was rescued. Another U.S. patrol aircraft was attacked over the Baltic Sea on November 7, 1958, but escaped.
In the late 1970s another American reconnaissance mission over international waters in the Baltic was almost attacked by an overeager Soviet pilot. Aboard the modified four-engine RC-135 (Boeing 707), intelligence officers listened to the air-to-ground conversation between the nearby Soviet jet and its ground control. Ground asked the pilot if he could see "the target," and the Russian enthusiastically replied in the affirmative. "It's a B-52!" he claimed, to which the ground replied calmly, "Count the engines" (a B-52 has eight). Aboard the American plane, listeners heard with vanishing amusement how the Russian pilot counted slowly to eight. "The guys were freaking out listening to this," recalled one official, who recounted the story to journalist Seymour Hersh. Fortunately the Soviet ground control had no doubts about the identity of the "target" and merely instructed the pilot to take a photograph and return to base. His voice was not heard again over the radio frequencies. More confusion (or less sound judgment) at ground control could have led to a more tragic outcome. Arguably that's the way several of the earlier tragedies had occurred.
And that's the way it may have happened on July 1, 1960, when a routine RE-47 patrol over international waters in the Barents Sea (off Russia's northwestern coast) was attacked by Soviet fighters. The Russians were, perhaps understandably, jumpy because of the recent capture of the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers when his spy plane had been shot down near Sverdlovsk. They shot down the RE-47, killing four crewmen; two others parachuted safely and were captured by a Soviet patrol boat.
Nikita Khrushchev had his own self-serving version in his memoirs:
"Some U.S. reconnaissance planes were flying over our northern territorial waters, collecting intelligence on our radar installations along the Arctic Circle. We shot one of them down. The American practice in such cases was to announce that their plane had been flying over international waters. But of course, they had no way of proving their claim, and we had concrete proof that the opposite was true. Some of the crew members had been killed, but one or two were captured alive. We returned the corpses to the U.S. immediately, but the survivors we held. Other than that case, the U.S. ceased to violate our airspace...."
Oieg Penkovskiy was a high-level Soviet military official at that time as well as an American spy. Shortly after his capture in the early 1960s a document purporting to be his journal was published in the West. His account of the KB-47 incident was entirely different from Khrushchev's and was consistent with the U.S. claim that it had scrupulously avoided Soviet airspace this time. "The U.S. aircraft RB-47 shot down on Khrushchev's order was not flying over Soviet territory; it was flying over neutral waters. Pinpointed by radar, it was shot down by Khrushchev's personal order. When the true facts were reported to Khrushchev, he said: "Well done, boys, keep them from flying even close...." I know for a fact that our military leaders had a note prepared with apologies for the incident, but Khrushchev said: "No, let them know that we are strong."
Almost twenty years later, on April 20, 1978, another tragic shooting incident occurred in the same area when an errant Korean Air Lines 707 strayed over the Kola Peninsula and was attacked, arguably without proper warning, by Soviet jets.
No satisfactory explanation for the course deviation of Flight 902 has ever been produced, the result in no small part of the Soviet refusal to release any of the recovered data, such as flight recorders and the pilots' and navigator's logs (the Soviets even refused to allow the pilots to make photocopies before leaving Moscow for home). Years later the Soviets released a map (almost certainly based on analysis of flight recorder data) which showed that the aircraft had begun a wide right turn soon after reaching Iceland on its Amsterdam to Anchorage over-the-pole route. Such a turn was too gradual to occur manually, and the on-board guidance equipment would have equally been unable to match it deliberately, so a plausible explanation involved a drift in the aircraft's inertial platform or the manual keyboard entry of an incorrect correction factor for Earth's rotation (the apparent path would have been followed if the sign of the correction factor had been reversed).
Soon after entering Soviet airspace, the airliner was met by a Soviet jet. The pilot of Flight 902, Captain Kim Chang Ky, reported that when he caught sight of' the Soviet jet -- off the right side, not the left as specified by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, pronounced eye-kay-oh) standards -- he reduced speed, lowered his landing gear, and flashed his navigation lights on and off, all specified in procedures as signifying willingness to follow the Soviet fighter. His calls on 121.5 were recorded by a Finnish air traffic control tower at Rovaniemi, which also noted the lack of any Soviet calls on the same frequency.
Despite the existence of the Finnish tapes, a Soviet spokesman later still declared: "The Soviet Union did everything possible to land it at an airfield but it would not comply." At that point the Soviet jet fired a missile which blew off part of a wing and showered the fuselage with shrapnel, killing two passengers. Pravda later called it a "warning shot."
American intelligence units in Europe had been able to eavesdrop on the Soviet air-to-ground communications as they occurred via some new high-tech eavesdropping facilities, according to a recent book by Seymour Hersh. At first the Russian pilots were convinced by the size of the radar blip that the incoming aircraft was a Boeing 747 and thus obviously a civilian airliner. But then at one point one of the pilots correctly
reported that its silhouette was that of a Boeing 707, the same design as the RC-135 intelligence aircraft. The pilot was then ordered to attack and destroy the target.
Remarkably, the pilot argued with his ground control, on the basis of a closer view which showed the Korean Air Lines logo on the aircraft's tail. For several minutes he protested that the airplane was not a military one. Hersh's sources reconstructed the conversation as follows:
CONTROLLER: Do you see the target?
PILOT: Roger, it is a civilian airliner.
CONTROLLER: Destroy the target.
PILOT: Did YOU understand me!
CONTROLLER: Destroy the target.
PILOT: [Swears], do you understand what I told you?
GENERAL: [Identifies himself], do you know who I am!
GENERAL.: Force down that plane.
The Soviets evidently decided that the markings were false, painted onto a spy plane for-just the purpose of confusing their pilots.
One eavesdropping American, recalling the tone of the pilot's voice, later described the conversation as "one of the most dramatic things I'd heard in years.... I could see the guy
shaking his head and saying 'We don't shoot down civilians.' " But he followed orders. His first missile did not detonate but his second blew up against the airliner's left wing.
Following the air-to-air- attack came the most embarrassing part of the incident, as far as the Soviet air defense forces were concerned. With air streaming out through holes in his fuselage, the Korean pilot pushed his jet over into a steep dive to get to a lower altitude with breathable air density. In doing so, he vanished into a low-lying cloud bank and dropped below Soviet radar coverage. The pursuing jets overshot him and were unable to spot him when they circled back. The Soviet radar screens were masked with ground clutter. The target had eluded them!
For more than an hour Captain Kim flew at an altitude of only several thousand feet across the snow-covered peninsula, seeking a safe landing place. The Soviets had no idea where he was. He had aborted several approaches to possible sites when he spotted obstructions at the last moment. Finally, after nightfall, he found a frozen lake bed, just west of Kem, and let down smoothly, skidding in to a safe landing.
Meanwhile, both overhead and at ground control points, the Soviets frantically sought out the escaped target. Hours later, responding to a phone call from a nearby Soviet settlement, Russian militia officials with a ladder knocked at the side of the airliner. The target had been found, no thanks to high-tech air defense equipment.
The incompetent performance of the air defense technology scandalized the Soviet government. Little concern seems to have been wasted on the two dead passengers. Instead, the fear was that American spy planes or even bombers might be able to utilize similar techniques against Soviet weaknesses to penetrate defenses. The air defense forces underwent a severe reorganization, and in the shakeup many leading officials had their careers terminated.
The result of the 1978 shakeup may have been a military organizati6n much more eager to shoot to kill at the earliest opportunity lest their marginal technological capabilities not allow them a second chance at any future "target." With more confidence in their ability to find and track intruders, Soviet military leaders might have been less trigger-happy. But after 1978 all the officers of the air defense forces must have been grimly determined not to let the next intruder slip away so easily.
The Soviet failure to cooperate with international investigators in 1978, and Moscow's refusal to turn over the necessary data, also clearly laid groundwork for later tragedy. Commentaters at that time warned about precisely such a danger. "If even deadlier incidents are to be avoided," wrote Anthony Paul in Reader's Digest, "the Russians owe it to the world to make the [flight] recorder available, and to publish a full, factual account of what they believe happened." Soviet failure to comply with ICAO standards in investigating the 1978 incident were a direct contributory precursor to the later tragedies.
At the other end of the Soviet Union, along the Pacific coast, American patrol aircraft had also been doing their share toward making Soviet border defense forces jumpy. Regular patrolling for decades, including airspace violations both planned and unplanned, had been punctuated by occasional shooting incidents. As early as October 22, 1949, an RB-29 over the Sea of Japan was attacked (no injuries). On October 7, 1952, an RB-29 was shot down by Soviet fighters six miles north of the Hokkaido coast, killing all eight crewmen. Another RB-29 was destroyed on July 29, 1953, killing another sixteen crewmen. On September 4, 1954, a U.S. Navy (USN) Neptune reconnaissance aircraft was attacked by a Soviet Mig-15, allegedly fifty miles off the coast, and on November 7 of the same year a U.S. Air Force (USAF) B-2S equipped with photoreconnaissance gear with eleven men on board was shot down "near Hokkaido" (ten men survived on parachutes). Subsequent shooting incidents resulted in no additional deaths.
There was one unusual case in which the Soviets did admit they made a mistake. On June 23, 1955, a U.S. Navy aircraft was attacked over international waters near the Bering Strait. Three crewmen were wounded. The Soviets admitted the error and offered to pay half the damage cost. The United States accepted. By today's official Soviet accounts, the last such mistake they made was thirty years ago.
Hersh's 1986 book on the 1983 KAL 007 tragedy provided information on a hitherto secret incident on April 2, 1976, near Sakhalin Island. A fully marked Japanese P-2V Neptune patrol plane inadvertently penetrated a few miles into Soviet airspace
and was pounced on by a Soviet Sukhoi 15 jet, whose pilot reported to the ground that he had "visually sighted the target." He was ordered to attack and subsequently fired two air-to-air missiles. Both fortunately missed, and the Japanese aircraft was not damaged.
All these incidents were only preludes to the worst air tragedy of the Soviet borders, the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983, with the loss of 269 lives. Although the Soviets claimed complete justification, while many Western groups saw it as a deliberate Communist atrocity, careful reconstruction of the incident makes it appear instead to be the worst foul-up of Soviet air defense technology in USSR history. The ultimate guilt is unavoidable: The Soviets shot to kill, all right, but irresponsibly they weren't careful to determine at whom they were shooting. All their expensive equipment and operators never provided data sufficiently convincing to dissuade them from their original instinctive (and wrong) judgment that the blip was an "American aggressor."
The bare facts of the September 1, 1983, KAL 007 disaster have been established, despite attempts by the Soviets and some assorted Western conspiracy enthusiasts to deflect responsibility. As with many airliners before and since, Flight 007 went off course through some unlikely but plausible combination of human errors and equipment problems. Tragically the accidental course deviation put it over Soviet territory.
The Soviets had numerous opportunities to identify the "bogey" as a lost civilian airliner but were unable to fulfill their responsibilities. As the airliner crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula, Soviet interceptors failed to reach it and make visual contact. Later, over Sakhalin Island, the Soviet pilots also nearly missed their intercept. When they finally caught up, there were only minutes remaining before the plane exited Soviet airspace.
In the rush the Soviet pilot let off a burst of cannon fire from a position-behind and below the "target," where it was physically impossible for the Koreans to see it. No radio calls were heard by anyone in the area on the specified distress frequency of 121.5 megahertz. At one point the Russian pilot was abreast of (and a bit below) the airliner, but despite earlier experience with American RC-135s, he failed to notice -- or report -- the obvious visual differences (mostly in the running lights). This was especially true since the airliner's lights were flashing brightly, hardly the behavior of a stealthy intruder (to refute
this obvious deduction, the Soviets later merely lied about the plane's flying "without lights").
With the border approaching and without ever having performed a proper communications procedure, the Soviets fell into the same routine as they had with the lost Argentine airliner two years earlier. The pilot, call sign "805," followed in the tradition of Kulyapin, Vegin, Yeliseyev, and nameless others. When in doubt, attack to kill. Don't let the "enemy" escape.
And that, horribly, is just what happened. Amazingly there were many people in the West who were surprised. Predictable, too, were the impassioned pronouncements that the Soviets must have known they were killing innocents when another appalling interpretation was that they didn't know--or care--at whom they were shooting, even though they should have been able to determine the aircraft's innocence. Presumption of guilt is easier and safer, at least from the Soviet point of view.
With KAL 007 and the other incidents, a pattern of Soviet claims is apparent. How is a dispassionate observer able to gauge the reliability of Soviet accounts when its side usually has the only surviving witnesses?
Survivors of Flight 902 over the Kola Peninsula in 1978 did provide firsthand accounts that were markedly at variance with the official Soviet descriptions. And another recent border incident gave a similar opportunity to compare and contrast Moscow's accounts with the recollections of non-Soviet witnesses.
In July 1983 the Greenpeace antiwhaling group sent its ship Rainbow Warrior to a Soviet whaling station on the Chukchi Peninsula at the far eastern edge of Siberia. Several of the group landed by small motorboat and were distributing literature to Soviet whalers when military units arrived. One American headed back to the ship in the motorboat, carrying the camera with exposed film showing the group's activities.
The official Soviet TASS dispatch on July 21 claimed that the main ship fled at once and "made dangerous maneuvers, deliberately creating a shipwreck situation. ... The small] boat ... capsized as a result of such irresponsible actions. The possible tragic consequences were averted by Soviet frontier guards which raised a helicopter into the air and saved the drowning man."
This official Soviet scenario is a self-serving series of lies from beginning to end. As recounted by Greenpeace participants later, the helicopter itself was chasing the man in the motorboat as he tried to reach the ship. After making several menacing swoops, it lowered a line into his boat, "inviting" him aboard. Quickly he removed the film from his camera and left it in the boat, then put the boat's tiller hard over as he let himself be hauled up into the helicopter. Others aboard the Rainbow Warrior saw the motorboat running in circles and steered toward it; one man was injured when he successfully managed to jump on board, bring the boat under control, and retrieve the film. The Rainbow Warrior headed out to sea without interference, leaving several of its crew in Soviet custody.
The photographs retrieved from the boat were widely published around the world. The photographs showed the illegal whaling station the Russians had insisted did not exist. They showed the outdoor boilers for rendering the whale fat. They showed Greenpeacers handing out antiwhaling leaflets to puzzled and resentful Russian workers. The existence of the photographs was documentary proof of the falsity of the Soviet account (none of the Greenpeacers taken into Soviet custody was allowed to keep any exposed film). The captives were treated well and were turned over to Western authorities a few days later.
The number of times the Soviets have resorted to deadly force after botching intercept and communications attempts is appalling. In fact, the last "successful" (that is, nonfatal) intercept of an intruding aircraft seems to have been in 1968, when a chartered Seaboard World Airways DC-8 was diverted to a Soviet field in the Kuril Islands (the pilot still maintains he wasn't in Soviet airspace but prudently went along with the fighters off his wing).
Regarding disasters on their borders, the Soviets showed unusually extreme levels of falsification and fabrication of events, more so than in other kinds of disasters. Presumably the shrill tone of these is to justify the actions of their military forces. Secrecy has always been much more rigid when related to military than to civilian disasters. As for how effective glasnost will be in any future military border disasters, only time will tell. So far Western analysts believe that the Soviet military has not responded enthusiastically to glasnost or any other Gorbachev reform.
However, since these tragedies there has been one encouraging event. One airliner did cross the Soviet border in an unscheduled manner recently and was not shot down.
In late 1986 a Kuwaiti airliner, en route from Damascus to Teheran, safely made an emergency landing in Yerevan when a sudden storm shut down all airfields in Iran. The Boeing 727 had turned around and was headed back west but was too short of fuel to reach any airfields in Turkey. The crew desperately radioed to the Soviet air traffic control facility in Armenia. Once permission had been granted, the airliner crossed the Soviet border near Dzhulfa (less than 100 miles from where the
Argentine airliner had been destroyed six years earlier) and made a safe landing at Yerevan. The plane was serviced and fueled and took off the following morning.
Full details never became clear, and several reports described how the airliner had crossed the border while being pursued by unidentified jet fighters. There must have been dfficulty in the civil air traffic control officials contacting military air defense officers on such short notice. But the bottom line was that an airliner abruptly entered Soviet airspace, bet its life on Soviet radio technology, and this time survived.
Whether this was a fluke or a softening of the traditional bloody border policy, the future will reveal. When Mathias Rust flew his borrowed Cessna 172 from Finland to Moscow's Red Square in May 1987, he apparently owed his life to indecision and reluctance to fire on the part of at least two Soviet interceptor pilots who had shadowed him. The most tragic aftermath of Rust's stupid stunt would be a rebirth of Soviet border paranoia and trigger-happiness, ensuring that the next airborne intruders, either innocently lost or gleefully copycatting Rust's exploit, will pay with their lives. In terms of secrecy, the issue may boil down to whether the West notices the shootdown (particularly if there are Western citizens aboard) at all; if not, the Soviets can be counted on to try to keep such bloody border atrocities secret, or failing that, to creatively rearrange reality to fit Soviet preconceptions and propaganda needs.
On the border, that's the lesson of the past and the trend of the future.