Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Airliner destruction: Did Kremlin give go-ahead? Analysis

At five o'clock in the morning, my telephone rang. The voice on the other end said: ''Minister of defense reporting.''He went on to tell me that an American reconnaissance plane had crossed into Soviet airspace. . . .

I replied that it was up to him to shoot down the plane by whatever means he could. He said he had already given the order --Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs

About these ads

As shock over the Korean Air Lines disaster settles into a dull throb, the question is automatic: Who in the Soviet hierarchy participated in the decision to terminate what Moscow says was a cynically disguised US spy mission?

Official accounts say the order for fighter jets to ''stop the flight'' of the plane near the strategically sensitive Far East island of Sakhalin came from a ''command post'' in the area.

A Sept. 6 government statement added that ''we'' civilian authorities agreed with the judgment the Boeing 747 was on a spy mission, but implied this civilian OK came after the fact.

Most foreign diplomats seem similarly to assume the decision to down the plane was a purely military one - though some do feel that, within the military hierarchy, a prior OK must have come from Moscow.

It is possible more definitive official comment could come today at an unprecedented news conference scheduled here by the nation's top career military man, Nikolai Ogarkov.

Most diplomats here assume the scheduled conference by Marshal Ogarkov, who is armed forces chief of staff and first deputy defense minister, reflects Soviet concern over international repercussions of the plane incident.

But Soviet history, and some quite current facets of the Soviet system, suggest at least room for doubt that the decision was made without high-level participation by the political leadership.

About these ads

Indeed, in the case of two key figures, political and military hierarchies overlap: Yuri Andropov is both party Politburo chief and head of the National Defense Council; Dmitri Ustinov, the defense minister, is a full member of the party Politburo.

At least one ranking Soviet source, while not explicitly saying how the crisis was handled, did suggest privately that he would not exclude the possibility that the political leadership participated in the decision to shoot down the plane.

Meanwhile, there is Nikita Khrushchev's story.

The time was 1960. The question: to shoot or not to shoot at an intruding American U-2 reconnaissance plane. The rest is history. The Soviets fired. Francis Gary Powers was downed and captured.

Khrushchev's memoirs are explicit: Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky phoned at dawn, if not to ask permission to shoot, at least to inform.

True, all this was 23 years ago. But it is also one of only three Soviet downings of intruding foreign planes since World War II. The second, before the current crisis, was the 1978 Soviet attack on a Korean Air Lines jet near the strategic northeast Soviet port of Murmansk.

Beyond these few near-precedents for the current crisis, general evidence of how the Soviet political system works suggests a tendency for most key issues to get a high-level airing.

Indeed, in the civilian sphere, issues that strike the foreign eye as far from ''key'' often find their way to the top.

The day after the Korean plane went down, the Politburo held its regular weekly session. Predictably, the communique made no mention of presumably lengthy discussion of the plane affair. But the statement, typical in other ways of the the Politburo summaries that appear in Pravda, did serve as a reminder of how in the Soviet system, the mighty ponder even the trivial:

''The Politburo studied and approved measures worked out by the Council of Ministers of the USSR to organize the output of new models of color televisions.''

A foreign resident here quickly notes one constant throughout Soviet society: People, whether shopkeepers or traffic cops or hotel door attendants, tend to shun initiative and to seek higher guidance on issues that include even a touch of gray.

Recent introduction of new agricultural guidelines allowing more scope for local decisionmaking has run into what, by Western standards, is an odd problem: an unwillingness among local managers to use their new power.

A specific sense of how the system handles crises like the Korean jet issue is harder to come by. But earlier interviews here on how the system works do suggest a range of senior actors is apt to participate in deciding major foreign-policy issues.

Counsel, depending on the issue, would be drawn from among the following: Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, other Politburo and top party figures, civilian and military intelligence, and, in some cases, the Defense Council. This council groups military leaders and is chaired by party chief Andropov.

Much in the current case, presumably, depends on just how much time was at hand, and the extent to which the military saw the Boeing's intrusion as a major crisis.

Both Soviet and US versions of the incident suggest at least two hours elapsed between the first detection of the intruding Boeing and its demise.

Whether the Soviets saw this as a crisis from the first is much harder to say. The most that can be noted is that, even in a nation whose fixation with border security may dictate virtually automatic repulsion of intruders, incidents like the Korean Air Lines disaster are not everyday events.

Predictably, one focus of foreign diplomats' speculation is whether Mr. Andropov himself was in on the decisionmaking process.

Again, this is impossible to say with certainty. What can safely be dismissed , however, are suggestions abroad that Mr. Andropov, reportedly having left for a vacation in the Caucasus shortly before the air disaster, would thus automatically have been excluded from the decisionmaking process.

Mr. Andropov is head of party, head of state, and head of the Defense Council. If indeed the crisis was weighed by the Politburo, senior Soviet sources' portrait of the system makes inescapably clear that Mr. Andropov's colleagues would not in a million five-year plans have hesitated to get the boss out of his deck chair for a call from the office.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.