Reporter recalls Soviet evasion in ’83 jet downing
Those searching for the truth about what happened in the shoot-down of the Malaysia airliner over Ukraine can take little comfort from the history of another passenger jet that was blasted out of the sky over the Soviet Union more than three decades ago: The Kremlin at the time dodged, weaved and obfuscated. Today, we still don’t know what exactly happened to Korean Airlines Flight 007.
I was The Associated Press’ Moscow bureau chief when a Soviet Sukhoi-15 fighter downed KAL 007 on Sept. 1, 1983. The passenger plane was about to leave Soviet airspace after more than two hours of flying off-course above super-secret military installations along the Pacific coast. Pilots on the New York to Seoul flight via Anchorage, Alaska, had apparently put wrong navigation points into the on-flight computer. All 269 people on board were killed.
For three days, the Soviets said little. Then, on the fourth day, came a flurry of confusing and unlikely accounts.
Authorities said the Red Army in the Far East mistook the KAL airliner, with the distinctive 747 hump at the front, for an American RS-135 spy plane, a modified Boeing 707. At the time, the United States maintained a fleet of the RS-135s around the world, many of them flying off the Pacific coast of Siberia.
That same day, Col. Gen. Semyon Romanov was quoted by the official TASS news agency as saying, “The horror of this is that the United States sent the plane on its dirty mission.” Romanov declared the “South Korean plane flew from the United States as a rude and deliberate provocation.”
Neither account acknowledged that the Soviets had shot down the civilian aircraft. TASS said only that a Soviet interceptor had fired “tracer shells” along the airliner’s flight path. Other Soviet press reports said the Korean craft then flew out of Soviet air space and 10 minutes later disappeared from radar.
Seeking some clarity, I contacted a Soviet source who was in a position to know, but wouldn’t let me identify him in stories. His account was more believable.
He confirmed that a heat-seeking air-to-air missile blasted KAL007 out of the sky. He said top Soviet military officials decided to shoot it down because they truly believed it was on a spy mission. He said the military had proof, but wouldn’t say what it was. The Soviets were sensitive to intrusions over the secret military installations at Kamchatka and Sakhalin, and officials in Moscow would have been notified only minutes after Soviet airspace was violated, he said. But then-President Yuri V. Andropov, ailing and on vacation outside Moscow at the time, had not been consulted, the source said.
I wrote about this source’s account, but for days there was still no official word from the Soviets. Then, eight days after the downing, they gathered reporters to make the claim that the jet was on a spy mission for Washington and, finally, acknowledge that one of its jet fighters had shot it down.
I was in the Foreign Ministry press center as top military commanders made their case using huge maps and diagrams of the militarily sensitive region not far north of Japan. They said several military fighter jets had stalked the jetliner as it flew through Russian airspace. The Soviet brass also said its intercepting jets had confused the airliner with an American RS-135 spy plane that Moscow claimed was trailing behind the civilian jetliner.
About a month later, Soviet sources offered yet another explanation: They told me that two of three major radar installations in the region had broken down, leaving air defense forces in the region confused about what was happening with the intruding plane.
Precisely what happened and why still hasn’t been told. Did they really think a civilian passenger plane was used for a spy mission? Or did they mistake it for a spy plane?
That uncertainty may be replayed with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to lay blame for the tragedy on the Ukrainian government and its attempt to put down the uprising in the east of the country by separatist pro-Russian rebels who are backed by Moscow. He did not specifically assert the Ukrainians had downed the airliner. No other explanation has been forthcoming.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials say the plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by the separatists. They cited intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by U.S. experts.
But that would still leave key questions unanswered. Who ordered the shoot-down? Was the passenger plane mistaken for a Ukrainian military plane?
History suggests we may never know.
Steven R. Hurst covered the Soviet Union and Russia for 12 years between 1979 and 1994. He has covered international relations for more than 30 years and is AP international political writer in Washington.