Behind attack on airliner: error, 'military mentality'

Two senior Soviet officials here imply the Soviet attack on a Korean Airlines jumbo jet may be attributed partly to error - and partly to a ''military mentality'' on the scene that could not be acknowledged publicly.

The officials, in separate private remarks, stopped short of calling the attack itself an error. They echoed Soviet public charges the crowded Boeing jet was on a United States spy mission when shot down.

Instead, they said they are personally convinced Soviet pilots did not know the intruding plane was a KAL jumbo - but that the Soviet Union was, in effect, ''damned if it did shoot, and damned if it didn't.''

Both officials also implied a possible element of panic in the attack on the jet more than two hours after it first intruded, suggesting the Soviet interceptor pilots feared the Korean plane was about to ''escape.''

The officials made clear that Soviet ''evidence'' that the Boeing was spying consists mostly of deduction from its flyover of sensitive military areas.

The tone and content of the officials' remarks implied they feel that, ''spy plane'' or not, the Soviets have suffered in the outside world by downing a craft with 269 civilians aboard. This kind of event, one official noted, is the kind that ordinary people ''can feel in their own skins.''

(One penalty - New York and New Jersey's refusal to allow a Moscow delegation to the United Nations to fly in on a Soviet plane - produced a weekend announcement that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko will forego attending the UN session for the first time in 27 years, Reuters reports.)

The officials said they believe Moscow mishandled the incident internationally by failing promptly to admit downing the KAL plane, or sufficiently to stress that, whatever the circumstances, the death of 269 civilians was a tragedy.

The gist of the remarks by one of the officials, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, was that his nation was cornered by the intrusion of the KAL plane - and that the US relished, indeed set up, the Soviets' Hobson's choice.

The alternative to downing the plane, he said, was Soviet ''humiliation.'' He argued that subsequent US political moves on the airliner issue left no doubt the incident was an ''intentional'' provocation:

''The perpetrators were counting on one of two outcomes:

''The plane is let through: This would mean the Soviet Union would find itself humiliated - that the Soviet Union will tolerate anything. . . . It would put us in the position of supplicants in the superpower equation.

''Or, if the plane is not let through: Then you shed public tears over the incident and accuse the Soviet Union of inhumanity.''

Like other civilian sources interviewed, the official did not make clear whether he was privy to all the military and other details surrounding the incident. He said: ''I am sure the pilots thought they were tracking the US reconnaissance plane that, all accounts say, was near the Boeing at one point. . . . I really think, too, the interceptor pilots were constantly worried the plane was about to get away.''

''Try to put yourself in the position of the region's air defense commander, '' he went on. ''Try to put yourself in the place of the interceptor pilot who fired the missiles. Finally, imagine an unidentified plane flying for more than two hours over secure military areas in the US.''

Neither official made clear how Soviet border defenses failed to identify the jumbo's silhouette during that time span, a lapse publicly attributed here to darkness and poor visibility.

Asked why Moscow did not say at the outset that its pilots had failed to identify the ''intruder aircraft'' as a jumbo, or had otherwise erred, the official conceded the Soviet political system tends to resist any admission of error and added: ''Also, we do have to take account of the feelings of our own military.''

Another ranking official said, similarly, that he was personally convinced Soviet pilots did not know they were tailing a KAL Boeing, but were sure from the plane's behavior that it was an unfriendly aircraft.

Both officials alluded to the complicating effect of ''military mentality'' on the move to shoot down the intruding craft. The second official added that the long-tense state of superpower relations could not but redouble the Soviet suspiciousness of a plane overflying sensistive Soviet installations.

Asked to remark on the suggestion - in Soviet pilot transcripts released by the US and Japan, but denied publicly here - that the Boeing's strobe light had been blinking shortly before the attack, the official replied:

''The (Boeing's) pilot presumably felt he was not far from leaving Soviet air space'' and thus switched on his lights in hopes of gaining time for escape.

Public Soviet accounts say the jumbo was dark.

But the official added: ''If you take all the published facts on all sides of this incident, I remain convinced there is only one analytical frame that makes sense: that this plane was indeed not on a simple civilian flight.''

Neither of the officials interviewed made clear when the Kremlin leadership, and party chief Yuri Andropov, were informed of the intruding plane.

One official did say Mr. Andropov had recently left Moscow for vacation at the time of the incident and that, despite some Western media reports to the contrary, had not returned to the capital.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.