While everyone focused on the US-USSR power struggle, an even more bitter conflict was playing out between the USSR and China
On 2 March 1969, the Strategic Missile Forces went to high alert — their nuclear warheads ready to be loosed at targets 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) away in less than 15 minutes. On the banks of a frozen river, opposing soldiers of two nuclear powers bled to death in the snow, as a cold war that Kennedy didn’t fight and Reagan wouldn’t win turned hot.
This wasn’t East versus West; this was East versus Far East — a murderous mirror image of the standoff between communism and capitalism. This was the other cold war.
In the red corner, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at the height of its military expansion under the iron fist of the repressive Leonid Brezhnev. In the other red corner, the People’s Republic of China, in the grip of a cultural revolution that had purged the last independent thinkers to replace them with a fanatical devotion to the unpredictable Mao Zedong.
On 2 March 1969, under what CIA analysts believed were direct orders from Mao’s government in Beijing, Chinese border guards and soldiers of ‘ the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ambushed a unit of Soviet KGB border troops. Appearing unarmed, the Chinese threw aside their winter coats and gunned seven of them down at close range on the disputed Zhenbao/ Damansky Island in the frozen Ussuri River where Chinese Manchuria meets the Soviet far east. Instantly, around 300 more PLA soldiers burst out of foxholes and opened fire on the remaining Soviets.
This brutal clash was the escalation of a ‘pushing war’ in which Soviet and Chinese soldiers had patrolled the same contested stretch of tundra, shouting and shoving each other for years. Mao’s gambit was that either the Soviets wouldn’t retaliate, or would do so at a small scale, despite the huge buildup of Red Army might in the region.
He was right: the response was small, but coming from a foe considerably better armed, it was still a crushing and humbling defeat.
The KGB’s elite border guards in snow camouflage embedded themselves on the island, cutting down a Chinese detachment with a rattle of automatic fire in a bloody counter-ambush, while state-of-the-art T-62 medium tanks and devastating BM-21 Grad rocket artillery were brought up, resulting in what CIA reports described as ‘several hundred’ Chinese casualties.
The Chinese began to dig in for further conflict, while the Soviets armed their warheads and issued threats, and this bitter clash for ownership of a single waterway and a handful of rocky islands threatened to enter an even more dramatic and deadly phase.
Eventually though, Mao backed down and diplomatic negotiations over the territory resumed. He was ready for a land invasion, and perhaps even prepared for a nuclear strike, but he wasn’t about to see his fledgling nuclear programme — the key to China’s status as a world power — wiped out.
Flying back from the funeral of Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, the Soviet prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, stopped in Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai. Mao refused to attend, and the meeting that brought the Sino-Soviet Border War to an end was held in Beijing Airport.
The relationship was normalised, but it certainly wasn’t normal — in fact, it never had been; this first bloody-knuckled drag-’em-out between two of the most volatile superpowers is stark evidence of just how real the danger of nuclear escalation was.
The emphasis that Beijing placed on protecting its infant nuclear status is the real signifier that the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict was much more in political terms than just a tussle for strategically inconsequential strips of land on the fringes of both their vast empires.
In fact, China had happily ceded similarsized territory in earlier treaties with Mongolia and Burma. In demanding the revision of the ‘unequal’ treaties bullied out of the Chinese Qing Dynasty by Tsarist Russia in 1858 and 1860, what Mao really wanted was to force the great bear to take a step back and make some concession, ending China’s junior status in the communist world. His tactic was simple; he hectored and needled, denouncing ‘Soviet Imperialism’ openly, while his forces maintained constant probing patrols into the territory claimed by the Soviets.
The violent deterioration of the relationship between China and the USSR came as a shock to the West. The entire foreign policy of the US fixated on the idea of the ‘domino effect’ of communism and newly ‘reddened’ republics all lining up to point their armies at Uncle Sam. Despite the rhetoric that invoked ancient emperors and 19th-century misdeeds, this was only partly an ancient grudge match. Under the rosy propaganda of one unified socialist brotherhood linking arms for a better tomorrow was a very real strain that had been mounting for decades.
In the Chinese Civil War from 1927 to 1950, Soviet aid and advisors interfered in the running of the communist cause. Mao blamed several failures on Soviet influence — eg their insistence of tactics that worked in industrialised Russia during their own revolution, but which wouldn’t work for the Chinese communists whose support came from rural peasantry, and also for treating the Soviet-trained CPC party grandees as more important than leaders in the field like himself.
Mao claimed in a 1956 conversation with the Soviet ambassador PF Yudin that these failed urban uprisings in the 1920s and early-1930s had cost the communist forces dearly, reducing its numbers from 300,000 to 25,000.
When the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 transformed into the bloody assault on the rest of China in 1937, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin encouraged Mao to form a united front with his enemy — the nationalist Kuomintang commanded by Chiang Kai-shek. More galling for Mao, Stalin then signed a treaty of friendship with the Kuomintang and treated the generalissimo as the sole representative of China. Japanese weapons captured by the Soviets were divvied out to both the CPC and the Kuomintang in 1945 and 1946, but the nationalists ended up with twice as many rifles and six times as many machine guns.
The eventual CPC victory and the rise of Mao as leader of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 did lead to full Soviet recognition, albeit four months after the event. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, signed in February 1950, was the subject of much alarm in Washington and braying propaganda from all sides, but this concealed bitter negotiations in which Mao fought off attempts to cede more Chinese territory to the USSR.
«The very room where the talks were held was like a stage where a demonic show was being acted out,» recalled Stalin’s interpreter NT Fedorenko in 1989. «When Stalin walked in, everyone seemed to stop breathing, to freeze.»
From the outside though, these two ‘evil empires’ were marching in lockstep, and the 1950-1953 Korean War seemed to prove the hawks in the West right as Chinese and Soviet air support sheltered the North Korean war machine. While communist air power held the skies, Chinese ground troops armed with Soviet weapons took to the field. Despite this apparent axis of evil, tensions between the two were growing.
Stalin was eager to avoid any direct confrontation with the US, limiting Soviet involvement (eg wearing Chinese uniforms, flying under North Korean colours and forbidding speaking Russian over the radio) to the air, and insisted on the Soviet fighters operating under their own command rather than one unified hierarchy along with the Chinese and North Koreans.
With no shared codes or communications at a grass-roots level, this resulted in very high friendly fire as North Korean or Chinese ground troops opened fire on Soviet MiGs whose markings they didn’t recognise, who in turn shot down Chinese pilots for the same reason. Both powers were also severely overstretched; the poorly armed and under-trained Chinese relied heavily on Soviet equipment, which the USSR was struggling to produce due to the ongoing strain caused by World War II. In order to balance the books, Stalin slapped the Chinese with a bill of around $650 million (approximately £420 million) that crippled the country’s economy for decades to come.
While the Korean War crystallised on 27 July 1953 into the stalemate that divides the country to this day, Stalin’s ignominious end came earlier that same year. On 5 March the Russian premier died following a stroke and Nikita Khrushchev emerged from the power scrum to a more cordial relationship with Mao. The new Soviet leader quickly pledged technical support for China’s attempts to industrialise, along with over 520 million rubles in loans. The two leaders also encouraged Vietnamese communist premier,
Ho Chi Minh, to accept the division of Vietnam into red north and capitalist south at the Geneva Conference of 1954.
Mao certainly didn’t like Stalin, but as Khrushchev increasingly pulled away from the tyrant’s old order, Mao began to see this as an affront — perhaps even threat — to his own regime. Khrushchev’s denunciation of the dead leader’s cult of personality in 1956 came as Mao was building his own, and Khrushchev’s talk of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the West clashed with Mao’s increasing belligerence and militancy. Then the Soviet leader reneged on a pledge to help the Chinese develop their own nuclear arsenal, even using the USSR’s veto to keep China out of the UN.
All things considered, the initial response was fairly restrained, with China criticising Yugoslavia and the Soviets criticising Albania, whose paranoid despot Enver Hoxha had denounced Khrushchev’s ‘coexistence’ with the West in favour of China. As the denunciations moved into the open in 1960 — the year of the Split proper — they became more overt and more cutting.
Despite the widening gulf between the two countries, the US remained largely oblivious with then vice-president Richard Nixon wondering in a 1959 meeting of the US National Security Council whether any talk of a Sino-Soviet spat might in fact be some dastardly plot. The following year President Eisenhower agreed with Chiang Kai-shek (who by this point was ruling only the island of Taiwan) that «the communist bloc works as a bloc, pursues a global scheme, and no party to the bloc takes independent action.»
Though Khrushchev made headlines in Europe and North America for his table-banging rhetoric and his ghoulish declaration of «We will bury you», the man who started the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis should perhaps also be remembered as the man who ended it. Mao criticised the Soviet leader openly for backing down, and by the time the Soviet leader made his first nuclear threats over Zhenbao/Damansky in 1964, the Chinese premier knew better than to take it seriously.
Only with the rise later that same year of Leonid Brezhnev, who took the Soviet Union to missile parity with the United States and crushed opposition to Soviet influence in Czechoslovakia with force of arms, were the threats backed up. Truck-mounted Scaleboard launchers were placed under the command of the officers on the ground for the first time, and the jingoistic Radio Peace and Progress blared all over the globe in a multitude of languages: «Are we afraid of Mao Zedong and his pawns, who are making a display of might on our border? The whole world knows that the main striking force of the Soviet Armed Forces is its rocket units.»
Even after the Sino-Soviet Border War ended, Brezhnev knew better than to take his eye off the region, and by 1971 44 divisions of around 10,000-13,000 men, or 32-40 aircraft each — up from 22 divisions in 1969 — were keeping watch over the vast 4,380-kilometre (2,738-mile) shared border — along with the complex infrastructure required to support them. Soviet troop numbers in neighbouring Mongolia also grew to 100,000, dwarfing the Mongolian People’s Republic’s own army of around 30,000 soldiers.
Though China and the USSR never waged another open war, they clashed sabres in a multitude of proxy wars across Africa, South East Asia and beyond, through rebel groups and communist regimes. Perhaps more importantly the irreparable collapse of the Sino-Soviet relationship radically changed the global order.
Recognising that he couldn’t fight war on two fronts — and judging the threat of land invasion from the USSR far greater than an American attack — Mao chose rapprochement with the old enemy, leading to an unlikely 1972 state visit of US President Richard Nixon to China. Nixon, the man who once asked if Sino-Soviet discord might be a ploy, saw a closer relationship with China as an opportunity to undermine Soviet influence.
Khrushchev died in 1971 without seeing that his talk of ‘peaceful coexistence’ had come to fruition — but between China and the US, rather than the USSR and the US. Neither did he see the more famous Cold War play out for a further two decades, ending with the Red Army’s bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan and, subsequently, the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
JOSEPH STALIN, SOVIET UNION
Born Iosif Dzhugashvili in what is now Georgia, Stalin supported Lenin’s Bolshevik party during the 1917 Russian Revolution -later using Lenin’s stroke in 1922 to seize control. Stalin’s reign is remembered for frequent purges, Soviet victory in World War II, and the spread of communist control throughout eastern Europe.
MAO ZEDONG, PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
Leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Mao’s views were hardened by repression by the nationalist government, eventually leading to a civil war that lasted from 1927 to 1950. Following WWII, Mao defeated the nationalists, declaring the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and reshaping the country as a communist dictatorship.
Ethio-Somali War (1977-1978)
This land-war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the disputed Ogaden region turned especially complex as the USSR was initially backing both parties — both left-wing — with arms, aid and training. Failing to mediate a ceasefire, the Soviets began to more actively support Ethiopia, who were struggling to hold back their neighbour. The US, meanwhile, abandoned Ethiopia — ruled by a Marxist-Leninist junta — and threw its support firmly behind Somalia — a single-party socialist state — and China also threw in token aid.
Angolan War of Independence (1961-1974); Angolan Civil War (1975-2002)
The Soviets backed the Marxist MPLA in the war for Angola’s independence from Portugal, swiftly transforming them into the largest resistance movement. China, meanwhile, backed the centre-right FNLA, before switching allegiance to the more centrist UNITA as independence gave way to civil war. The Soviets also sent troops (though not as many as Cuba), busts of Lenin and pamphlets denouncing China.
Rhodesian Bush War (19641979); Gukurahundi (1980-1987)
During the last gasp of white European colonial rule in what is now Zimbabwe, both China and the USSR supported rival left-wing liberation movements: China backing Robert Mugabe’s Maoist-influenced ZANLA (the militant arm of ZANU), and the Soviets supporting the Marxist-Leninist ZIPRA (the fighting wing of ZAPU). Though the two bodies had the same goals, they competed for influence and territory, often turning violent. After Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980, his personal guard — the Gukurahundi — massacred over 20,000 people they believed to be sympathetic to ZAPU.
Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992)
Though both parties supported the Marxist FRELIMO at the beginning of Mozambique’s independence war with Portugal, the USSR was the rebel group’s primary donor and they loyally nuzzled the hand that fed during the Sino-Soviet Split, backing Vietnam in its war with China, and supported the Soviet Union in the invasion of Afghanistan.
Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989)
With Chinese-Afghan relations soured by the rise of the Moscow-backed Afghan communists in 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion to keep them in power -the Chinese, along with Pakistani intelligence services and CIA advisors, trained and armed the Islamic mujahideen resistance -some even in training camps in China itself. The USSR eventually withdrew as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign of reform.
Sino-Indian War (1962)
While Mao contested his border with the USSR, he was drawn into a similar bloody confrontation with India. Khrushchev publicly condemned the Chinese and supplied weapons to India -including technology to produce the state-of-the-art MiG-21 fighter jet.
Vietnam War (1955-1975)
Chinese support came early from Mao and Chinese troops protected the North despite heavy American bombing. Soviet support came later, with an estimated 3,000 personnel on the ground and, by the end of the Sixties, over 75 per cent of Vietnam’s military equipment came from the USSR. With Sino-Soviet relations souring, the Vietnamese went with their bigger donor and China gradually withdrew all support, hassling Soviet supplies en route through the country.
Sino-Vietnamese War (1979)
Following the Vietnamese overthrow of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the threat of Vietnam’s perceived Soviet influence, Chinese troops invaded about 20km (12mi) into Vietnam, withdrawing three weeks later. Despite proving that the USSR was unable to defend its ally, the damage done to Vietnam’s infrastructure forced a close dependence on Soviet aid.
Cambodian-Vietnamese War (1977-1989)
Despite similar roots and a similar dedication to the struggle against the US, the Chinese-backed Cambodian Khmer Rouge attacked the Soviet-backed Vietnamese over fears they were planning to dominate the region. Each nation’s close links to rival communist powers caused both Vietnam and Cambodia to eye the other suspiciously and the Vietnamese installed a pro-Vietnamese regime in Cambodia — much to the fury of China.
In at the deep end…
Recalling his first visit to China in his memoirs, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev observed, ‘I saw through their hypocrisy… [W]hen I came back I told my comrades, “Conflict with China is inevitable.”’
This view of 1954, however, might have been coloured by a demeaning, later visit in 1958 where the Chinese leader Mao Zedong belittled the Russian from the airport onward, putting him up in a hotel with no air conditioning and flatly refusing Soviet proposals for joint defence initiatives. Mao’s personal physician, Li Zhisui, described the Chinese commander as behaving like an emperor, while “treating Khrushchev like a barbarian come to pay tribute.”
The next morning came the ultimate indignity for the Russian when Mao forced him into a swimming pool at his luxury compound, Zhongnanhai, knowing full well that the Soviet premier had never properly learnt to swim. As Khrushchev bobbed uncertainly in the shallows, Mao called for flotation aids — described mockingly as a child’s ‘water wings’ by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — allowing him to join the CPC chairman in the deep end.
He’s a prizewinning swimmer, and I’m a miner,’ recalled Khrushchev in his memoirs. Between us, I basically flop around when I swim; I’m not very good at it. But he swims around, showing off, all the while expounding his political views. It was Mao’s way of putting himself in an advantageous position.’
Coming two years after the Soviet premier’s denunciation of Stalin, and two years before what is now recognised as the beginning of the Sino-Soviet Split, this bizarre display was perhaps the most vivid and idiosyncratic single portrait of relations between the two communist nations for over a decade.