The Sino-Soviet Border War: Why the USSR nearly nuked 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.

Chinese border guards jostle with their Soviet counterparts on the disputed Zhenbao Island, 1969
Chinese border guards jostle with their Soviet counterparts on the disputed Zhenbao Island, 1969

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 to endure a land invasion, and perhaps even a nuclear assault, but he wasn’t about to see his fledgling nuclear programme – the key to China’s status as a modern world power – wiped out by a decisive Soviet strike.

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.

"We will not attack unless we are attacked, if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack." Chinese troops defend the Sino-Soviet border in this 1970 propaganda poster
“We will not attack unless we are attacked, if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.” Chinese troops defend the Sino-Soviet border in this 1970 propaganda poster

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 similar-sized 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.

Stalin and Mao watch a parade in Moscow, 1949
Stalin and Mao watch a parade in Moscow, 1949

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.

Stalin’s interpreter NT Fedorenko recalled in 1989:

“The very room where the talks were held was like a stage where a demonic show was being acted out. 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.

Chinese troops surrender to US Marines in Korea, December 1950
Chinese troops surrender to US Marines in Korea, December 1950

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.

(FILES) This file photo dated August, 1958 shows Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev (R) amusing himself with a Chinese fan while chatting with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong during his visit to China. China will mark 09 September, 2006 the 30th anniversary of the death of the great Chairman Mao, who despite being the architect of the Cultural Revolution that killed millions and took China to the brink of collapse, is still revered by many across China as a god-like figure. AFP PHOTO/XINHUA/FILES (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
Mao and Khrushchev make small talk for the cameras, August 1958

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.”

"All peoples of the world unite, to overthrow American imperialism! To overthrow Soviet revisionism! To overthrow the reactionaries of all nations!" A propaganda poster from 1969, courtesy of
“All peoples of the world unite, to overthrow American imperialism! To overthrow Soviet revisionism! To overthrow the reactionaries of all nations!” A propaganda poster from 1969, courtesy of

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 Soviet-aligned 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.

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