On March 2, 1969, under what CIA analysts believed to be direct orders from Beijing, Chinese border guards and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers ambushed a unit of Soviet border troops. of the KGB.
Instantly, about 300 more PLA soldiers burst through foxholes and opened fire on the remaining Soviets.
The Soviet Union was ready to retaliate
This brutal clash was the escalation of a “pushing war” in which Soviet and Chinese soldiers patrolled the same stretch of land contested for years.
Mao’s bet was that either the Soviets would not retaliate or do so on a small scale, despite the huge accumulation of Red Army forces in the region.
CIA files show that Soviet strategic missile forces went on high alert – their nuclear warheads ready to drop on targets 1,600 kilometers away in less than 15 minutes.
But, they were not sent.
Mao was right, the response was weak, but coming from a considerably better armed enemy, it was still a crushing defeat.
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Elite KGB border guards in snow camouflage uniforms integrated on the island, shooting down a Chinese detachment with an automatic fire rattle, resulting in what the CIA described as “several hundred” Chinese victims.
Eventually, Mao backed down and diplomatic negotiations in the territory resumed.
Their relationship was restored, but it was certainly not normal.
The violent deterioration of relations between China and the USSR has come as a shock to the West.
All of US foreign policy has been focused on the idea of the “domino effect” of communism and the newly “reddened” republics are all lining up to point their armies west.
But under the rhetoric of the Cold War, there was an old grudge match, in which Mao blamed the Soviets for the failures of the Chinese Civil War from 1927 to 1950.
The Soviet Union prepared nuclear weapons
Mao also claimed in a 1956 conversation with Soviet Ambassador PF Yudin that these failed urban uprisings in the 1920s and early 1930s cost the Communist forces dearly, reducing their numbers from 300,000 to 25,000.
Dr Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy, revealed how close the two men were to wiping each other off the map.
He wrote: “China tested its first nuclear device in 1964, theoretically giving Beijing an independent deterrent capability.
“However, their launch systems left a lot to be desired, liquid fuel missiles of uncertain reliability that required hours of preparation and could only stay on the launch pad for a limited time.
“In addition, the Chinese missiles of the time did not have the range necessary to strike vital Soviet targets in European Russia.
“The Chinese bombing force – made up of an extremely limited number of Tu-4s and H-6s – would have resisted the sophisticated air defense network of the USSR very poorly.
Leonid Brezhnev was ready for war
CIA files show the Soviets were prepared
Dr Farley then revealed how the Soviets were prepared for nuclear war.
He added: “The Soviets, on the other hand, were on the verge of achieving nuclear parity with the United States.
“The USSR had a modern and sophisticated arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, easily capable of destroying China’s nuclear deterrent, its major military formations and major cities.
Sensitive to international opinion, the Soviet leadership would have resisted the launch of a full-scale nuclear assault on China, but a limited strike against Chinese nuclear facilities, as well as tactical attacks against deployed Chinese forces, could have sound more reasonable.
“Much would have depended on the Chinese reaction to defeats on the battlefield.
“If the Chinese leadership decided that they had to ‘use or lose’ their nuclear forces in anticipation of a decisive Soviet victory, they could easily have suffered a preemptive Soviet attack.”
Zhenbao Island caused territorial scrap
More shockingly still, Dr Farley said the Soviets even tested American waters to see how they would react.
Writing for National Interest in 2016, he added: “The United States has reacted to the clashes with caution.
“While the border conflict reassured Washington that the Sino-Soviet split remained in effect, officials disagreed over the likelihood and consequences of a larger conflict.
“Through various official and unofficial channels, the Soviets have probed American attitudes towards China.
“The United States is said to have reacted negatively to the 1969 Soviet overtures of a joint attack on Chinese nuclear facilities.
“However, even if Washington did not want to see China burn, it probably would not have embarked on a serious and affirmative effort to shield Beijing from Moscow’s wrath.”