Damansky incident - How China and USSR Almost Went to War - Cold War

Damansky incident - How China and USSR Almost Went to War - Cold War

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Sino-Soviet relations are the redheaded stepchild  of the Cold War. We know they are there, we know   they are important but for many, they aren’t as  important as other facets of the Cold War. And   yet China and the Soviet Union, once Socialist  brothers in arms, almost went to war with each   other, and the threat of a nuclear exchange became  very real in the minds of those paying attention.   We aren’t going to go deep into the reasons  for the Sino-Soviet Split, we’ve looked at   those in an earlier episode. Instead, this  week on the Cold War Channel, we are going to  

look at the 1969 Sino-Soviet Border conflict.  I’m your host David and this is…The Cold War.  We do need to start with a bit of background.  The Sino-Soviet Split, where in the space of   a decade the two countries relations went from  close friends to frozen out was the result of   a variety of factors. Stalin’s death in 1953,  followed by Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin  

in 1956 made Mao extremely suspicious of the  Soviet Union’s default claim to leadership of   the global socialist movement. With Khrushchev  starting to seek out peaceful coexistence with   the United States, Mao began to believe  that the entire Soviet elite was reneging   on the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism  and its call for global revolution.   Against this background, when Khrushchev  refused to go to war with the United States   during the Cuban Missile Crisis, cooperative  and diplomatic relations were abruptly ended.  Now, knowing that the conflict we are talking  about was a dispute over the border between China   and the Soviet Union, it's important to understand  where the border came from in the first place.  

To do this, we need to go back all the way to  the 1600’s as Russia was expanding eastwards   towards the Pacific Ocean. Several armed conflicts  occurred in the 1670’s and ‘80s, until the Treaty   of Nerchinsk was signed in 1689. This treaty  confirmed Russian control of the region between   the Argun River and Lake Baikal while giving  the Qing Dynasty control of the land between   the Amur River and the Stanovoy Range. Although  this agreement remained in place until 1858,  

the long period of Chinese decline saw Russia take  advantage, expanding its control to the south,   to the north bank of the Amur River and  as far east as the Korean border. This   was formalized in the 1858 Treaty of Aigun  and the 1860 Convention of Peking. These,   along with treaties China was forced to sign  with other European Powers, have become known   in China as the Unequal Treaties, something that  Mao would leverage during his time in power.  So, even before the Sino-Soviet Split and the  real deterioration of relations between the   two countries, the PRC began to subtly state  its territorial claims over Soviet territory.   As early as 1953, maps were being published,  specifically the Atlas of the Provinces of   the Chinese People’s republic, which showed the  territory near the Pamir and Amur River basis as   Chinese territory. 1954 saw Mao bring up the Outer  Mongolian border in a meeting with Khrushchev,  

one which the emerging Soviet leader refused  to discuss. The matter was brought up again   in 1957 by Zhou Enlai while Khrushchev was on a  visit to China but again the matter was ignored.  The sticking point over the border was exactly  where the line was along the Amur and Ussuri   Rivers. Keeping in mind that both of them are  navigable and contain hundreds of islands,   the Soviets claimed the border ran along the  Chinese riverbank while the Chinese insisted   that border was to be drawn at the thalweg of  the river, the lowest elevation along the course   of the river, effectively the middle. As time  went on, and an agreement failed to be reached,   both sides became increasingly hostile towards one  another. In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis,   China accused Moscow of ‘capitulation’  in the face of the threat of nuclear war.  

Moscow responded by questioning Beijing’s  actions regarding the status of Hong Kong   and Macao. The Chinese response was to point  out that those cities were the remnants of the   Unequal Treaties and then asked if Moscow  REALLY wanted to revisit those treaties.  Now, despite this tit-for-tat hostility, 1964  still saw an almost possibility of a resolution.   Following Chinese border resolutions with  both North Korea and Pakistan, China once   again offered to discuss the matter with the  Soviet Union, who this time agreed. Izvestia  

published an article discussing the possibility  of border disagreements leading to thermonuclear   war and called for the “peaceful resolution of  border disputes”. December 1963 saw Khrushchev   send a letter to all heads of state calling for  an international agreement “on the renunciation   by states of the use of force for the solution of  territorial disputes or questions of frontiers”.  Against this positive backdrop, a Soviet  delegation traveled to Beijing in February   of 1964. During negotiations, the Soviets  were reluctant to agree to Chinese demands  

to recognize the Treaty of Peking having been  an unequal agreement. Despite this, the Soviets   were prepared to agree to use the thalweg  of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers as the border,   not an insignificant concession, as it would mean  ceding over 400 islands including Damansky, or   Zhenbao. In the end, the agreement was not signed  but that was only because the Soviets wanted to   also settle other disputed border areas including  Outer Mongolia and Khabarovsk oblast. Further   negotiations were agreed to, to be held in Moscow. But we all know an agreement was never actually  

formalized. So what happened? Well, some leaked  comments happened. In a 1964 meeting with the   Japanese Socialist Party, Mao made a statement  that “About a hundred years ago, the area to the   east of [Lake] Baikal become Russian territory,  and since then Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Kamchatka,   and other areas have been Soviet territory. We  have not yet presented our account for this list”.   He then went on to accuse the USSR of  being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,   a dictatorship of big capitalists, a Hitler-type  Fascist dictatorship, they are all hooligans,   they are worse than de Gaulle”. The comments  were leaked and Khrushchev halted any further   possibility of further talks and the verbal  sparring resumed. By September of 1964, Pravda   was accusing China of formulating expansionist  plans, similar to Hitler’s plans of Lebensraum.  Even Khrushchev’s removal from office at the end  of 1964 and his replacement by the harder-line   of Brezhnev did nothing to ease tensions.  Militarization along both sides of the border  

picked up pace. By the end of 1965, 14 divisions  had been deployed along the Chinese border;   that’s about 140,000 men, with some variances for  the different sizes of types of divisions in the   Soviet Army. By 1969, an additional 12 divisions  had been deployed, pushing the total number of   soldiers close to 300,000 men. Keep in mind as  well that 1966 had seen a mutual defense treaty   signed between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar against  China. This allowed tens of thousands more Soviet   troops to be deployed along those stretches of the  Chinese border as well. And backing up all of this   were Soviet tactical nuclear weapons which had  been brought up closer to the border to provide   support. Facing this was 59 PLA divisions, over  700,000 men.While the Chinese certainly maintained  

a numerical advantage over the Soviet Army, the  Soviets were considered to be better equipped,   with qualitatively better artillery and  aircraft while army units were also motorized.  So, we should point out here that skirmishes along  the border were not a new occurrence. They had   been going on since at least 1959, which saw an  unarmed skirmish break out, although it was not   clear at that point who had instigated the event.  But, by 1964 when negotiations had broken down,   skirmishes became more frequent. Between  15 October 1964 and the 15th of March 1969   China accused the Soviet Union of causing 4,189  incidents while over a slightly shorter period,   the Soviet Union accused China of 8,609 incidents.  The start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966   really saw the number increase, as unarmed Chinese  civilians would approach Soviet border patrols,   often carrying posters of Mao, and chant,  beat drums, and even throw rocks and sticks   at the Soviet patrols. The Soviet soldiers  would normally react by forming a human  

chain to prevent the Chinese from advancing  as well as bring their armored vehicles to   the area as a show of force or even hitting  the Chinese with the butts of their rifles.  It took until the 5th of January, 1968 for  these clashes to begin claiming lives. It   was on that day where four chinese civilians  were reportedly run over by Soviet vehicles.  

China’s Central Military Commission ordered units  to prepare for a counter-attack which would be   conducted at a “politically advantageous time,  place, and situation”. But, likely looking to   avoid any escalation, the Soviet patrols scaled  back their activities through the rest of the   year. This denied Mao the opportunity to find that  politically advantageous time to conduct his move.  But 1968 saw Prague Spring and the Soviet  invasion of Czechoslovakia to repress it.   This action and the accompanying declaration of  the Brezhnev Doctrine magnified the cracks already   appearing in the Socialist world. Mao feared the  Brezhnev Doctrine, according to which Moscow’s   intervention into foreign socialist countries was  justified and legitimate as long as it was done   to protect socialism in that country. Mao’s fear  was that this would be used as an excuse for the  

Soviet Union to invade China. Zhou Enlai, speaking  at a banquet held at the Romanian Embassy in   Beijing in August of 1968, only days after Soviet  tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia, accused the USSR   of "fascist politics, great power chauvinism,  national egoism and social imperialism"   and even compared Soviet actions to those  of the Americans in Vietnam and of Hitlers   own invasion of Czechoslovakia. And this wasn’t mere rhetoric;   Chinese fears were genuine. So genuine, they  planned to strike first against the Soviet Union,   looking to show Chinese strength and resolve  and deter the Soviets from their own attack.   By early 1969, the Central Committee of the  Communist Party, the Foreign ministry and the   People’s Liberation Army had agreed that Damansky  Island, what the Chinese called Zhenbao Island,   would be the focal point of the Chinese attack.  The island itself lies in the Ussuri River between   Primorski Krai and Heilongjiang Province and  is less than one square kilometer in size. 

The attack was initiated on the 2nd of  March, 1969. According to Soviet accounts,   late on March 1, approximately 300 Chinese  soldiers landed on Damansky Island without   drawing the attention of the Soviet border patrol.  On the morning of the 2nd, a group of the soldiers   began marching towards the Soviet troops,  shouting Maoist slogans. The Soviet soldiers,  

assuming it was more Chinese civillians approached  them, demanding they leave. As this began,   the first row of Chinese soldiers scattered,  making room for a second line of Chinese soldiers   who had been in hiding to open fire on the Soviet  troops. Over the course of several hours dozens   of men were killed on both sides until the Chinese  troops withdrew back to their side of the border.  On March 15, a larger battle broke out after  the Chinese had moved as many as 2,000 troops   onto the island, to take on the approximate  200 Soviet soldiers there. The Soviet troops   however had access to far greater firepower,  including tanks, APC, artillery and air support.   In the fighting on March 15, over 10,000 artillery  rounds were used and were supported by 36 aircraft   sorties to provide close air support. 50 tanks  were engaged including the new T-62 as well as  

the at-the-time secret GRAD multiple rocket  launcher system (MRLS). It was reportedly the   use of the GRAD that caused the Chinese retreat. Clearly, the situation was rapidly escalating and   fears of potentially disastrous  consequences began to mount.   The Kremlin ordered Strategic Rocket Forces  in the Far East to a higher alert level while   simultaneously broadcasting an address  in Mandarin, “The whole world knows that   the main striking force of the Soviet Armed  Forces is its rocket units. The destruction   range of these rockets is practically  unlimited. They are capable of carrying  

nuclear warheads many times stronger than all  the explosives used in past wars put together”.   Mao warned the Central Cultural Revolution group  that “our nuclear bases should be prepared”.  It was at this point that the Soviet Union  began efforts to find a diplomatic solution.   On March 21, Alexei Kosygin attempted a direct  call to Mao but he was thwarted by the Chinese   operator, who refused to connect him, calling  Kosygin a “revisionist element”. The next step   was for the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs  to offer direct talks with Soviet leadership,   but this was also turned down, with the Chinese  demanding that formal diplomatic protocol be   followed and a formal letter offering negotiations  be sent. The Soviets did exactly that, both at  

the end of March and again in April. Beijing’s  response was, in the opinion of this host who has   worked in Customer Service in north america for  many years, the answer you always WANT to give   but never really have the guts to do so, a classic  response. “We will give you a reply, please calm   down a little and do not get excited”. The Chinese  government was busy dealing with internal matters  

including preparations for the upcoming Ninth  Party Congress of the Communist Party as well   as dealing with the ongoing consequences  of the Cultural Revolution. In that light,   border conflicts served as a good issue around  which to rally both the public and the Party.  A month after the end of the 9th  Congress, China finally issue a response,   stating Chinese opposition to the use of force and  that it supported finding a peaceful settlement   on the Sino-Soviet border issue but only if  the Kremlin would recognize that the current   border was the result of “unequal treaties  imposed on China by tsarist imperialism”.   Also included in the formal response was  the following line, “Neither a small war,   nor a big war, nor a nuclear war can ever  intimidate the Chinese people”. Clearly, China  

had no intent to shift from its current position  and was in no hurry to enter negotiations.   The result was that border clashes continued  through the summer of 1969, with China   accusing the Soviet Union of instigating 429  separate incidents during June and July alone.  These clashes took place across the whole border  as well, not just over Damansky/Zhenbao Island.   The bloodiest of these incidents took place  on August 13 in the Tielieketi/Zhalanashkol   region, on the Amur River, between  Kazakhstan and Xinjiang Province.   During that incident, Soviet troops ambushed  and killed 38 Chinese soldiers on patrol,   even deploying heavy armor and helicopters in  a demonstration of strength against the PLA.  During all of this, the Soviet media continued  to make nuclear threats but the Soviet government   categorically denied that any plans had been made  to carry out a nuclear strike., referring to the  

media stories as “provocative false rumors”.  That the Soviet media was given direction from   the top is something to keep in mind here, as the  Kremlin walked a fine line. On August 27, Pravda   issued a stark warning to the world, stating “war,  should it break out in present conditions and with   present-day devices, because of the lethal weapons  and the present means of their delivery, would not   leave a single continent unaffected”. This type of  statement was designed to push the international   community to support the Soviet position and  agitate for the resumption of negotiations. 

Moscow looked to amplify this messaging  by conducting discussions with the various   Communist Parties of other countries,  gauging their potential reactions to   the possibility of Soviet strikes  against Chinese nuclear facilities.   These discussions were not exactly secretive, with  part of the goal being to ensure the Chinese knew   these strikes were possible. Discussions were  even had with the United States; on August 18,   Boris Davidov, the Second Secretary at the Soviet  Embassy in Washington met with Will Stearman from   the US State Department to ask about possible US  reactions to a Soviet strike against the Chinese.   The Americans took a position of concern  but that they would not want to be involved. 

The losses suffered by China in Xinjiang as  well as the increasing threat of a Soviet   nuclear strike began to convince Beijing that they  were on the verge of a major war. As a result,   the resumption of negotiations was agreed to. It  was at the funeral for Ho Chi Minh on September 6   where Kosygin approached a Vietnamese official to  convey a message to the Chinese representatives,   offering to stage a meeting. China  agreed and on September 11, Kosigyn and   Zhou held a meeting at the Beijing airport. The meeting itself is quite interesting. To  

begin with, the Chinese were concerned that the  aircraft on which Kosigyn arrived was actually   carrying special forces who planned to create a  provocation of some sort. This obviously didn’t   happen and the meeting went ahead, where Zhou  admitted to Kosigyn that the USSR would be able   to destroy China’s nuclear infrastructure. Zhou  quickly followed this admission however by warning   that the war which would ensue would be long  and costly for the Soviets. China was clearly   interested in diplomacy, but needed to act from a  position of power. China’s official statement on  

the meeting read, “Should a handful of war maniacs  dare to raid China’s strategic sites in defiance   of world condemnation, that will be war, that will  be aggression, and the 700 million Chinese people   will rise up in resistance and use revolutionary  war to eliminate the war of aggression”  September 23rd saw the Chinese perform their first  underground nuclear test, with the entire Chinese   nuclear arsenal being put on combat alert in the  event the Soviets saw the test as a provocation   and launched an attack. However, at the same time,  both sides agreed to restart negotiations, from   October 20th in Beijing. China was fearful that  the Soviets would use the meetings as an attempt   to launch a decapitation strike and senior members  of the Chinese government left Beijing, including   Mao who moved to Wuhan. As we know, no Soviet  attack was forthcoming and the negotiations began.  The negotiations lasted for decades as relations  between the two countries remained strained.   This was magnified as the United States and China  repaired their own relationship through the 1970s,   ensuring that the Soviet Union would be  isolated from its largest Socialist neighbor.   A final border agreement was signed on May 16,   1991, with the thalweg of the rivers  being agreed to as being the border,   meaning the Soviet Union gave up claims to  about 720 square kilometers of territory. 

1969 is one of those rare moments of the Cold  War where the prospect of a full-on nuclear   exchange between nations seems imminent and  yet it is one that relatively few people have   ever heard of. It also highlights that the  two most powerful Socialist nations in the   world were hardly united but almost sworn  enemies, with deep divisions between them.   Hundreds of people died in the border clashes,  over what in reality amounted to some small   islands which were described by at least one  commentator as having “no value whatsoever   to either country except one of prestige”. Not  a bad description for so much of the Cold War.  We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and to  make sure you don't miss our future work,   please make sure you are subscribed to our  channel and press the bell button, even if it   is located on a small, disputed island in the  middle of a river. Please consider supporting   us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/thecoldwar or  through YouTube membership. We can be reached  

via email at thecoldwarchannel@gmail.com. This  is the Cold War Channel and as we think about   the Cold War, please remember that history  is shades of gray and rarely black and white

2023-01-01 18:17

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