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The Role Of Nuclear Weapons
And Its Possible Future Missions

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GoNuclear Deterrence - The Clear Matter?

II.3. The Soviet-Chinese conflict of 1969

The escalation of the military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the PRC began in 1964. To a certain extent this was explained by the fact that, after its successful "596" first nuclear test, China became far more confident and acquired the capacity of taking a more independent stance with regard to the Soviet Union. Also in the same year the Chinese-Soviet negotiation on border problems reached an impasse. Soviet leaders could not ignore the threat that was contained in the declaration made by the head of the Chinese delegation at the last session, that the People's Republic of China was not satisfied with the results of negotiations and "could entertain the thought of examining other ways for resolving the issue."

In 1966 the Soviet-Mongolian Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation was signed, according to which the Soviet troops entered Mongolia and were deployed along its frontier with China. That step was perceived as a threat by Beijing and by 1967 the number of Chinese troops on the border with the Soviet Union jumped to 400,000. The events of August 1968 gave Chinese leadership certain grounds to worry about the possibility of the "Czechoslovakian scenario" being repeated in China by the Soviet leaders. Mao's response was his call "to prepare for the war" to show that China would not be intimidated by military threat.

That was an unfavorable turn for the Soviet Union. The military were concerned with the numerical advantage of the Chinese grouping on the Soviet borders. Military experts in both the USSR and China realized that at that moment the Soviet Army was not prepared for large-scale combat operations in the border regions. That created a "window of vulnerability", a temptation that the Chinese, as it was feared in the Soviet Union, could be unable to resist, after having threatened to think about "other ways of resolving the [border] issue". Moreover, China was in a critical stage of the Cultural revolution and one could not rule out the possibility that someone local authority seeking to enhance his political influence in the Chinese border regions would provoke the beginning of combat operations.

In these conditions the Chinese attack of March 2, 1969 against the Soviet Border Guard garrison Nizhne-Mikhailovka on the Damanskiy Island seemed for the Soviet leadership to be the evidence of their worst concerns. The more as attack was repeated on March 15 and the Soviet Chairman of the Council of Ministers A.Kosygin failed on March 21 to establish direct contact by telephone with the Chinese leaders while he tried to resolve the problem by negotiations with the Chinese leadership.

The Soviet leaders were so frightened by the events that even appealed for the help at the summit conference of the leaders of the Warsaw Pact two days after the second attack on Damanskiy proposing that the Eastern European countries offer demonstrative support for the Soviet Union by dispatching token forces to the Far East.

The result was negative - the USSR was left on its own to oppose China. Meanwhile the Chinese escalated their actions: after the Soviet official proposal of March 29 to begin negotiations there was not official Chinese answer but border clashes took place on April 16-17 and April 25 near Chuguchak, on May 2 near Yu-Min (both on the Sinkiang border), on May 12-15 near Hu-Ma, on May 25 near Ai-Hui and on May 28 near Fu-Yuan (all on the Amur River). At the same time in April 1969 some Chinese diplomatic missions abroad circulated a new map that gave Chinese place names for various locations in the Soviet Union, including Vladivostok.

The Soviet leaders continued to seek negotiations and after the border clash of June 10 near Yu-Min the USSR again proposed on June 13 to start negotiations on the questions concerning border lines "in two-to-three months" i.e. not later than September 13. Chinese did not reply on the problem concerned and instead of negotiations on border line discussion restricted to the problem of navigation on the border rivers started on June 18.

Nevertheless even those negotiations were interrupted by one more border clash on Amur River on July 13 after which the Soviet government in secret message to Beijing of July 26 proposed negotiations once again. The Chinese refused to reply and instead of that the new bloody accident took place on August 13 near Zhalanashkol' in Semipalatinsk Region. That happened only 2 kilometers from the Transsiberean Railway Road (Transsib) which was eventually the only way to support the Far East region. Taking into account the numerical superiority of the Chinese troops and the fact that Transsib's interruption would be extremely valuable for the Chinese from the military point of view the possibility that the Far East could be cut off from the European USSR seemed very sound.

In those conditions the Soviet leadership which has always kept in mind the "direct correlation between military strength and its ability to pursue a whole range of highly valued objectives in world politics" could not further neglect its own maxima articulated by Mikhail Frunze in the 1920s - "The stronger and more powerful the Army is, and the more it is a threat to our enemies, then the better our interests will be served" - because the events on the Sino-Soviet border made it clear that "peace policy" totally failed.

The Soviet leaders considered that the Chinese would come to the negotiating table only if they felt not just the existence of the most terrible threat - that of a preventive nuclear strike (which they realized from the very beginning) - but also the complete plausibility of that threat being implemented. It was obvious from the aforementioned Frunze's statement that the old maxima Si vis pacem, para bellum was creatively improved in the Soviet Union (and, for example, in the United States, too - I.S.) by addition "and make it clear to your opponents that you are prepared to wage a war and has a will to do so".

Carrying out that theoretical conclusion the Soviet Union after series of bloody border clashes brought, according to Raymond Garthoff, some "bomber units from the Western USSR to Siberia and Mongolia and engaged them in mock attacks against targets made to resemble nuclear facilities in Northwest China." Nevertheless that did not contradict to peaceful intentions of the Soviet Union: as Ken Booth noted "as one can decide from the old maxima "offensive is the best defense" aggressiveness of a country in the case of war does not necessary meet the country's general strategy which can be war-avoiding."

Partly because the Chinese refused to understand the message and partly because the extremely dangerous events near Zhalanashkol' the Soviet actions after August 13 became much more decisive while still pure political in nature. As Kissinger wrote in his memories, on August 18 a middle-level State Department specialist in Soviet affairs was suddenly asked by a Soviet Embassy official what the US reaction would be to a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities. In late August the United States detected a stand down of the Soviet air force in the Far East. Such a move, Kissinger wrote, "is often a sign of possible attack; at minimum it is a brutal warning in an intensified war of nerves."

The first part of the latter Kissinger's remark gave birth to some speculations about Soviet plans of preventive nuclear war against China. It is strange that they missed the second part of the remark. Indeed, in addition to the "attempt to probe" the American reaction the Soviet Union, as CIA Director Richard Helms disclosed on August 27 at a background luncheon for a group of diplomatic correspondents, also sent to the leadership of Communist parties in Europe and Asia confidential letters that seemed to justify a possible Soviet need for preemptive strike against threatening nuclear bases in China. The Soviet officials also "began a campaign of informal comments along similar line [i.e. nuclear attack against Chinese nuclear objects - I.S.] by Soviet diplomats (often KGB officers) to European and Asian diplomats."

The latter actions were a sound evidence of the political character of the campaign: it was widespread opinion in the Soviet Union in that time that anything told to Soviet allies would be soon, and sometime very soon known to enemies. In August 1969 that was exactly what the Soviet leaders needed: the second message went to Beijing through numerous channels and the less reliable the channel was from the point of view of keeping the information classified the better that met the Soviet political-military purposes. Just opposite about military purposes: the opponent became informed about "plans" and had a good chance to make such the strike senseless by dispersing weapons and preparing troops for immediate reposte.

Subsequent events proved correctness of the Soviet assessments concerning Chinese behavior. On September 6-10 Kosygin met with the Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai in Hanoi during Ho Shi Min funeral and proposed once again to start negotiations. Chou En-Lai did not have authority to decide on that subject and asked Beijing. The answer did not reached Hanoi until Kosygin left. But early the next day (i.e two days before the September 13 which was indirectly mentioned in the June 13 statement as the last time for starting negotiations) the Soviet Ambassador in China Alexey Elizavetin was urgently informed that Chou En-Lai was ready to meet with Kosygin.

The following was a great surprise for the Chinese (and was hardly understandable if the USSR really planned preventive actions against China) - Kosygin who at the moment reached Tashkent sharply changed his way and flew to Beijing. In the Beijing airport Kosygin met on September 12 with Chou En-Lai who was extremely concerned by the possibility of Soviet nuclear strike and Soviet aircraft flights near Northwest China what implied that the threat might indeed have influenced Chinese to agree to the negotiations. Chou assured Kosygin that China had no hostile intentions towards the Soviet Union.

Those oral assurances were not enough for the Soviet leaders who needed Chinese formal official obligations not to cross borders. On September 16 the article by Victor Louis appeared in the London newspaper Saturday Evening Post where the possibility of nuclear strike against Chinese nuclear facilities was mentioned once again. It seemed that Kremlin decided to utilize Chinese fears about nuclear strike and exploit success. The attempt was successful and on September 18 Chou En-Lai send to Kosygin confidential message proposing to assume mutual obligation not to attack each other with armed forces including avoiding of nuclear strikes. Kosygin answered confidentially proposing to add obligation to prevent entering the both sides' air-space.

On October 20 the formal Sino-Soviet negotiations on border problems started in Beijing. The (probably) sharpest case of exercising the nuclear deterrence policy in the Sino-Soviet relations came to the History logbook.

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