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Old 03-14-2010, 09:47 PM
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Default TSig, Ch 4: The Sino-Soviet War, Pt 1

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TSig, Ch 4: The Sino-Soviet War, Pt 1

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Many have asked why the Soviet invasion of the People’s Republic of China ultimately failed. Almost as many have put forth various hypotheses explaining the Soviet failure. These range from real contributing factors, like the low quality of Soviet small units, to the absurd, such as supposed covert battlefield aid given to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by Shaolin monks. This author believes, however, that the root of the Soviet failure is the small size of the initial invasion force. The Far Eastern TVD committed fewer than thirty divisions, including separate regiments, to the initial invasion of Manchuria. The war in China became a massive expedition—an adventure intended to inflict a limited defeat on the PLA and on China.

The Chinese did not see things this way. The Soviet invasion presented China with a crisis of the first order. Manchuria was the heart of Chinese industry. The national capital at Beijing was at immediate risk. If the Soviets captured Manchuria and Beijing, it would not simply be a humiliation for the Chinese Communists. In all likelihood, it would be the end of their rule. Even if China could reclaim most or all of Manchuria in post-war negotiations, the destruction of industry and infrastructure in richest and most well-developed part of the People’s Republic would set back China’s ascension to superpower status by at least a generation. As a result, the Chinese threw virtually every tank and every rifle into the Northern War, as they came to call it.

The Soviets compounded their initial error by failing to either reinforce their forces in Manchuria or withdraw. Fresh divisions sent to the Far Eastern TVD through November 1996 amounted to about eight Soviet divisions. Additional numbers of Warsaw Pact divisions were sent—the equivalent of nine divisions. Although these reinforcements increased the Soviet presence in Manchuria by about sixty percent, it was only enough to stave off disaster—not to bring victory.

The Soviets might have achieved success in 1996. Unlike the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War, the Soviets were moving in the right direction. If they had captured Manchuria and Beijing, there is little reason to doubt that the Chinese government would have fallen. Whether the new regime was Communist or otherwise, they probably would have come to the bargaining table. Of course it is impossible to say with certainty what would have happened in China had the Soviets captured Manchuria and Beijing because they failed on both counts. Again, the Soviets failed to build their forces in Manchuria to the level required for victory.

The most obvious reason for this is the division in the senior leadership of the Soviet Union. As a reformist premier, Dmitri Danilov was concerned predominantly with rebuilding the economy. Fighting a preventive war with China ran absolutely contrary to Danilov’s goals. Danilov was forced into war by a sub-set within his government led by Defense Minister Ivan Sauronski. Danilov could not stop a large majority in the Politburo from supporting Sauronski’s drive for war. However, Sauronski was hindered by Danilov’s determination to save some aspects at least of his hard-won economic progress. Danilov refused to go to general mobilization, and he was able to convince a majority of the Politburo that doing so would ruin the Soviet Union. And so the war in the Far East could neither be won with the forces committed nor abandoned as a bad idea.




The spark that ignited the Sino-Soviet War was a small-scale clash between a KGB Border Guard unit and a Chinese border defense force near the city of Khabarovsk on the Amur River on June 16, 1995. The tinder and fuel had been laid well in advance of the actual fighting by the arch-conservative elements of the Soviet Politburo. As a result, the fire spread quickly and became a major conflagration.

Led by Defense Minister Ivan Sauronski, a segment of the Danilov government had become disaffected with the reform policies of Premier Dmitri Danilov. Danilov had been selected as the front man of a hard-line Communist coup in 1989, replacing Mikhail Gorbachev. Over the next five years, Danilov demonstrated that he, too, was a reformist. Sauronski and his supporters began to worry that increasing liberalization of the Soviet economy would have grave effects on the Soviet political scene. Since coming to power, Danilov had made significant reductions in military funding while moving to cut the Soviet strategic arsenal in half. Thus far, Danilov had managed to keep things in hand—far better in hand, in fact, than Gorbachev had or than the Sauronskiites wanted.

The problem for the Sauronskiites was how to engineer a situation in which Danilov would fail, resulting in a loss of face. Unfortunately, he was doing well at virtually everything. The Soviet economy had grown by five percent in 1993 and 1994, outpacing most Western economies. During the first quarter of 1995, the Soviet economy was on track to do even better. Consumer goods, largely produced by cottage industries Danilov had empowered, were more available than they had been in decades. Artisans and small services were providing for needs long neglected by the state-run economy. The gap between Soviet agricultural production and the needs of the nation, daunting during the 1980’s, was now within a measurable distance of closing. Indeed, it was possible that by the turn of the century the Soviet Union would be in a position to export food. Fruits, vegetables, spices, and other niceties were available in quantities and varieties never seen before in the USSR. The housing situation was better than it had been in thirty years. Despite a significant draw down, the military was basically content and loyal, due in no small part to Danilov’s clever manipulation of the numbers and types of troops to be affected. Relations with the West were quite good, and industrial productivity was up. Although Soviet citizens were complaining more publicly about their lives than they had in decades, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) supported Danilov and approved of his reforms. Even the KGB was loyal, largely because Danilov had done nothing to interfere with their privileged position.

War with China seemed to offer the Sauronskiites a chance to bring Danilov back under control. There would be a tendency for some of the power and influence inside the Politburo to switch to the Minister of Defense. At the same time, it seemed unlikely that Danilov would be very supportive of war with China. The Sauronskiites could use this situation to rally hard-line sentiment inside the Soviet Union and take effective control of the Soviet government.

Apparently, Sauronski really did not want to unseat Danilov. The former KGB operative still was enormously useful in his intended role as the public face of the regime. The Party liked him, and the West liked him. Sauronski merely wanted to shift the real power in the Kremlin away from Danilov and into his own hands. A short, violent war with China would fit the bill.

There were other potential benefits. China was getting too big for her boots. Chinese arms were competing more and more successfully with Soviet arms on the world market. China obviously was looking to become the dominant power in the western Pacific. Preventive war with China would put the Chinese back in their place and restore Soviet arms and industry to their appropriate place of dominance in the developing world.

Engineering conflict was easy. Border incidents along the lengthy frontier shared by China and the Soviet Union were regular. Chinese nationals crossed into the Soviet Union along the Amur River and points east of the river on a regular basis despite determined efforts by the KGB to keep the Soviet border airtight. An ugly incident or two, followed up by hot pursuit of Chinese “criminals” across the border would set things in motion. This is exactly what happened on June 16, 1995.

Ordinarily, local commanders would make an effort to cool things down. Instead, under the covert direction of the Soviet Minister of Defense, the local Soviets kept the pressure on. The battle quickly swelled to involve regimental-sized forces. For the next several days, fighting raged in the Khabarovsk region. On the 21st, the Soviets backed away.

Danilov attempted to get control of the situation. He contacted the Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji, in an effort to back both sides away. However, events had taken on a life of their own—aided, it must be admitted, by MVD (Soviet internal/border defense) actions. Cross-border artillery duels and even small-scale air raids continued as the two premiers talked.

Neither premier was interested either in war or in brinksmanship. Both were more interested in pursuing their own economic development. This is not to say that the premiers were terribly interested in extensive cooperation. They continued to see each other as rivals, especially in Africa and Asia. However, Danilov and Zhu both saw the rivalry as non-belligerent in nature.

On both sides of the border were Politburos more interested in keeping the temperature high, however. While the Sauronskiites already had decided on war with China as a matter of policy, important players in the Chinese Politburo were equally determined not to back down from Soviet provocation. They viewed war with the Soviet Union as unlikely. The conventional balance of power was more favorable to China than it had been since Mao took control of the country. If the Soviets did invade, international condemnation of the Soviet Union would destroy the relationships Danilov had labored to build since 1990. The Soviets could rattle their swords, but they could not believe themselves capable of defeating the PLA in even a limited war.

This type of thinking frustrated UN efforts to bring some sort of settlement to the region throughout July and the first half of August. Despite the desire of both premiers to find a solution, their governments were bellicose. Forces on both sides of the border went to a higher state of alert, while supplies, air power, and fresh forces arrived from elsewhere in both countries.

The international community watched with growing apprehension. War between the Soviet Union and China would be the world’s first direct confrontation between nuclear powers. No one could say what would happen, but the results could very well be catastrophic for the entire globe. Representatives from virtually every nation begged whoever they could reach in the Soviet and Chinese governments to come to some accommodation. Neither side was interested, convinced they could get what they wanted on the path they were taking.

On August 19 1995, the first echelon of Soviet forces in the Far Eastern TVD (Theater of War) crossed the border into China. The clash of the titans had begun.


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