In 1969 the two pillars of the communist bloc, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, nearly went to full-scale war. Years of deteriorating ties between the two countries, once the staunchest of allies, finally led to skirmishing on the long mutual border between the two countries. While tensions were eventually de-escalated, what if the two countries had gone to war?
On March 2, 1969 Soviet troops patrolling Damansky Island (Zhenbao) on the Ussuri River came under fire from Chinese troops. The attack, just 120 miles from the major Soviet city of Khabarovsk, killed fifty Soviet troops and wounded many more. The Moscow believed that the attack was premeditated, with Beijing bringing in a special combat unit to ambush Soviet forces. Alleged atrocities against wounded Soviet troops made the Soviet leadership furious.
Soviet border guards counterattacked Chinese forces in and around the island on March 15, according to the CIA killing “hundreds” of Chinese troops. Clashes continued through the spring and summer, and by August, CIA director Richard Helms had informed the press that the Soviet leadership had been discreetly inquiring with foreign governments about their opinion on a preemptive strike on China.
While the crisis between the Soviet Union and China was eventually de-escalated, what if it hadn’t? The Soviet Union regarded China’s leadership, as Robert Farley has pointed out, as “abjectly insane,” and may have wanted to nip a festering problem in the bud (whether that would have increased security in the long term is another question). While China did not appear to want war nor have the resources to prosecute one, the Soviets indeed had the option of doing so.