In October of 1964, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw both superpowers nearly come to nuclear war on the brink of the Cold War. Many believe the crisis was averted because the world’s leaders managed to avert nuclear war with their personal diplomatic skills. However, there’s another theory behind the “what if” of the event that could have changed the direction of history.

On 1 April 1969, a handful of Soviet military and border guards were killed by Chinese forces in the remote Chashma area in the Pamir Mountains of northern Sinkiang. The incident provided the spark for what would become one of the largest armed conflicts in history, as both sides sought to use the conflict to justify their case for nuclear war.

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In a battle with worldwide ramifications, two Communist superpowers exchanged bullets over a little riverine island.

Unbeknownst to the American people, President Richard M. Nixon placed the nation’s nuclear weapons on high alert on October 13, 1969. Various unified combatant commands have increased their readiness levels for more than two weeks, while Navy surface ships and nuclear submarines have increased their operations throughout the globe. Unlike the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, however, this Cold War military mission was cloaked in secrecy, to the point that not even the command generals were informed on its precise objective. Historians believe that the warning was issued in reaction to a possible Soviet nuclear attack on China.

The Chinese have been publicly planning for a scenario like this. Chairman Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had declared war on his nation that autumn. The national economy was reactivated, industries were transformed to military use and relocated to the mountains, and Beijing raced to build a vast subterranean metropolis to protect itself from nuclear assault. The CCP declared all People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces to be in emergency combat mode on October 17—the Chinese equivalent of the Pentagon’s DEFCON 1 designation.

The world was once again on the brink of nuclear Armageddon seven years after the Cuban stalemate. This time, however, the world’s major communist countries were set against one another in a war that began six months before on a little riverine island in a distant region of northeast Asia with a border skirmish.

The Ussuri River, which separates northeast China and the Russian Far East, is bisected by Zhenbao (Chinese for “Rare Treasure Island”). Outer Manchuria is the enormous terrain extending north from the Amur River to the Stanovoy Range, which the Chinese have historically referred to as Outer Manchuria. Imperial Russia encouraged immigrants to intrude on the area in the 19th century, while the fading Qing empire was beset by internal unrest and the Opium Wars. At the end of the Second Opium War, a defeated and humiliated China surrendered Outer Manchuria to Russia in the 1860 Peking Convention, moving the Sino-Russian boundary south along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers. River borders are marked at the main channel’s median, as per international tradition. As a result, Zhenbao, on the Chinese side of the Ussuri, was still Chinese territory, but the Russians seized possession of it nonetheless, renaming it Damansky after a famous railway engineer.

How Conflict at the Sino-Soviet Border Nearly Started Nuclear War Zhenbao, seen seen from the Chinese bank of the Ussuri River, is less than a third of a square mile in size and is mainly marsh in the summer. / Xinhua News Agency (Alamy)

Ownership of the island remained a non-issue for the next century. The unpleasant history of Russian imperialism was disregarded in favor of communist solidarity with the Maoist seizure of China in 1949. Patrols from China and the Soviet Union sometimes collided on the island. Soldiers traded smokes and communist artifacts while commanders presented each side’s formal protest. After all, the marsh of Zhenbao was little, measuring less than a third of a square mile. The Ussuri is dotted with hundreds of islands that are almost similar.

Relations between China and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, started to deteriorate in the early 1960s. The more than 4,500 miles of Sino-Soviet border—long sections of which hadn’t been properly defined since the 19th century—came under increasing scrutiny as the countries differed on their interpretations of Marxist-Leninist ideology and vied for leadership in the communist world. Chairman Mao and Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, fought vehemently over Russian imperialism’s past and China’s “unequal treaties,” sabotaging diplomatic efforts.

By the second part of the decade, violence had broken out along the Sino-Soviet border, as Soviet First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev took a more hardline position on foreign policy and China was devastated by the Cultural Revolution. In the summer, Chinese fishing boats and Soviet ships collided on the Amur and Ussuri rivers. During the winter, enthusiastic Chinese Red Guards marched over the ice river with Little Red Books in hand, arguing and fighting with Soviet troops. When Chinese and Soviet patrols collided, there were no more cordial exchanges of presents. Soldiers fought with rifle butts, wooden bats, and other weapons instead. On both sides, troops were instructed not to fire first.

Each country, however, was placing increasingly modern and deadly weapons behind the medieval ice battle. By 1969, there were 22 Soviet units stationed along the border, up from a dozen in 1961. In 1965, China restructured its defense strategy, moving its main military emphasis from the southeast coast to the north. Nuclear weapons were also discussed. China became the world’s fifth nuclear power when it exploded its first atomic weapon in 1964. Beijing exploded its first hydrogen bomb three years later. The Soviet Union built its first nuclear missile station in the Transbaikal Military District, just north of the Mongolian People’s Republic, with whom it had signed a mutual aid pact, in 1967. Moscow deployed missiles and soldiers into Mongolia a year later. Although neither the Soviet Union nor China intended to launch a war, each was concerned that the other could. The invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1968 further added to the Chinese leadership’s worries, solidifying Mao’s determination.

How Conflict at the Sino-Soviet Border Nearly Started Nuclear War

Despite their early declarations of communist unity, Soviet Russia and Maoist China’s mutual vows of “Friendship Forever!” were not able to withstand the realities of their border disputes. Heritage Auctions / Heritage Auctions

A fight occurred on an island a few kilometers upstream from Zhenbao on Jan. 5, 1968, between a Soviet patrol and Chinese fisherman. Several fisherman were killed when a Soviet BTR-60 armored troop vehicle collided with them during the battle. A frightened soldier inside opened fire as an enraged Chinese crowd surrounded the car. The event resulted in the deaths of four Chinese citizens, and the news reached Beijing quickly. The Shenyang Military Region was instructed by the Central Military Commission to undertake adequate response. The regional commanders, in turn, created a commando team from garrison troops and instructed it to ambush the next Soviet patrol. Commando Wang Guoxiang, then the political officer of the Red One Company of the 217th Infantry Regiment of the PLA’s 73rd Division, remembered sleeping in the cold snow for seven days and nights in a 2014 interview. The Russians never came back.

A conflict was avoided, whether owing to Soviet intelligence or sheer luck. A year later, the same cannot be said of Zhenbao.

In 1969, spring arrived late. With temperatures hovering around – 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the morning of March 2 was as cold as any Siberian winter dawn. In the Far East, Soviet troops were conducting a military drill in preparation for a fictitious Chinese invasion. All Soviet troops withdrew back 30 miles from the border as part of the exercise, leaving only token garrisons at the outposts. Junior Sergeant Yuri Babansky was one of those left behind, gazing blankly across the snow-covered Ussuri from the 2nd Nizhne-Mikhailovka border station. Around 10:20 a.m., Soviet sentries saw a Chinese patrol of 30 troops dressed in white winter camouflage moving over the ice river toward Zhenbao. The 32 border guards at Nizhne-Mikhailovka boarded a BTR-60 and two GAZ light trucks and proceeded to meet the Chinese as if it were a regular operation. Senior Lieutenant Ivan Strelnikov, the island’s post commander, sent Babansky with two dozen troops to face the Chinese patrol, while he took a half-dozen soldiers across the river in a flanking move. Babansky led his troops to an open snowfield’s edge.

How Conflict at the Sino-Soviet Border Nearly Started Nuclear War

Xilian Chen

Sun Yuguo, commander of the local PLA border station, stood across the field from him. The two guys may have met previously, maybe in one of the ice’s numerous brawls. Sun, on the other hand, understood that the moment for brawling was gone, since a company of Chinese commandos hid in the snow only yards from the surprised Soviets, preparing to launch an ambush. The commandos were elite recon soldiers from from three army corps in the Shenyang Military Region, not ordinary border guards. As post commander, Sun’s mission was to entice the Soviets into the commandos’ trap. His task had been completed effectively.

Wang was laying on the cold snow again, just 20 feet from Babansky. He and his Red One Company had sneaked onto the island the night before, digging shell scrapes and laying phone wires to the beach. Throughout the night, the commandos had remained immobile. Each guy had been given a package of cough medication to keep him quiet. They waited for Sun’s signal before jumping up and firing their Type 56 assault weapons, which are versions of the Soviet AK-47.

That signal was delivered with a single, clean shot that reverberated across the island. As Babansky turned to see what had occurred, overlapping bursts of automatic fire exploded around him. Strelnikov’s seven-man squad had come across a considerably bigger number of Chinese on the frozen river, and as he turned to see what had happened, overlapping bursts of automatic fire erupted around him. Within the opening seconds of the crazed exchange, a half-dozen soldiers from both sides were killed. Babansky could only watch as the Chinese mowed down Strelnikov’s unit as he dived for cover. He took command of the remaining forces.

The PLA had planned an ambush on Zhenbao for a long time. On January 25, authorities from the Heilongjiang Provincial Military District approved a draft plan and sent it to the PLA General Staff Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was eventually authorized by Beijing’s top decision-making circle, probably including Mao, who was in charge of all Soviet Union border issues. The PLA subsequently summoned three reconnaissance companies and moved them to the Zhenbao region to train for the mission. Senior PLA officers met in Beijing on the morning of the ambush in preparation for the CCP’s Ninth National Congress. In a suite of the Jingxi Hotel, technicians set up a direct phone link so Chen Xilian, commander of the Shenyang Military Region, could get live reports from Zhenbao. The deputy foreign minister was also there, keeping track of international diplomatic operations and reporting directly to Premier Zhou Enlai, who in turn reported to Mao.

How Conflict at the Sino-Soviet Border Nearly Started Nuclear War Following the fight, Soviet propaganda portrays a brave officer trying to stop the bloodshed. Vojenska Kontrarozviedka / Vojenska Kontrarozviedka

Their Soviet colleagues were making phone calls as well that morning, but they were much more anxious and perplexed. Colonel Demokrat Leonov of the 57th Border Detachment, based in Iman approximately 40 miles south of Zhenbao, was ready to announce his unit’s successful completion of the military exercise when news from Nizhne-Mikhailovka came. Colonel General Oleg Losik, commander of the Far Eastern Military District, was on the phone with the head of the Soviet Council of Ministers, Alexei Kosygin, within an hour.

The Chinese assault had taken Russian political elites completely off surprise. Brezhnev was away, and the Kremlin was concerned with the repercussions from the previous year’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, as well as a planned summit with the US—activities that required a gentler approach on the world arena. Losik’s sole command from Moscow, after considerable debate, was to protect the national border while avoiding a large-scale military confrontation. The politically savvy general saw the apparently contradictory command. There would be no Soviet army reinforcements, thus the fight would be confined to border soldiers.

Two dozen soldiers in a BTR-60 from the adjacent 1st Kulebyakiny Sopki border post, led by Senior Lieutenant Vitaly Bubenin, were the sole reinforcements that came to Babansky’s assistance that day. Leonov eventually gave Babansky the order to withdraw after almost two hours of combat. Only a few of his 31 colleagues were still alive at that time. Bubenin pushed his BTR onto the 60-yard-wide Chinese side of the ice Ussuri to attract fire and cover the retreat of the destroyed patrol. When his vehicle was destroyed by RPG fire, he and three of his comrades got into the abandoned BTR of the 2nd Nizhne-Mikhailovka and resumed the flanking attack, frantically firing the armored vehicle’s mounted machine guns. The remaining Chinese fled when Bubenin managed to knock out the opposing command post.

The war did not conclude with the March 2 engagement. Despite the fact that both sides retreated from Zhenbao, each sent reinforcements. Colonel General Losik placed the 135th Motor Rifle Division a few kilometers behind the Ussuri while waiting for Moscow’s permission to send regular army troops. Its armament comprised the T-62 tank and the BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launcher, which was classified at the time. Chen further upped the stakes from his command post in a Beijing hotel room, sending up more troops and artillery units from the PLA’s 67th Division.

Chinese and Soviet patrols moved on the island from their respective riverbanks before daybreak on March 15, igniting a fresh wave of combat that was much bigger in size and particularly violent. The Chinese responded with RPGs and 75 mm recoilless rifles, as the Soviet troops advanced behind a screen of BTRs. Colonel Leonov of the 57th Border Detachment received reinforcement about midday, in the shape of four T-62 tanks that had been hurriedly moved by Soviet senior officials only hours before. Leonov got into the lead tank to direct the assault since the drivers were unfamiliar with the region. Rather of moving forward to the island, the tank column skirted it on the frozen river and approached the Chinese side. When the colonel’s tank hit a mine and was de-tracked, the flanking operation was foiled. Leonov ordered the other tanks to leave after learning that the Chinese had mined the river ice. The colonel was hit and killed by Chinese sniper fire as he abandoned his immobilized T-62, becoming the conflict’s highest-ranking fatality.

On both sides, the situation had deteriorated by that afternoon. Losik sat at his district headquarters, waiting for Moscow’s command to contribute army troops. Chen’s infantrymen, however, had reached their limit across the river. The Chinese were clearly outmanned in terms of heavy equipment as they faced repeated Soviet motorized assaults backed up by Mi-4 helicopters. Wang, who was leading a reinforced platoon on his return visit to the island, remembered one of his troops shooting one RPG after another at the Soviet armored vehicles while bare-chested in the minus 30 degree weather. The guy was deaf in one ear by the time the battalion eventually pulled back.

How Conflict at the Sino-Soviet Border Nearly Started Nuclear War In the run-up to the March 2 battle on Zhenbao, Chinese soldiers face Russians atop a BTR-60. | Getty Images/Tass

The Soviet 135th began fire on the Chinese positions at 5 p.m. with 122 mm howitzers and Grad rocket launchers. Wang compared the low-velocity howitzer rounds and rockets rising over the horizon like a thick swarm of crows. The shells produced a low-pitched, droning sound as they neared, but Wang was momentarily deafened and didn’t hear the explosions. Two companies of Soviet army tanks and soldiers rushed onto the island after a solid 10 minutes of heavy shelling. Surviving Chinese strongholds put up a valiant fight, but by 6 p.m., the majority of PLA soldiers had left Zhenbao. As night fell, the Soviet soldiers departed as well. An eerie quiet fell over the small island now strewn with shell holes, debris, and corpses after more than nine hours of intense combat.

On March 17, sporadic firefights and artillery duels erupted, mostly in the area of Leonov’s abandoned T-62, which the Chinese eventually seized. However, there were no further significant battles on Zhenbao. The Soviet Union and China were unwilling to risk further escalation since the war had already escalated to the level of regular armies, and nuclear forces throughout North Asia were on high alert. As a result, the border situation reverted to normal, and Zhenbao remained a political chess piece.

Losik had unilaterally chosen to use regular soldiers and the army’s top-secret Grad rocket launchers since the Kremlin had never contacted the Far East on March 15. He accepted full responsibility for his conduct. The fight had fortunately swung in his favor. Losik was moved from the Far Eastern Military District to the Malinovsky Military Armored Forces Academy in Moscow two months after the event. He was promoted to Marshal of Armoured Troops in 1975 and retired from the Soviet army in 1992, where he died in 2012 at the age of 96. For their efforts, Leonov, Lieutenants Babansky and Bubenin, and Lieutenant Strelnikov received a posthumous honor as Soviet Union Heroes. General Bubenin led his Alpha Group special troops into Afghanistan a decade later.

Despite the result, Chen was admitted into the Politburo, China’s top policy-making body, during the CCP’s Ninth National Congress, little than a month after directing the fight from his Beijing hotel. He climbed the CCP political ladder until he was forced to resign in the 1980s after falling out of favor. Sun, the PLA border post commander, was welcomed warmly by Mao and praised as a “combat hero” at the same CCP conference. Wang became disillusioned with the CCP political rhetoric surrounding the Zhenbao battle and was discreetly dismissed in 1979, along with hundreds of others who were left out of the limelight.

The small, once-insignificant dot on the Ussuri, Zhenbao, was formally handed to China as part of the Sino-Soviet Border Agreement of 1991. The battlefield is now marked by a small Chinese memorial garden.

Details of the Zhenbao/Damansky Island event are still veiled in political hyperbole and communist propaganda half a century later. The incident was described by Russian media as the country’s first foreign invasion since World War II, while Chinese textbooks described it as a “self-defense counterattack.” Each side says the other was the first to fire. Many important elements, including casualties, have yet to be agreed upon. According to self-reported figures, the Chinese lost an incredible 29 lives, 64 were injured, and one went missing between March 2 and 17, while the Soviets lost 58 lives and 94 were wounded.

The conflict had disproportionate historical importance, despite its small extent. It was a watershed event that revealed the depth of the Sino-Soviet divide to the rest of the world, particularly the United States. The Nixon administration, stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam, turned to China as a possible partner in the fight against Soviet hegemony in Asia. Beijing was ready to participate in a Sino–American reconciliation as it recovered from the verge of complete war and confronted the Soviet nuclear threat. Neither Mao nor Brezhnev, let alone the troops who exchanged fire across the border in 1969, could have predicted that Nixon’s Air Force One would arrive in Beijing three years later. MH

Jesse Du is a historian who focuses on contemporary East Asia. He suggests Lorenz M. Lüthi’s The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World and Sören Urbanksy’s Beyond the Steppe Frontier: A History of the Sino-Russian Border for additional reading.

Military History magazine published this piece in their July 2023 edition. Subscribe here for more articles, and follow us on Facebook:

How Conflict at the Sino-Soviet Border Nearly Started Nuclear War

Over the past six decades, the world has experienced two of the worst nuclear crises in its history. During the Cold War, there were two major border disputes between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union. In 1969, the conflict at the Sino-Soviet border nearly triggered a nuclear confrontation. This may seem like an obscure topic, but it has never been fully investigated, leaving many unanswered questions.. Read more about what happened to the relationship between china and the soviet union and let us know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

How did the Sino Soviet border conflict start?

The Sino Soviet border conflict started in 1969 when China and the Soviet Union fought over a small piece of land called Damansky Island.

What started the Sino Soviet war?

The Sino Soviet war was a conflict between the Peoples Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It began in July, 1969 and ended in January, 1970 with a ceasefire agreement.

When was the Sino Soviet border conflict?

The Sino-Soviet border conflict was a military conflict between the Soviet Union and China over the disputed area of Xinjiang.

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • sino-soviet war 1929
  • russia vs china war 1969 in hindi
  • ussuri river conflict 1969
  • soviet union chinese war
  • sino soviet war
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