Foreign Policy

China's nuclear program confused Soviet intelligence

The United States wants to involve China in the negotiations on nuclear weapons with the Russian Federation. Russia's response to these policies depends in part on its own understanding of Beijing's nuclear intentions and capabilities. The question of what Russia knows or believes about China is a difficult one. Fortunately, an extraordinary collection of newly released documents from the Russian archives, including the party records known as the Russian State Archives of Contemporary History (RGANI) shows how the Soviet Union investigated China's nuclear and missile programs during the height of the Cold War – at a time when nuclear warfare between Moscow and Beijing was very possible.

The Soviet Union took an exceptionally broad view of what types of information were useful, and Soviet assets were very successful in obtaining various types of evidence not only from China but from around the world. Soviet analysts often recognized the limitations of their sources, but, like their American counterparts, they often overestimated the advances made by China during the era of the Cultural Revolution. The evidence shows how difficult it was even for a state like the Soviet Union to operate nuclear intelligence services effectively.

The Soviets had a significant advantage over the United States in terms of information about China's nuclear weapons program: Moscow had participated in the dawn of Beijing's nuclear industry. In 1968, the Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin asked the Ministry of Geology to submit a report on uranium resources in the People's Republic of China (PRC). This report found that Soviet specialists were involved in the search for uranium deposits in China between 1955 and 1960. During this time, 30 percent of all possible areas were inspected, with 15 areas of uranium ore uncovered. This made it possible to make rough predictions of how much more China might have access to.

But past relationships could also be a disadvantage. In the 1950s, the Soviets helped train Chinese spy masters, and Moscow reportedly removed most of its own spies in the 1950s. These conditions created particular difficulties for recruiting agents in the PRC. Particularly after the March 1969 crisis on the Sino-Soviet border, the KGB's top-secret internal journal published several articles on how to persuade Chinese citizens to provide information to Moscow.

The magazine didn't specifically discuss how to get information about the Chinese bomb – although an article on counter-espionage warned of Chinese interest in Soviet nuclear weapons and referred to a Chinese diplomat who bought a book on missiles. However, the articles reveal the Soviet approach, and an article summarizing best practices suggests that they used crude approaches, at least on occasion. Drawing on culturally essential views of the Chinese people, the author suggested that KGB activists recall that Chinese features include nationalism, "mystical belief in the Vozhd" (an archaic Russian term for top leaders, also used for Stalin) , "Brutality and vindictiveness" were. Cleverness and displacement, "unwillingness to solve problems quickly", "developed envy", "ability to endure difficulties", "tendency to exaggerate", preoccupation with maintaining "face" and others. The article also warned of the tendency of "some" skeptical KGB activists to believe that the Chinese are too dishonest and untrustworthy to be good agents.

Signals, atmospheric changes, and satellite observations were another source of information for the Soviet Union. The Soviets listened carefully to signals from the Chinese weather observation posts to see if a nuclear test was imminent. For example, in September 1967 the Soviets intercepted instructions to two weather stations in Xinjiang to improve monitoring of weather conditions. During the 1969 crisis, the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, repeatedly reported the operation of weather posts in Xinjiang as the best possible evidence that could predict an impending test. The Soviets were also able to determine when the Chinese were tracking bomber planes or transmitting data on airborne radioactivity samples.

Satellite intelligence also played a role. Thus, on October 24, 1966, the Soviets were able to discover a rocket 23 meters high due to space assets, which led the GRU to the conclusion that the first batch of Dongfeng rockets "may already have been manufactured". In August 1967, space intelligence found another rocket 30 to 35 meters high and 3 meters in diameter that the GRU believed could be a rocket with a range of over 2,000 kilometers.

However, the Soviets were unhappy with their ability to obtain information about China's nuclear explosions. In July 1968, Ivan Serbin, head of the Central Committee's Defense Industry Department, complained in a top-secret report that "the effectiveness of the detection of nuclear explosions is currently low and information about them is delayed". Serbin noted that although a special "Horizon" facility was set up in the Mongolian People's Republic in 1967, that facility "did not register any nuclear air explosions carried out in China in December 1967, at stations much further from the site of the explosion." discovered (it). "

Technical information was not the only means, however. Due to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the Soviets were also able to take up important details of the military-industrial complex through so-called large character posters (wall posters expressing political views) and Red Guard materials. Such a poster made it possible for the Soviets to learn, for example, that a senior scientist in the Seventh Ministry of Mechanical Engineering who carried out the missile programs had been killed in factional violence. Another set of materials enabled the Soviets to learn that the same ministry was going through a "leadership purge."

Defectors also played an important role. Wang Ming, a former high-ranking Communist Party leader who moved to Moscow after a power struggle with Mao, regularly analyzed the Soviets, including about the bomb. In May 1966, Wang said to his interlocutors: "Mao wants to show the USA that an explosion of nuclear weapons should primarily deal a blow to the Soviet Union, and show the USA that, as before, it will consistently pursue the anti-Soviet line …"

However, all of this information had to be processed. Especially after the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the Soviet leaders were clearly at a loss about China's behavior. In September 1966 the Politburo set up a secret institute for the problems of modern China within the framework of the Academy of Sciences with 200 people. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the KGB have been asked to provide classified information to the facility. Both academics and former policy makers attended.

Soviet scientists sometimes provided very interesting insights. In December 1969, the director of the USA Institute at the Academy of Sciences, Georgi Arbatov, showed a sensitivity to the printing of a strategic core triangle. In a secret report, he wrote: “Because of its geographic location, the threat posed by China to the US is less expensive than ours. Basically, the Americans maintain a double group of strategic forces – against both the USSR and China. When it comes to us, however, this threat forces us to have two separate groups of armed forces – west and east. "

However, at other times, the work of Soviet academics was poor. For example, a top-secret report on China's military-industrial complex written by the director of the Far East Studies Institute in May 1971 was based on sources such as the Hong Kong Standard, TASS, and Electronic News – and contained several errors.

However, Soviet diplomats and intelligence officers paid extremely close attention to the views of foreign scholars, especially American ones. Professor Robert Barnett told the first secretary of the Soviet embassy: "The USSR and the US should consider the development of vehicles for the delivery of nuclear weapons through China in their defense plans from nuclear attacks."

K. Kelin, who worked in the United States Secretariat, reported on a conversation with Walter Clemens during a meeting of the Association for Asian and Far East Studies. Clemens told Kelin that the Chinese program is surprisingly quick, that scientists and engineers have been protected despite the Cultural Revolution, and that the thermonuclear explosion is "unexpected" for the United States.

Igor Rogachev, the first secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, met with Angus M. Fraser from the Defense Analysis Institute and Vladimir Petrov from George Washington University. Fraser claimed that anti-Soviet propaganda in Beijing had become "more serious and concrete" with a "military-strategic character". In the margin of the Rogachev report is a handwritten note: “This is not the first statement. The Americans throw us militarily against each other. “Fraser then indicated that China might consider using medium-range missiles in Albania.

Think tank reports also caught the GRU's attention. The head of the GRU himself, Petr Ivashutin, not only provided the Central Committee with a translated copy of the Research Analysis Corporation's "Communist China Military Doctrines" report, but also made his own introductory remarks. Ivashutin wrote that the PRC feared a sudden strategic nuclear attack most of all, but "(a) According to Maoist theory, vital importance in war is played by a person who is well prepared politically, not weapons (including nuclear weapons ). "

The Soviets also closely followed American policy views on China's nuclear weapons. Talks with the Americans helped the Soviets better understand Washington's views on the strategic nuclear triangle. In September 1967, Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that the United States' ABM system would "protect against a possible Chinese attack" and not offer protection "against the Soviet Union's large-scale strategic missile attack". "

The Soviets sought foreign sources to understand the implications of their implied nuclear threat to China during the 1969 crisis. In October 1969 the GRU reported that "Western military circles (…) have expressed an opinion" that "the PRC, under the influence of the well-known warnings of the Soviet Union …" has decided to hold talks. In December, the third secretary of the USSR Mission to the United Nations reported: “(t) The real reasons that forced the PRC to agree to talks with the USSR, according to the US, are not in China's strength, but in theirs Strengthen the weakness. "In the same month, another GRU report claimed that" American military specialists "believed that Chinese nuclear forces" do not materially affect China's military political and strategic standing and the world situation in general. "

While we still don't have enough evidence to make sweeping generalizations, the expansive use of a variety of sources was likely the result of at least two factors. First, the Soviets believed that the Chinese government was deeply irrational and that Moscow was having difficulty understanding Beijing's “bizarre” behavior, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Second, the deterioration in relations put the Soviet diplomats and spies in Beijing in a very difficult position. Beijing-based KGB, Iurii Drozdov, wrote in its memoir, "Our officers have been attacked several times by the Red Guards," and the Soviet embassy itself has been attacked. Despite geographical proximity, a previously close relationship, and similar Leninist systems, the Soviets struggled to understand the Chinese bomb.

Although these first results are preliminary, the new documents clearly show that it is difficult even for superpowers to understand nuclear intentions. Washington should remember that Moscow today similarly views a mixture of complicated evidence and is deeply interested in the views of others. Clear answers are hard to come by, but understanding Russia's analysis of China's nuclear weapons will be critical to major power cooperation.

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