Mao’s Road to War against Russia


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Mao’s Cultural Revolution had an external impact, in particular upon Beijing’s already badly strained relations with Moscow. After a decade of gradually escalating polemics between Mao and Nikita Khrushchev, in the late 1960s, the Sino-Soviet dispute veered toward war against Russia. Tensions between the two had noticeably worsened since the early 1960s.

Illustration of a military tank on a red background
The 1960s saw the Sino-Soviet relationship heading toward conflict. (Image: Babich Alexander/Shutterstock)

War of Words

In the summer of 1962, China and India fought a brief border war over some disputed territories high up in the Himalayas. In that conflict, the Russians had maintained a studied neutrality, refusing to support their erstwhile Chinese ally—and thereby ostensibly violating the golden rule of fraternal solidarity in Communist bloc relations.

Later in that same year, the Chinese repaid the Russians in kind when they criticized Nikita Khrushchev for backing away from a military confrontation with the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The two sides were now engaged in a sort of a guerrilla war of words.

In the summer of 1963, a final attempt was made to heal the deepening Sino-Soviet rift. A high-profile summit meeting was held in Moscow, but it broke down amid mutual accusations and recriminations. In fact, even as the summit was in progress, Khrushchev was preparing to sign a comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty with American President John F. Kennedy. Thereafter, Beijing accused Moscow of capitulating to US imperialism; and all hopes of reconciliation were dashed.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Krushchev’s Removal

In mid-October of 1964, amid great patriotic jubilation, China successfully tested its first atomic bomb that had been built entirely without Soviet assistance. The test was a powerful declaration of China’s strategic independence from the USSR, and its impact on Moscow was instantaneous.

Aware that the Chinese were going to test a nuclear weapon, the Soviet Communist Party Presidium abruptly removed Nikita Khrushchev from power. Khrushchev’s reformist tendencies and his erratic personal behavior had increasingly alienated many in the top Soviet leadership. In this situation, the Chinese nuclear test was merely the last straw.

Learn more about the factors behind Mao’s alignment with the Soviets.

Sino-Soviet Relations Deteriorate Further

For a short while, it appeared that Khrushchev’s ouster might open the door for a thaw in Sino-Soviet relations. The Russians clearly hoped for such a thaw. Early in 1965, in response to America’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, Leonid Brezhnev, the new Soviet leader, held out an olive branch to Beijing. He offered to coordinate the flow of weapons with Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam with the Chinese to show their unity in the face of US imperialism.

But Mao flatly rejected Brezhnev’s offer, and shortly afterward, he angrily denounced the idea of peaceful reconciliation with the Soviet revisionists. Mao would have none of it. As far as he was concerned, so long as the Soviets refused to acknowledge the error of their ways, there could be no “combining” with them, only “dividing”.  

To the new Russian leadership, the intensification of Maoist radicalism on the eve of the Cultural Revolution suggested that the Chinese leader was an overzealous ideologue, a delusional megalomaniac even, whose lack of appreciation for the destructive power of nuclear weapons put the Soviet Union—and the world—deeply at risk.

A Race to Lead the Communist Bloc

By 1964, the Russians and the Chinese had begun openly vying for leadership of the World Communist Movement. The competition was particularly intense in the Third World, where Russia and China each wooed nationalist leaders and communist parties with stepped-up aid and support, trying to win their hearts and minds.

Portrait of Fidel Castro on a banknote
In order to alienate China, Moscow offered to fully meet Cuba’s need for petroleum products at prices well below the prevailing world market. Fidel Castro accepted it. (Image: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/Shutterstock)

In this mounting rivalry, the Russians enjoyed a huge material advantage. More economically and industrially developed than China, the Soviets could afford to provide generous commercial credits, modern weapons, and sophisticated technical know-how, while the Chinese, on their part, were mainly able to provide token economic assistance, supplemented by large quantities of unskilled manpower.

In Africa, for example, when the Russians in 1964 completed work on the $1 billion Egyptian Aswan High Dam, the Chinese responded by building a railroad linking Tanzania and Zambia, at a substantially more modest price tag of $10 million. The difference in the magnitude of the two projects, $1 million versus $10 million, is a fair indicator of the relative imbalance in their respective resources.

Learn more about how domestic and international conflicts disrupted Mao’s Socialist vision.

The Most Resourceful Wins the Race

This resource imbalance produced some very strange and, at times, paradoxical results. For example, although Beijing and Moscow each enjoyed warm relations with Cuba’s Fidel Castro prior to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, by 1965, the Russians had successfully frozen the Chinese out of Cuba. How did they do it?

To secure Castro’s undivided loyalty, Khrushchev offered to massively subsidize Cuba’s most important export industry—sugar cane—by purchasing the island’s entire annual sugar crop at a price substantially above the going world-market price. To sweeten the pot still further, Moscow offered to fully meet Cuba’s need for petroleum products at prices well below the prevailing world market. It was an offer Castro could not refuse.

And for the next quarter of a century, Cuba remained a Soviet client state, while China remained on the outside, looking in.

Common Questions about Mao’s Road to War against Russia

Q: What led to the breakdown of the 1963 Moscow Summit?

The goal of the summit was to ease tensions between the two countries, which would reduce the likelihood of war against China, but both parties accused each other of certain actions. After Beijing accused Russia of supporting American imperialism, all hopes of salvaging relations were gone.

Q: How did Mao respond after Krushchev’s removal from power?

Although the new Soviet leader offered an olive branch to him, Mao declined until the Russians would admit to their wrongdoings. But, Moscow declined to do so.

Q: How did Russia freeze China out of Cuba?

Russia, using its plentiful resources, offered to purchase Cuba’s sugar exports and also sold petroleum to Cuba at a much lower rate than other sellers. Thus, pushing China out of Cuba.

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