Although Russia and China announced a friendship with “no limits” some articles in the Chinese press point to China’s difficult history with Russia and urge caution. An earlier article translated here brought up Russian Empire territorial gains at Qing Dynasty China’s expense during the mid 19th century: Weibo: We Got Hong Kong Back, Why Not Vladivostok? This article has appeared several times in various Chinese media, most recently in July 2022. How many times it is hard to say; censors often sweep troublesome articles off the Internet or at least that section behind the Bamboo Curtain.
Lake Baikal Region is the Achilles Heel of Russia, but also the sword of Damocles Hanging over Our Heads
July 7, 2022 Source: World and History Hubei Report (also published earlier in August 2020 in 西布军事)
We are often proud of China’s vast territory, but to our north is a country much larger than ours – Russia. Russia is almost twice the size of our country, amounting to more than 17 million square kilometers, making it the largest country in the world. Its comprehensive national strength, rich resources, great strategic depth and war potential make it one of the world’s most powerful countries. Although Russia has not seemed a threat to our country in the complex international situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have to be on guard, be wary, and be cautious in the face of such a huge power. Russia has in fact caused great disasters to our country throughout history.
Russia’s Coat of Arms is a “two-headed eagle”, with one head looking majestically at the European region in the West and the other head looking majestically at the Far East. This very graphically illustrates Russia’s national policy since the Tsarist period of a geopolitical parallelism — looking both East and West very aggressively. After centuries of brutal expansion, Russia’s territory grew very large. This vast territory gives Russia unparalleled strategic resources, but at the same time made defense very difficult. With one end of Russia in the West and the other in the Far East, it extended over 6,000 kilometers from east to west. The links between the two ends are fragile and extremely vulnerable to severance. In particular, the Baikal region, which connects the two ends, is Russia’s “Achilles Heel”.
After the Industrial Revolution, railroads became an important means of transportation. During the Franco-Prussian War, the value of railroads was made clear by Prussia, which relied on an efficient railroad network for rapid troop build-up and maneuvering. While the French emperor had only gathered some 200,000 men, the German General Mauch had already brought in half a million troops by rail. Due to the huge advantage in strength, Prussia easily defeated France.
Tsarist Russia too naturally realized the strategic value of railroad. During the Second Opium War, Tsarist Russia took advantage of the opportunity to forcibly occupy the outer portion of northeastern China and coveted our three eastern provinces. At the same time, Japan, after the Meiji Restoration, steadily gained strength and threatened the Russian Far East. In order to digest the northeastern part of the country and to counteract Japan, Tsarist Russia started to build the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Baikal Lake via Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk, and then to Vladivostok via Ulan-Ude, Chita and Buri. Through the Trans-Siberian Railway, Tsarist Russia could quickly transport its troops deployed in Europe to the Far East, thus removing the disadvantage that Tsarist Russia had against Japan in the Far East.
During the construction of the Siberian Railway, Tsarist Russia also built an important branch line from Chita to Manzhouli, through Hulunbeier, across the Daxingan Mountains to Qiqihar, Harbin, Suifenhe, Shuangchengzi and to Vladivostok. And, in Harbin, there is another branch line to the southwest through Changchun, Shenyang and to Dalian and Lushun. This is the famous “Chinese Eastern Railway“. Through the “Chinese Eastern Railway”, Tsarist Russia was able to quickly deliver its troops to the Eastern provinces, thus putting them under its sphere of influence. Chita, the starting point of the “Chinese Eastern Railway”, became the hub of the Great Siberian Railway and a military town in the Russian Far East.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railroad in the world with a length of more than 9,000 kilometers. Called the “Eurasian Continental Bridge” and the “backbone of Russia”, and is of great strategic value. However, the Trans-Siberian Railway is very fragile and can be easily cut off. The railroads, roads and waterways leading from the Far East to Moscow all converge on the Baikal region, and if this area is broken, Russia will be interrupted. Therefore, the Baikal region was a key point of defense for both Tsarist Russia, Soviet Russia, and modern Russia, and military strategists also focused on this region.
During the Second World War, Japan, coveting the Soviet Far East, attempted to threaten the Soviet Union’s post-Baikal region and cut off the Soviet Union. To this end, Japan built a railroad from Baicheng up the Taoer River valley through Alshan to the Harakha River valley, over the Daxinganling and into Hulunbeier, namely the Taonan-Solun railroad. Through this railroad, Japan could quickly deliver its troops to Hulunbeier grassland, cut off the “Chinese Eastern Railway” and aim directly to the railroad hub of Chita, or attack Ulaanbaatar and threaten the central hub of Ulan-Ude, thus militarily threatening the Soviet Union’s throat in the Zabaikalye region. In response to Japan’s aggressive offensive, the Soviet Union also launched corresponding countermeasures. As a result, a major battle broke out between Japan and the Soviet Union at Khalkhin Gol on the banks of the Harakha River at the exit of the Taonan-Solon Railway, with a total of more than 200,000 troops on both sides.
The Siberian Railway played a great role in the late Second World War, and the Zabaikalye region became the stronghold of the Soviet army. The Soviet Union transported millions of troops and equipment from the European theater to the Far East, i.e., via the Trans-Siberian Railway, and assembled them at the railroad junctions of Ulan-Ude and Chita in the Zabaikalye region.
The Baikal region is not only the hub of Moscow to the Far East, but also the gateway to the north of the country. Lake Baikal is bounded to the west by Sayan Ridge and Hangai Mountains, and to the east by Trans-Hingan Ridge and Kent Mountains. Between the two mountain ranges, the Selenge River and its tributaries cut deep into the mountains and enter Lake Baikal to the north, forming a flat and fertile river valley, which was the main route from the Central Plains to Siberia and Moscow via the Mongolian Plateau and Lake Baikal in ancient times. During the Han Dynasty, the Baikal Lake area was occupied by the Dingli tribe, which was subservient to Xiongnu.
This passage was especially famous in the Qing Dynasty and modern times, when the Baikal Lake area was the base of Tsarist Russia’s trade with China. The trade route to China for the Tsarist merchants was from Moscow eastward across the Ural Mountains to Western Siberia, then eastward across Western Siberia to Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude, and southward up the Selenge River to Kulun (present-day Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia) via the Russian-Chinese border town of Chakotu, and then southward via Erlianhot, Sunit Right Banner, Huade, and Zhangbei. and Zhangbei directly to Zhangjiakou. In the Yongzheng period of the Qing Dynasty, China and Russia signed the Treaty of Chakotu, the border between the two countries, Chakotu was assigned to the Tsarist Russia, and the Chinese side built a new city in China south of the old city street, that is, the present-day Mongolian-Russian border Altai Prague, also called the city of buying and selling.
As Shanxi had the advantage of location, commerce between China and Tsarist Russia was almost completely monopolized by Shanxi merchants, and Jin merchants were often rich in the world. With the development of Sino-Russian trade, Chakotu and Maima China (买卖城) [Note: Literally “Buy and Sell City”] immediately went from unknown small villages to major border trade towns where merchants gathered. After the founding of New China in 1949, with the opening of the China-Mongolia Railway, from the Soviet Union around Lake Baikal town Ulan-Ude to the south through Ulaanbaatar, you can reach China’s border town Erlianhot, and then south to Ulanqab, Datong, this line has become the main freight artery for China’s trade with Mongolia and Russia.
This route has not only important commercial interests, but also an extremely important military role. During World War II, the Soviet Army used the Baikal region southward through Ulaanbaatar and across the desert to Zhangjiakou and Duolun, an important direction of attack against the recalcitrant Japanese army. After the opening of the Sino-Mongolian Railway, the situation on this line became more and more important. In the last century, when China and the Soviet Union were at war, the Soviet Union had a large military force stationed along the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which could have moved southward, so it was difficult for our country to relax. It is also because of the importance of the China-Mongolia Railway that the gauge of the railroad tracks in China were changed during the design and construction phase in order to protect the capital Beijing and the north. Trains from Russia and Mongolia to our country must change their wheels after entering our national border in order to go further south.
All in all, the Russian Trans-Baikal region is important because it is the hub of Moscow, Russia, to the middle and lower reaches of the Heilongjiang River in the Far East, the three eastern provinces of China, Mongolia and northern China. Russia’s Siberian region is sparsely populated, and most of its population is located along the Trans-Siberian Railway. If a force cuts off the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Lake Baikal region, Russia will not be able to defend both east and west. Both Tsarist Russia, Soviet Russia, and the modern Russian Federation regard it as their choke point and station large numbers of troops there. As early as the late Qing Dynasty, Tsarist Russia strongly supported the independence of Outer Mongolia as a barrier and buffer zone for Baikal region. During World War II, when Chiang Ching-kuo went to the Soviet Union to negotiate over Outer Mongolia, Stalin unabashedly pointed to the map and said to Chiang, “To tell you the truth, the reason I want Outer Mongolia is entirely from a military strategic point of view.” “If a military force were to attack the Soviet Union from Outer Mongolia, Russia would be finished as soon as the Trans-Siberian Railway was cut off.”
The Baikal region, while it is the “Achilles Heel” of Russia, is also a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. From the Baikal region, we can cross Mongolia to the south and reach Datong and Beijing; we can also go through the Hulunbeier Steppe and cross the Daxinganling Mountains to reach the heart of the three eastern provinces. At the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union attacked the recalcitrant Japanese Kwantung Army, the Trans-Siberian Railway was the main artery the Soviet Union used to transport the main forces from the European theater to the Far East. The Baikal region was the main base of the Soviet Union. During the last century, when China and the Soviet Union went to war, the Baikal Rim became the core of the Soviet threat to China, with Ulan-Ude as the Soviet Far East Command. The Soviet Union stationed more than a million armored corps in Ulan-Ude and Chita, and had the potential to swoop southward along the China-Mongolia railway line. Then all of China was very tense for fear of what disaster might befall us.