Although seemingly unnoticed throughout an apprehensive and infected West, the year 2021 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the end of Russian Communism, bringing to a close the rule of the Bolshevik regime that boldly presented to representative democracy its greatest conceptual challenges. At the same time, unprecedented concern was expressed with regard to the intentions and capabilities of Chinese Communism, however estranged its elusive commissars in Beijing may have grown from the dystopian tendencies of Maoist thought. Amid an ocean of competing claims and clashing arguments within this evolving subject matter, the following article shall advance a single proposition at the intersection of the destinies of three indispensable nations: whereas Soviet Russia comprehensively demonstrated its military power, Communist China has in comparison heretofore largely just asserted it, a discrepancy of paramount importance for present and future American grand strategy.
When the American-led Western Allied armies linked up with the Soviet Red Army along the banks of the Elbe River in Germany in late April 1945, there was no question that they had come face to face with the greatest power in Europe and Asia. The cruelty and incompetence of Romanov autocracy notwithstanding, Russia as a nation had consistently demonstrated her formidable ability to fight and win hegemonic wars; but the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 would confront the Russian army, state, and people with the most dangerous and ruthless enemy in the entirety of international history. The Siege of Leningrad, the Battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the liquidation of Kyiv, and the total destruction of most of the Soviet Union west of the Ural Mountains—wherein valleys literally became dry bones, and rivers literally turned to blood—directly or indirectly claimed at least twenty million Russian lives, with the Germans refusing all quarter to those officially deemed racial untermenschen. Confronted with such unprecedented aggression, all but the strongest state would have capitulated, and all but the strongest people would have surrendered.
The German invaders instead were dealt one gushing wound upon another from the sword of honor of the Great Patriotic War, the largest and most successful counter-attack in military history, organized under the overall framework of centrally planned, industrialized War Communism. Beginning with the destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in February 1943, continuing with the pulverizing victory of Russian over German tanks at the Kursk salient the following August, and proceeding through what the Russians hallow their Sacred War (Svyaschénnaya voyná) en route to Berlin, both the regular and partisan armies demonstrated their collective ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, placing on record a succession of military victories unequaled in history. The Second World War in Europe consisted primarily of this gargantuan confrontation between the German and Russian armies, wherein the latter demonstrated the greatest imaginable fighting fury, tactical and strategic competence, national solidarity, and indomitable will.
The military power of Soviet Russia from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the death of the regime in 1991 is certainly less easily assessed, given the circumscribed character of the incursions into Hungary in 1956 and into Czechoslovakia in 1968, along with the ambivalent character of its defeat in Afghanistan. The totalitarian specter of nuclear bipolarity through the arms race also appears, in the eyes of many, to invalidate many of the usual questions pertaining to “conventional” military capability. Central to the question however is recognition of the endogeneity of Russian material power during the Cold War. Although American contractors did provide some formative assistance to Soviet industry, and although effective espionage did play a supporting role at critical junctures, relatively little Soviet science and technology was ever stolen, borrowed, copied, or otherwise appropriated from the West; rather the Russians launched satellites, produced aircraft, built computers, explored space, and split the atom by themselves, for themselves, and on their own terms. The history of the previous century therefore fully authenticates Russian world power.
In contrast, that of the People’s Republic of China heretofore rests much more on elaborate assurances—glittering galas, Olympic ceremonies, bullet trains, missile launches—than on actual demonstrations against trained and resisting opponents. Modern China has never won a war, or at least not any major war against any major power. Japan began to invade China in 1931, yet even an intervening ocean—an advantage unknown to the defending Russians—failed to prevent the fall of Chinese cities, the flight into the wilderness of the Chinese government, and the massacre of the almost helpless Chinese people. The subsequent border war with India in 1962 was little more than a skirmish, and the comparable low-intensity territorial conflicts with Vietnam concluded by 1991 are also far from conclusive of formidable military capability. What ought of course to serve American strategists as the most instructive example was the conflict in Korea (1950–53), where the initial invasion of the Allied southern by the Stalinist northern half precipitated a far more extensive conflict between the Americans and the British on one side and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on the other.
The eventual stalemate along 38°N has notoriously endured, and the historic deficiency of American political will is widely recognized. President Harry Truman, taking leave of his characteristic prudence, simply ordered the war in contempt of the American Congress and unbeknownst to the American people. Tactically, China relied primarily on immense infantry formations to swarm over Allied positions, which sometimes collapsed when the latter simply ran out of ammunition. Although effective and noteworthy, these results were achieved in a tiny and impotent nation adjacent to the Chinese mainland; and therefore in the grand scheme of great power politics, they little more than suggest any enduring ability to take and hold foreign territory by force. His historic egotism and insubordination notwithstanding, the weight of evidence is that General Douglas MacArthur spoke the truth when he lamented to the Congress (April 19, 1951) that the survival of the Chinese cause in Korea must be imputed to presidential indecision: “I made clear that if not permitted to destroy the enemy buildup of bases north of the Yalu; if not permitted to utilize the friendly Chinese force of some 600,000 men on Formosa; if not permitted to blockade the China coast… and if there were to be no hope of major reinforcements, the position of the command from the military standpoint forbade victory.”
Bringing the focus, finally, to the all-consuming question of prospective Sino-American conflict, the sophistication of Chinese internal repression, the enormity of Chinese manufacturing, digital, and financial sectors, and the accelerated pace of Chinese armament are all fully acknowledged. The intentions and capabilities of the Chinese government genuinely threaten the cause of representative democracy, to which the United States ought to react. But it may prove almost equally important not to overreact, in this case by accepting Beijing’s calculated assurances of its impending omnipotence at face value, and by absentmindedly repeating them. Soviet Russia demonstrated enormously greater fighting ability than has Red China, and yet even that temporarily invincible totalitarian regime is no more.