China’s Nuclear Program Baffled Soviet Intelligence

China’s Nuclear Program Baffled Soviet Intelligence

The United States wants to include China in negotiations on nuclear weapons with the Russian Federation. Russia’s reaction to this policy depends in part on its own understanding of Beijing’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. The question of just what Russia knows—or believes—about China is a tough one. Fortunately, an extraordinary collection of newly declassified documents from the Russian archives, including the party records known as The Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI), reveals how the Soviet Union studied China’s nuclear and missile programs during the height of the Cold War—at a time when nuclear war between Moscow and Beijing was very possible.

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