7 The situation changed in July 1937 when the Japanese invaded China proper. Beijing and Shanghai fell quickly to their forces. The Chinese Red Army resumed a more co-operative attitude towards the Kuomintang in the national interest. Yet China’s joint forces were no match for Japan. Down the country swept the conquering army, carrying out massacres of civilians in the cities. Stalin pledged weapons and finance to the Chinese communists. He also reorganised his own borderlands. It was in these years that Stalin ordered ethnic purges of Koreans and Chinese living in the Soviet Far East. The regional leadership of the NKVD was replaced and the Red Army was put on alert for any menace from Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchukuo. The two sides, Soviet and Japanese, kept each other guessing about their geopolitical pretensions. Frequent border skirmishes aggravated the situation and on 25 November 1936 the Japanese signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Italy. Concern in the Kremlin was acute. Stalin saw no point in diplomatic concessions, and when the Kwantung Army clashed with Soviet forces in May 1939 at Nomonhan, he met fire with fire. War broke out. The Red Army in the Far East was reinforced by tanks and aircraft. Commander Georgi Zhukov was dispatched to lead the campaign. 8
The maps in east, south and west were being redrawn by militarism. The League of Nations had proved ineffective as Japan overran first Manchuria and then China. International protests failed to save Ethiopia from Italian conquest; and Germany, after intervening actively in the Spanish Civil War, annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia. Yet until Nomonhan the Red Army had seen more action against Soviet peasant rebels than against the foreign enemies of the USSR. The great test of Stalin’s industrial and military preparations was at last taking place. Despite the lacerations of the Great Terror, the Red Army acquitted itself well. Just as the Russians had expected an easy victory over an inferior enemy in 1904, the Japanese expected a Soviet military collapse. Intelligent and adaptive, Zhukov had learned much from the German training programmes observed on the soil of the USSR until 1933. Like Tukhachevski, he identified tank formations as essential to contemporary land warfare. His arrival in the Far East energised the Soviet offensive strategy. He had witnessed Stalin’s destruction of the Supreme Command and knew that nothing short of comprehensive victory over the Japanese would keep the NKVD off his back. 9 His sole advantage was that Stalin, as had been the case since the Civil War, did not stint in the granting of men and equipment to his commanders. Zhukov plotted to outmatch the enemy in resources before taking them on. By August 1939 he had amassed such a force and could start his planned offensive. Stalin watched warily through the prism of reports reaching him from army commanders and the military intelligence agency. While Zhukov needed Stalin’s trust, Stalin needed Zhukov’s success in the campaign.
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