When Japan and Russia Went to War

"The setback that the Japanese dealt to the Russians in 1904-05 helped shape the contours of Asian politics for a century."

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including: Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened, The Five Most Overrated Weapons of War, and America’s Troubled F-35: Five Ways to Replace It.

The Russo-Japanese War commenced 110 years ago this February, lasting eighteen months before a US-brokered truce mercifully put it to rest.  The war killed upwards of 125,000 people, and sharply limited Russian influence in Northeast Asia.  Japan gained control of Korea, and gained a long-term foothold for influencing events in Manchuria and China.

Writers have ascribed many legacies to the conflict, some of which we can set aside.  Victory against Japan probably would not have prevented the collapse of Imperial Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union; the Revolution happened for other reasons.  Moreover, the conflict did not give the Central Powers a “window of opportunity” for defeating Russia in Europe; we now know that Vienna and Berlin over-estimated, rather than under-estimated, Russian power in 1914.  Defeat might conceivably have broken Japanese militarism for a time, but the weakness of China and of the European colonial empires would likely have proven too tempting for Tokyo in any case.

Still, the Russo-Japanese War may indeed have been a “regional” conflict, but Northeast Asia is a remarkably important region, home to three of the largest economies of the 21st century. The war set the terms upon which Russia, China, Korea, and Japan would contest control of the region over the course of the 20th century. The conflict also had important legacies for the conduct of war. The power of conscript and rapid fire weapons would prefigure the experience of 20th century land combat, while fighting between “castles of steel,” would lend key lessons for naval planners in both World Wars.

The Politics of Northeast Asia

The waning power of the Qing dynasty in the 19th century set the state for Russo-Japanese conflict in Northeast Asia.  Although Japanese success at sea was not replicated to the same extent on land, the Japanese victory did place stark limits on the extent of Russian power in the Pacific.  Even after the Soviets won a decisive victory over Japan at Khalkin Gol, and crushed the Kwantung Army in the waning days of World War II, circumstances prevented permanent territorial aggrandizement.  Had the Russians maintained their position in Asia in 1905, this might have turned out much differently.

With the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the ensuing collapse of the Chinese state, China was unable to resist foreign encroachments upon its territory.  Fortunately for China, Russia remained in such disorder that it could not take advantage to its own territorial aggrandizement, and in any case Japanese power held Russia in check.

Japan, however, took advantage of Chinese disorder.  In 1931 the Japanese Kwantung Army occupied Manchuria and declared it independent of China, installing the last emperor of the Qing dynasty in what became Manchukuo.  Neither Communist nor Nationalist Chinese forces had the strength the contest this move, but the Soviet invasion of August 1945 quickly annihilated the Kwantung Army.  Rather than maintain Manchukuo as a Soviet satellite, the Russians looted in, then used it to bolster the position of the People’s Liberation Army.  In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took control of most of China, including Manchuria but not including either Taiwan or Mongolia.

Had Russia prevailed in 1905, then either Russia or the Soviet Union, instead of Japan, might well have detached Manchuria, just as the Soviets detached Mongolia.  Under such circumstances, it’s unlikely that any Chinese government would have been able to recover the territory; the Soviet Union was in no mood for reparations in 1945.  Whether incorporated directly into Russia or simply into the Soviet sphere, Manchuria might now remain politically separated from the rest of China.  Conversely, a Korea more capable of playing Russian influence off Japanese might have been able to retain its independence.

Of course, much remains unknowable.  A defeated Japan might have taken advantage of the opportunity provided by the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1918 to seize what it could not take in 1904.  Even this, however, might have produced a different configuration of power in Northeast Asia than eventually held.

Decisive Naval Battle

Fought in late May, 1905, the Battle of Tsushima remains the great battle of annihilation of the steam age, and possibly the single greatest naval victory of all time.  Admiral Heihachiro Togo’s decision to offer battle at Tsushima remains an unremarked-upon curiosity.  The Russian fleet was, in numbers, considerably superior to the Japanese, and in the technology of its most advanced ships qualitatively equal.  The first rate Russian battleships were of modern design, and the Russian 12” gun well regarded, even at long ranges.

To be sure, Togo had major advantages.  His ships were well drilled, and his sailors in top condition.  The Russian squadron had endured a series of traumatic adventures in its interminable journey around Eurasia, and wasn’t in fighting shape.  Nevertheless, offering battle represented a real risk. A single well-placed shot could have destroyed one of Togo’s battleships, probably tipping the result inexorably in the Russian favor.

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