It is September 1905, the end of the Russo-Japanese War: the world is shaken as Japan, a country considered underdeveloped and prime for colonization even less than half a century ago, spectacularly defeats Russia, the largest empire in the world. This war will forever mark the minds of the Japanese and Russian people. For the Asian nation, it would be the beginning of an equilibrium of power with the Western world, establishing Japan as a major geopolitical player. For Russians, this defeat would signify the weakness of Tsar Nicholas II’s regime and the slow downfall of the Russian Empire.
Before the Russo-Japanese War: Rise of the Japanese Empire and Russian Interests in the Far East
At the beginning of the 19th century, Japan was still a feudal country ruled by the Shogun, or warlords, who held power in the name of the Emperor. However, this quickly started to change when the United States demanded, with the threat of military invasion, that the Empire of the Rising Sun open its borders to trade in 1853. This shock eventually led to the abolition of shogun rule in 1868 and the concentration of all power in the hands of the Emperor. It was the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.
The young Japanese Emperor Meiji, alongside his ministers, launched a fast modernization of the country, aiming to preserve its independence from foreign colonial powers. By the 1880s, Japan had a brand new military with the era’s most high-tech equipment and a blossoming economic industry. Japan then tried to expand its influence abroad, inserting Korea within its zone of influence in 1895 after swiftly defeating China in a short conflict.
This development did not please Russia, which had its own ambitions in the Korean peninsula. For centuries, tsars tried to expand their domain towards “warm waters” and open trade sea routes. In 1858, Russia acquired the region of “Zolotoy Rog” from China on the Pacific, establishing the port of Vladivostok. However, that sea-coast was usable only during the warm months of the year.
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In the aftermath of the Japanese-Chinese war of 1894-1895, Japan acquired Port Arthur (today’s Lushunku province in China), which Russia strongly contested. With the support of France and Germany in what was called the Triple Intervention, Nicholas II managed to gain control of the enclaved territory, which was made effective in 1898. Additionally, Russian armies occupied Manchuria in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion in China, adding tension to the already fragile relations with Japan.
The Beginning of the Russo-Japanese War: Battle of Port Arthur and Japanese Invasion of Korea
In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, and to the dismay of Japan, Russia deployed a strong military presence in Manchuria, making its intentions in the region clear. In 1902, the Japanese Empire signed a defensive alliance with Great Britain while negotiating a demilitarization of Manchuria with Russia. Additionally, France publicly disapproved of Russia’s expansionist ambitions in the Far East, urging the tsar to avoid further escalation.
Despite finding himself isolated in his Asian endeavor, Nicholas II pressed on. Korea and Manchuria represented key strategic objectives for Russia, for which losing Port Arthur was not an option. In 1901, the Russians completed the construction of the longest railway in the world – the trans-Siberian – aiming to connect Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. This huge project was followed by the construction of smaller railways connecting Manchuria to the rest of Russia. All of this exacerbated Emperor Maiji further, and on 4th February 1904, Japan broke all diplomatic ties with Saint Petersburg. Four days later, Tokyo formally declared war and immediately attacked Port Arthur, thus signifying the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War.
In the night following the war declaration, the Japanese navy, led by Admiral Togo Heihachiro, launched multiple assaults on the Russian fleet positioned in Southern Manchuria. Despite heavy casualties, the fleet managed to repeal Admiral Togo’s force with the help of ground batteries. The latter changed his strategy, settling for a blockade of the city.
Being unable to break through the Japanese ring, the Russian navy couldn’t stop the unopposed Japanese invasion of Korea in April 1904. By the end of the month, Japan’s troops under General Kuroki Tamemoto were crossing into Manchuria, defeating the Russian Eastern Detachment in the Battle of the Yalu River on May 1st.
The Fall of Port Arthur
After disastrous defeats in Manchuria, Russian reinforcement rushed into the region in order to stop the Japanese advance and avoid a complete encirclement of Port Arthur by sea and land. Additionally, under the command of Admiral Zinoviy Rozhestvinsky, the Russian Baltic Fleet set off on 15 October 1905 from Saint Petersburg in a seven-month journey to reach the theater of war in the far East. On its way, the fleet almost started a war with Great Britain by firing on British fishing boats on October 21st, having mistaken them for enemy ships.
As the Baltic fleet made its way towards the Pacific, the Japanese Empire tightened the noose on Manchuria and Port Arthur. The Russian Navy attempted several sorties to break the blockade, the most famous being the battle of the Yellow Sea in August 1904, which ended in a Japanese victory and forced the Russians to confine themselves inside the Port, facing constant shelling. On the ground, a Japanese army led by Marshall Oyama Iwao managed to land in the Liaodong Peninsula, West of Port Arthur.
After defeating the Russians at the Battle of Liaoyang in early September, the Imperial Japanese Army besieged Port Arthur from the ground. Facing constant bombardment from sea and land and suffering considerable losses, the last general in the city – Anatoly Stessel – surrendered on 2 January 1905. Port Arthur and Southern Manchuria were now in the hands of the Japanese Empire.
The Russo-Japanese War In Manchuria
With Port Arthur in its hands, the Japanese Empire could concentrate its war effort on conquering Manchuria. Due to the harshness of the winter of 1905, the two sides avoided direct engagement. However, in Russian-held territory, massive repression of the Manchu and Chinese populations pushed the latter into Japanese arms. Locals provided the invaders with key intelligence on Russian troops’ movements and positions.
Russian repression was fueled by the fear of the “Yellow Peril,” a type of racism that extended to all East Asian communities, claiming that the latter had a strong hatred of the West and aimed to annihilate it. This xenophobia pushed Russian soldiers to commit countless atrocities against local populations. Cossack cavalry divisions often looted and burned Manchu villages which killed many civilians.
After an indecisive engagement at the Battle of Sandepu, the Japanese Army attacked Russian troops in Mukden in late February 1905. Marshall Iwao’s troops met the army of General Aleksey Kuropatkin head-on. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, with the total death toll reaching 25,000 men. The Russians suffered a total of 88,000 casualties and were forced to retreat in Nothern Manchuria, hoping to receive reinforcements arriving by the trans-Siberian railway. This defeat had a heavy impact on morale among troops, as well as on popular support for the war. Japanese casualties amounted to more than 77,000, and thus, the Japanese Empire’s army was unable to pursue its conquest.
In July 1905, Japan launched a successful invasion of Sakhalin island, which would end in a victory, marking the end of land combat operations of the war. In May, the last and most decisive battle would be fought on the sea as the Baltic Fleet approached the theater of war. The infamous battle of Tsushima was about to begin.
Tsushima: A Decisive Battle By Sea
Despite the halt of the Japanese progress in Manchuria, it was clear that Russia stood no chance in winning the Russo-Japanese War without a victory at sea. So far, Japan established solid outposts on the ground and dominated the seas, which provided a continuous supply line for its ground army. The rising opposition against the continuation of the conflict in Russia put additional pressure on the government. A victory was necessary, and every official was watching anxiously the progress of the Baltic Fleet towards the battlefields.
After the fall of Port Arthur, the objective of the fleet was to reach Vladivostok through the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan. Zinovy Rozhestvensky knew the dangers of crossing through this road, as the risk of an attack by the Japanese fleet was high. On the other hand, Togo Heihachiro, victor at Port Arthur, was preparing to counter this new Russian offensive, hiding his ships along the Chinese and Korean coast.
On 27 May 1905, the Japanese fleet, with more than 60 vessels, attacked the 29 vessels of the Russian Navy. The battle started after the Russian fleet was spotted by a reconnaissance vessel, which swiftly informed Admiral Togo of the enemy’s position.
Taking their foes by surprise, the Japanese navy inflicted catastrophic casualties on the Russians. Admiral Rozhesvensky was severely hurt at the head, and command passed to Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov. After sustaining great losses, the latter surrendered on 29 May 1905. The battle of Tsushima was over, and the Baltic fleet was completely destroyed, with 21 ships sunk and seven captured.
The Russian Revolution of 1905
The continuous defeats of the Russian army exacerbated its economic problems. The lower classes suffered greatly from the consequences of the war, bearing its impacts on labor and trade. On Sunday, 22 January 1905, a demonstration led by Priest Georgy Gapon was brutally suppressed by Russian troops, causing 200 to 1,000 deaths among the demonstrators. The event is known today as Bloody Sunday.
This brutal repression led to major public indignation: strikes broke out throughout the country, with protests in every major city. The continuous defeats on the Japanese front led to countless mutinies in the land army and the navy, the most famous being the mutiny of the battleship Potemkin on the Black Sea.
Additionally, socialists and democrats joined the revolutionaries, demanding the end of the Russo-Japanese War, the institution of a national Duma (Parliament), and a constitution. Some radicals went as far as requesting the abolition of the monarchy. Ethnic minorities rebelled too, demanding the end of forced Russification policies undertaken during the reign of Alexander II (1855-1881) and for cultural rights.
In March 1905, Nicholas II promised the establishment of a Duma. However, the latter would have only consultative powers. This further angered the revolutionaries, and unrest grew. In October, the tsar was forced to submit to the popular demands by accepting the October Manifesto. By doing so, he gave greater powers to the Duma, authorized political parties, and granted electoral rights. The revolutionary fervor was appeased for now, but the fragility of the Russian regime was made evident.
The End of the Russo-Japanese War: The Peace of Portsmouth
Both sides were well aware that the war would have devastating long-term effects. For Russia, the continuous defeats at land and sea, the social unrest, the economic weakness, and the feeble morale and support were the main reasons for peace-seeking. For Japan, a long war would keep them away from focusing on other more strategic preoccupations, such as establishing a permanent occupation force in Korea and the expansion in the Pacific. As early as July 1904, the Japanese Empire started seeking intermediaries to debut peace talks.
President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States took it upon himself to help the belligerents reach a peace agreement. The US diplomats managed to make contact with Japan in March 1905, followed by Russia in June. Peace talks were to start in August 1905, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with head negotiators Komura Jaturo, Japanese Foreign Minister, and Sergei Witte, former Russian Finance Minister.
Russia agreed to meet all Japanese demands regarding the recognition of influence on Korea, the transfer of Port Arthur to Japan, and the evacuation of Manchuria. However, the tsar’s delegates refused any further territorial concessions nor the payment of war reparations. With the support of Theodore Roosevelt, the Japanese Empire abandoned its demand for reparations in exchange for the southern part of Sakhalin Island. The peace was signed on 5 September 1905 and ratified by the two governments in October.
The Russo-Japanese War had numerous long-term effects. For Japan, it began its expansion into continental Asia and affirmed its new status as a global power. However, it was also Japan’s first minor disagreement on geopolitical issues with the US, which would view Japan as a potential rival for its dominance over the Pacific Ocean. For Russia, the defeat would symbolize the weakness of the tsarist Russian regime. The 1905 Revolution is nowadays considered as a prelude to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution which brought down the monarchy and contributed to the rise of the Soviet Union.