The Russo-Japanese War

russo-japanese war
An artistic depiction of the Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese War was a brief conflict but created significant problems for the tsarist regime. It was triggered by Nicholas II and his wish to expand the Russian empire in Asia. The tsar entered the war overconfidence and haughty. He considered Japan an easy foe, a feudal nation of barefooted samurai and daimyo still emerging from medieval feudalism. But this proved a gross underestimation of the Japanese and their industrial and military development, which had outstripped Russia’s own. Within 18 months, Russian forces had been besieged and defeated, her ageing navy humiliated and the prestige of the tsar and his empire humiliated on the world stage. Even more telling was the economic impact the war had on the Russian economy, which fanned the flames of revolution in 1905.

Nicholas II, who equated imperial expansion with successful leadership, had a strong interest in acquiring new territory and expanding the Russian empire. Of particular interest to the tsar was consolidating and increasing Russia’s influence in Asia. Russia had controlled Manchuria, a large area of north-west China, since 1860. In 1898 St Petersburg also gained control of Port Arthur, a coastal town in north-east China. Port Arthur became strategically important to the Russian navy because it provided a safe warm-water harbour for its Pacific fleet (Russian port cities like Vladivostok, further north, were prone to ice floes). The Russians began constructing a branch from the Trans-Siberian railway through Manchuria to Port Arthur. This improvement in infrastructure allowed the Russians to increase their military and economic presence in Port Arthur specifically and northern China generally.

This growing Russian presence posed problems for Japan, which also had strong imperial ambitions in Korea and northern China. The Japanese had controlled the Korean peninsula since the mid-1890s – but as Russian traders moved into Manchuria in numbers they began to encroach on Japanese interests in and around Korea. The Japanese government, supported by its British allies, attempted to short-circuit a territorial dispute and possible war by initiating negotiations with St Petersburg. In essence, Japan promised to recognise Russian autonomy in Manchuria, provided the Russians recognised Japanese control of Korea. But Russian diplomats, confident that Japan would not go to war, attempted to stall the negotiations, before insisting that Japan minimise its military presence in Korea. The negotiations eventually collapsed and in early 1904 the two countries severed diplomatic ties. Bolstered by support from the British, Japan declared war on Russia in February 8th 1904 – three hours after Japanese forces began an assault on Port Arthur.

“At the outset, the government presented the war as a religious struggle, with Serafim as its patron saint. Officers setting out for the front made pilgrimages to Sarov, and parents of soldiers travelled to Sarov to beg the protection of Serafim. Priests blessed the troops with his icon. The grand duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna carried the relics of Serafim with her when she attended to the war casualties in Moscow’s military hospitals.”
Boris Pasternak

Despite the surprise attack, the tsar and most of his advisors felt confident of victory. Japan had only opened its borders to imperial powers in the mid-1800s; while it had made considerable advances in industrialisation and Western military techniques, few believed it could defeat a major European power like Russia. Propaganda of the day ridiculed the Japanese military for its lack of size and lack of firepower, criticism that was partly justified. But Japan also had several advantages. Its small navy was equipped with several British-supplied warships of recent construction, in comparison to Russia’s larger but more antiquated fleet. Japanese culture was militaristic; its generals and admirals were trained in both ancient and modern Western strategy and tactics; they were promoted on merit and achievement rather than social status. Unlike the Russians, the Japanese respected the enemy and were acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses.

By August 1904 the Japanese had encircled and laid siege to Port Arthur. More than 100,000 Japanese soldiers surrounded the port city, digging kilometres of trenches and attacking the city’s fortifications with gunfire, artillery, mortars, mines and tunnels. Japanese warships patrolled offshore, blocking Russian ships from leaving the harbour and preventing any chance of Port Arthur being relieved or resupplied by ship. The siege lasted for five months before Port Arthur eventually fell to the Japanese, a week before the ‘Bloody Sunday’ shootings in St Petersburg. Around 6,000 Russian personnel had been killed and around four times this number were wounded; the Japanese took approximately 20,000 Russians as prisoners-of-war. The loss of Port Arthur, Russia’s only military stronghold in the region, was both strategically decisive and politically humiliating.

russo-japanese war
A US cartoon depicting post-war changes in how Russia and Japan were viewed.

In September 1904, several weeks into the siege, St Petersburg decided to deploy its Baltic Fleet to Asia, to engage the Japanese and relieve Port Arthur. A total of 28 Russian ships left Europe in October, a voyage that took eight months and was plagued by comic errors. Days after leaving the Baltic, Russian ships fired on British fishing boats in the North Sea, thinking they were Japanese warships in disguise. Three British fishermen were killed; the incident almost drew London into the war. The Russians also shelled one of their own ships by accident, while conducting firing drills off the coast of Africa. Meanwhile, the world press published accounts of the Russian Baltic fleet’s progress down the African coast and across the Indian Ocean. The Japanese Imperial Navy was well aware of the fleet’s progress, the number of ships and their likely course; they had months to plan their response. When the Russian ships arrived in the Straits of Tsushima in May 1905 they were ambushed by a smaller but faster Japanese fleet. Almost the entire Russian fleet was either sunk or captured. This disastrous defeat occurred in front of an audience of foreign dignitaries, admirals and generals who came to observe the much-anticipated battle between ‘old Europe’ and ‘new Asia’.

The embarrassments of Port Arthur and Tsushima, along with the growing domestic unrest of 1905, forced the tsar’s government to seek peace terms from the Japanese. The Russian peace negotiators were led by the former finance minister Sergei Witte, who managed to secure reasonable terms, given Russia’s weak position. The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed in September 1905, saw Russia cede control of Port Arthur to the Japanese and acknowledge Japan’s authority over Korea. The war not only eroded the credibility of the tsar, it also sharpened the impact of an economic recession gripping Russia. The tsar’s government increased military spending by 50 per cent, at a time when production levels and government revenues were both falling. Military-related industries also increased pressure on their workers, which heightened discontents that had been festering for some years.

russia japan war 1905

1. In 1904 Russia and Japan went to war over territory and colonial rights in Asia, particularly Manchuria and Korea.

2. Japan sought a negotiated settlement, while Russia underestimated Japan’s capacity and willingness for war.

3. Japan initiated the war with a surprise attack on Port Arthur, which war later captured after a five-month siege.

4. In May 1905 almost the entire Russian Baltic Fleet was captured or destroyed at the Battle of Tsushima.

5. Russia was forced to negotiate peace terms, which resulted in the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905. The war worsened Russia’s already recessed economy and its disastrous management further discredit the tsar and his advisors.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Russo-Japanese War” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].