Russia learned nothing from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. But Ukraine can
On television and online, commentators angrily reach for comparisons to past conflicts for insight into the Ukrainian-Russian war. How will it ever end?
At the same time, military analysts are watching closely how deadly new technologies are leading to appalling slaughter like in Donbass and Irpin. What can we learn about how to fight future wars?
Surprising answers emerge from comparisons to an often-overlooked conflict more than a century ago, between a small nation just making its way onto the world stage and a vast but faltering Western power that just so happened to be Russia.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was a big deal then and is widely regarded as the first modern war. The world watched with rapt attention. In the history of this conflict we find clues to what is happening and what may happen in Vladimir Putin’s failed and bloody invasion of Ukraine.
Bolt-action rifles, machine guns and rapid-fire guns were as new in 1904 as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish drones are today. They all played a role, as did swiftly maneuvering steel warships. The Japanese Navy’s destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet, which had sailed halfway around the world, shook the world in 1905, as did the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva by Ukrainian missiles that month.
But that shouldn’t have been. And the struggles of the Russian military today would not surprise anyone studying the Russo-Japanese War. Streams of similarities run through these two conflicts.
Of course there were differences, the biggest being that Japan, angered by diplomatic betrayal and Russian expansion in Asia, went to war. It began with a surprise night torpedo boat attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur (today’s Lüshunkou District in China).
Japan’s navy was modern, its traditions based on the British Royal Navy; Japanese sailors even ate curry on Fridays like their English counterparts. (They still do.) His warships were state-of-the-art and built in England. Thus, a major Western power provided modern technology to the smaller of the warring nations, as in the current conflict.
The Japanese soldiers and sailors, swept up in their nation’s extraordinary transition to modernity, were motivated to fight. They were also well trained and fed. And they saw Russia as a greedy, overbearing tyrant.
Russian soldiers, meanwhile, quickly found themselves in the barren, wintry hellscape of Port Arthur, thousands of miles from Russia’s major urban centers – and with no real rationale in their heads as to why they were fighting. The already extraordinarily long supply lines could easily be severed. The Russian soldiers lacked equipment, training and basic supplies.
The world was sure that Russia would win. It had a vaunted military in the great European tradition. How could little upstart Japan possibly emerge victorious?
Like the conflict in Ukraine, which was livestreamed to and from smartphones, the Russo-Japanese War was witnessed around the world in near real time. Telegraph wires and steam-powered newspaper presses sent new editions onto the streets every hour to feed a hungry public.
Finally, after seven months, the Russian fleet arrived in the Far East. Alerted by telegraph from the island of Tsushima, Japanese admiral Heihachirō Tōgō set sail with his fresh, eager fleet to meet the exhausted Russians. Within a few hours, practically all Russian battleships were on the seabed.
The two countries soon had a negotiated peace. Japan had become a world power.
In Japan, people are still proud of the victory in Tsushima. The Mikasa is now a museum in Yokosuka near Tokyo. You can visit Tōgō’s hut and admire his bathtub. Perhaps one day we can admire Zelenskyi’s bathtub in Kyiv.