Russo Japanese War (1904-1905)



  • Nicholas II’s determination that Russia should not be left out of the European ‘scramble for colonies’ across the world, drove an expansionist policy in the Far East.  Russia’s long-term economic interests in the East were shown by the building of the Trans-Siberian railway (1891) and the railway across Manchuria (1897), which brought valuable political and economic access to the region.  
  • Growth of Russian presence in Korea - i.e. 25 year lease of ice-free Port Arthur, 1898 - caused friction with Japan.  Japan was a growing power in the region, who also wished to benefit and expand into the collapsing empire of China and whose nationalist pride resented Russian territorial gains in Manchuria. 
  • Tension between Russia and Japan increased as Russia did not remove ‘temporary troops’ from Manchuria in 1903.  Russian apathy led to a failure to come to a peaceful agreement about ‘spheres of influence’ in the region, and Japan launched a surprise naval attack on Port Arthur in February 1904.  War as dispute over trade and territory in Korea. 
  • Nicholas II had been encouraged into launching a war following this Japanese attack, both by the Kaiser of Germany, who was pleased to see Russia distracted by events in the East, and by domestic political considerations.  Disastrous economic situation in Russia in 1904 - bad harvests causing starvation for peasants and high food prices, economic depression causing high unemployment for industrial workers - led to strikes and peasant riots which Minister of the Interior Phleve thought would be best countered by a “short victorious war” against the Japanese.  War therefore used as an attempted distraction from domestic problems: Phleve, “to stem the tide of revolution, we need a successful little war.” 
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Course of the War

  • On land: superior Japanese troops circled and cut off Port Arthur by May 1904, placing the Russians under siege until they surrendered and lost the port in January 1905.   Russian attempt to win back the port failed with the crushing defeat at the Battle of Mukden (which involved c. 600, 000 troops).  Humiliating and crushing military defeat for Russia. 
  • At sea: naval campaign the decisive factor in determining the war’s outcome, as Japan’s success depended on its being able to reinforce its troops on the mainland.  Russia’s key fleet did not arrive until May 1905, and then it suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Tsushima.  Out of 35 Russian ships, 20 were sunk and 5 were captured, while the Japanese only suffered minimal losses. 
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  • Tsar Nicholas II forced to accept the humiliating Treaty of Portsmouth to end the war.  Given Russian belief in their won racial superiority, this was hugely embarrassing for the Russian state, especially in the eyes of the European Great Powers.  Even if the terms of the treaty were lenient (Witte’s tough negotiations meant Russia would pay no war reparations and keep hold of Manchuria), the bare fact of military defeat was a disaster for the Tsar and his government. 
  • War can be seen as a huge mistake for Nicholas, as it became the catalyst for revolution in 1905. Lack of military preparations and eventual crushing defeats led to vast increase in discontent and calls for reform, as greater parts of the Russian public saw the government as incompetent.  Furthermore, the war worsened the economic plight of the peasants and workers in causing food and fuel shortages, high prices and unemployment.  This made promising conditions for the spread of opposition ideas - as socialist leader Plekhanov wrote the war “promises to shatter to its foundations the regime of Nicholas II”. This situation, and the increase of opposition towards the Tsar, contributed directly to Bloody Sunday, 22 January 1905.
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