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The Russo-Japanese War (hist essay)

Posted on May 18, 2013 at 8:50 AM

The political and military strategies of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) demonstrate an adherence to Carl von Clausewitz’s principles of war, particularly his arguments regarding the influence of policy. Clausewitz writes that war is merely the “continuation of policy by other means”, a political instrument, wielded by the state, to fulfil its objectives. Those objectives may include the acquisition of land or resources, the expansion of its economic or political sphere, or the protection of its citizens, at home and abroad. Clausewitz disagrees with fellow theorist Sun Tzu, arguing that war is closer to competitive business than art. It is a conflict of human interests “settled by bloodshed”, rather than diplomacy or commerce. And yet, war is more than just a tool of the state. “It develops within the womb of state policy,” and its influence extends to every aspect of a society, especially the notions of national identity and patriotism (which ironically serve as motivators for citizens to join the service).1


The war between Russia and Japan developed over rival ambitions regarding China, with each nation determined to further its influence over the Far East. Russia was expanding eastward across Asia, and desired a warm water port for its Pacific navy. Japan had recently seized Port Arthur from the crumbling Chinese Empire, and after pressure from several European powers, was forced to lease it to the Russians. The Russians promptly fortified the port, and began building their Trans-Siberian railway to its location. Japan was not happy with how it was being treated by the Europeans. It had fought a war with China to acquire that port, only for Europeans to swoop in and snatch it way. More importantly, however, the Meiji government had just concluded a three decade restoration, assimilating Western customs, technology and ideas, and emerging from the 1890s as a modernised state. The Japanese wanted to be recognised as equal in industry and culture to Western states. It had imperial ambitions in China and Korea, and Russia was threatening to supplant those ambitions by extending its realm into the Pacific. However, though they had Port Arthur and a considerable naval presence, Japan knew that their empire would not be consolidated until the railway was complete. If they were going to make a move against Russia, it would have to be before then.


So, we see the political motivations of two sovereign states—imperial expansion and political influence—coming into conflict with one another. The fact that one of these powers is European and the other Asian is also important, as modern Japan feels as though it has something to prove, while Russia comports itself with an air of superiority. And indeed, Russia’s military strength is far greater than Japan’s. At this time, it is perhaps the largest in the world, and yet most of it is stationed in Western Russia. Japan is placed in an intriguing position. Given Russia’s strength, and their own losses during the war with China, its first means of policy will be negotiation. However, there is a ticking clock tied to this course, because once the Trans-Siberian railway is complete, Russia will be able to transport its soldiers to Port Arthur and the East with speed and volume. Russia is also aware of this possibility, though continues to disregard Japan as a genuine threat to its interests. For Japan, foreseeable military action would not just be a fight over imperial territories. It would be a pre-emptive strike on what they saw as a threat to their sovereignty.4 Russia’s empire was enormous, stretching from central Europe, all the way to Mongolia and the Pacific Ocean. With every local state it absorbed it became stronger (perhaps hungrier), and with every fresh mile of railway track, it became more secure. Soon it would have ports along the Pacific Ocean and territories in China, imposing itself on Japan’s sphere of influence and trade. In an act of diplomacy, Japan offered to support Russia’s annexation of Manchuria, so long as it could maintain Korea is a buffer between the two empires. Unfortunately, Russia rejected these terms, confident the Asian nation would never dare attack them. In a seemingly unrelated matter, large quantities of Russian soldiers had begun to enter Manchuria, to quell the Boxer Rebellion, and protect the construction of their railway. However, even after the fighting had ended, 177,000 Russian troops remained stationed in Manchuria. They were an unspoken message to the Japanese as negotiations continued, and a ready military presence should war break out. It was a clever manoeuvre by the Russian high command, enacting one policy (that is, the preservation of peace in Manchuria), to enforce another (their imperial operations at Port Arthur).


However, there was one Russian politician eager for a war with Japan—Tsar Nicholas II—who sought to use the conflict as means of reviving his peoples’ patriotism, and quell any rebellions that might be fermenting amongst them. This demonstrates the instrument of war being wielded in two political landscapes – domestic and foreign. The Tsar’s advisors foresaw the difficulties of mobilising troops without a completed railway, and endeavoured to draw out negotiates with the Japanese, until it was completed. The Meiji government realised this façade and, besides regarding these delays as an insult to Japan’s sovereignty, also realised that if the railway was complete, the Russian’s would have far greater leverage in future negotiations. They decided that war was the only option, and recognized that their window of victory would have to emerge before the Trans-Siberian railway was completed, or otherwise, the Russian’s would overwhelm them. That is, they believed they could triumph in a short war, but not a long one. On 8 February 1904 the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Russia’s Port Arthur fleet, besieging the garrison on sea and land. The assault was intended to be a surprise, as Japan did not issue a formal declaration of war until three hours after the first torpedo was fired. This shocked Tsar Nicholas, who had been advised that Japan would avoid war, and had not even begun to mobilise his soldiers in Manchuria. However, the Meiji government defended its position, citing Russia’s undeclared attack on Sweden in 1809. The lack of Russian preparation, perhaps stemming from a European feeling of superiority, gave Japan a strong advantage in the early stages of the war. They managed to sink several battleships of the Russian Far East Fleet, forcing them into a defensive position behind the shore batteries. Japanese troops also began landing in Manchuria, and gained significant ground before meeting Russian resistance. The strategy of the Russian’s at this point was to delay fighting until reinforcements could arrive. The Russian navy held their position at Port Arthur, while their Manchurian soldiers did not engage the Japanese until the Battle of Yalu River, which formed the first major land battle of the war. It was a brutal skirmish, and dispelled the Russian perception that their Asian adversary would submit easily.


The battles between Japan and Russia in 1904 and 1905 demonstrate several of Clausewitz’s tactics of combat and general principles of war. This includes the notion that concentric attack is more effective that parallel attack, and that it is best to cut off the enemies lines of supply and retreat. This latter tactic is expressed through Japan’s decision to attack before the Trans-Siberian railway was complete, making it difficult and time consuming for supplies and reinforcements to delivered from Western Russia, as well as for Manchurian troops to retreat on land. Japan also set up naval blockades in the Yellow Sea, forcing Baltic support fleets to take a longer route, or risk being attacked. The former tactic can be observed through the various land battles, in which both forces entrenched themselves, and backed by heavy artillery, engaged the enemy with heavy infantry. These concentrated assaults lead to high casualties, compounded by the efficiency of modern weapons, such as the machine gun. The use of trenches, and direct infantry assaults against automatic weaponry, can be viewed as a dark precursor to the bloody warfare of the Western Front, a decade later. Clausewitz’ political strategies of war can be boiled down to three objectives: conquer and destroy the enemy; take possession of his resources, material and sources of strength; and gain public opinion. The capture of Port Arthur and the disruption of the Trans-Siberian Railway robbed Russia of territorial advantage and strategic manoeuvrability, forcing them to continually delay, fall back and entrench themselves, as they waited for reinforcements. This also functioned to decrease the morale of Russian soldiers, and bolster the Japanese who were gaining momentum with each bloody victory. The apparent “underdog” status of the Japanese also gained them international public support. American’s largely sided with Japan, believing that they were fighting a “just war” by defending themselves against Russian aggression.10 Britain, seeking to restrict Russia’ naval ambitions, aided the Japanese through intelligence gathering. Britain’s Indian Army often intercepted Russian telegraph cables regarding the war, and were happy to pass that information along to the Japanese. In return, Japan shared its own intelligence data, in particular, evidence that Germany was aiding Russia’s eastward expansion. The Japanese revealed to Britain that Germany had a desire to “disturb the balance of power in Europe”, once again, foreshadowing the bloody clash that would occur a decade later. Through this sympathy, Japan was able to secure financing for the war from the United States and the United Kingdom. One source in particular ($200 million), came from a Jewish-American banker, who was sympathetic to Japan’s cause, and intensely critical of Russia’s anti-sematic policies. This combination of concentrated assaults, the seizure of resources and material, the prevention of enemy supplies and reinforcements, and the mounting support of the international community, all contributed to a decisive Japanese victory.


Their defeat at the hands of the Japanese shook the Russian confidence, and rather than unify people, as Tsar Nicholas had hoped, the war provoked anger and rebellion. While he was capable of sending more troops, the disapproval of the war was so strong, and the importance of the disputed land so low, that the Tsar decided to negotiate for peace so that he could concentrate on Russia’s domestic problems. This demonstrates the priority of political interests switching from eternal to internal, with war no longer serving as the correct instrument for the desired objective. Peace was reached between the two nations on 5 September 1905, with the Treaty of Portsmouth. Japan’s international prestige rose greatly after this decision, having been the first Asian power to defeat a European power, and now being regarded as a modern nation. Conversely, Russia lost territory, alliances, and the respect of other European powers, especially Germany and Austria-Hungary (which may have influenced their decisions a decade later to attack France and Serbia respectively). While Tsar Nicholas was able to quell the 1905 revolutions, eventually public discontent grew so great that he was overthrown in 1917. The Russo-Japanese War can be viewed as a significant factor in the cause of the Russian Revolution. Japan’s decision to attack Port Arthur prior to an official declaration directly influenced international law, as “the requirement to declare war before commencing hostilities” was outlined at the third Hague Convention, in 1907, and put into effect in 1910.


The Russo-Japanese War cannot be defined as a wholly “just war”, though both combatants fulfil particular criteria of a just war. Obviously it was waged by a legitimate authority, with Russia and Japan recognised as sovereign states, and war carried out by their respective governments. That said, the fact that Japan attacked prior to a formal assertion, does make the first three hours of bloodshed an undeclared (perhaps illegitimate in the eyes of international law) act of violence by the Meiji government. Moreover, the Russian’s were justified in defending themselves from a direct surprise attack on their port and navy. Though it can be disputed whether they had the right to be there in the first place, given that Port Arthur was seized from the Japanese, and Japan was becoming increasingly unnerved by the Russian’s activities and ambitions in their “neighbourhood”. However, neither nation has any real right to be there in the first place. Both were encroaching on the sovereign statehood of China and Korea, so any cries of self-defence seem a little false. Still, Russia’s imperial ambitions could not be ignored. They had moved swiftly and decisively across Asia, consolidating local states as they approached the Pacific. Japan had reason to feel threaten by this encroachment, fearing that they too would be absorbed by a mighty European power, or at least their sphere of influence would be significantly neutered. They also felt pressured to act quickly, before the Trans-Siberian railway was complete, and Russia’s dominion consolidated. Japan also believed their campaign would have “a reasonable chance of success”; that is, a short term war with Russia was “winnable” and not waged in vain, or out of anger.14 It is difficult to determine how well Japan regarded Manchuria’s civilian population, but the Russian’s treated them very poorly, with instances of mass executions and forced labour recorded. The Manchurian’s had small love for the Japanese, but they hated the Russian’s far more, and aided the Japanese troops where they good (particularly with guerrilla raids).


The Russo-Japanese War was the first great war of the twentieth century, and is significant for being the first instance in modern military history in which a European power was defeated by a non-European power. Political and military policy during and after the war, foreshadowed the bloody strategies of attrition and trench warfare of World War I, as well as  cultivating the ambition of the Japanese Empire, which reared itself again during World War II.


Categories: ESSAYS, History

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