“Russo-Japanese War Strategies”


Naval War College

JPME Assignment

Strategy & Policy, Module 3

July 20, 2003

“To what extent did strategic preparation for the Russo-Japanese War determine the success of the belligerents in its outcome?

Which side did the better job of planning for the termination of the war?”


Strategic preparation for the Russo-Japanese War directly impacted the respective outcomes of both belligerents. Japan, aggressor and victor, commenced planning for the 1904-1905 conflict at least as early as the conclusion of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, and succeeded in coalescing not only military and diplomatic efforts, but in laying the groundwork for the war’s termination even before the first shots were fired. Tokyo conducted comprehensive planning for the limited war, and with the exception of several decisions which may in hindsight be second-guessed, thoroughly outclassed Russia in nearly all facets of war preparation, execution, and closure.

Historical Context

After having been an isolated island outpost for centuries, Japan at the turn of twentieth was determined to forsake its feudal past, retain its Bushido ideals and emperor affinity, adopt progressive Western ways and means, and sustain its rapid ascent of the world powers ladder. Combat success versus an imperial giant like Russia would enable Tokyo to simultaneously resolve “the Korea question”, re-secure a foothold on the Asian mainland, and attain prestige in the eyes of Western powers. In as much as the indemnity Japan received from China after the Sino-Japanese War funded Japanese military expansion and was approved by the Tripartite Alliance, it might be argued that the Alliance actually stimulated Japan’s military development near the turn of the twentieth century.

Japan’s was a long term, strategic-in-scope plan which imbued the archipelago with a sense of destiny, dignity, and most importantly–desire, a passion that trickled down to the most minute military planning. Russia, on the other hand, preoccupied by its European theater of operations, recalcitrant with respect to its Manchurian interests, and dilatory in responding to Japanese diplomatic initiatives, was caught off guard not only by Tokyo’s surprise attack on Port Arthur, but by Japan’s fervor in prosecuting the ensuing nineteen-month war. Surprisingly, however, shocked as Saint Petersburg was by Japan’s pre-emptive strike, Russia was almost inexplicably nonchalant in its conduct of the naval war, if not the ground campaign as well. Certainly, Russia could have better prepared for the protracted conflict, whereas Japan’s detailed, decade-long homework in readying for it enabled her to secure the former Hermit Kingdom of Korea and advance Japanese imperial aspirations in Southeast Asia.

A Quick Study

Eager to make up for lost time after centuries in isolation, Japan was a quick study with respect to observing Western powers, emulating their military and foreign policy feats, and tailoring doctrine, tactics, and technology to Land of the Rising Sun requirements. Just as opportunistic European powers had capitalized on a crumbling Chinese state–especially following the Boxer Rebellion of 1900–by helping themselves to Peking’s riches through limited foreign wars , Japan would exploit the power vacuum induced by a collapsing China in much the same fashion as her European mentors had. In fact, Japan would modernize, mobilize, and maneuver forces to wage limited war not only subsequent to the Sino-Japanese War, but for the next half-century, until stymied only by Allied forces and atomic bombs in World War Two. In just decades prior to the Russo-Japanese War, Tokyo had fortified its fleet, gained (then lost) a toehold in Korea through the Sino-Japanese War, garnered access to new capital through foreign loans, and developed industrial interests on the Asian mainland. Tokyo was on the fast track, and Russian intervention in Manchuria was perceived as the principal threat to Japan’s vital interests.

Rebuffed by Her Own Mentors: Seeds of Resent Sew Resolution

Japan’s express success prompted concern in Western Europe, from where–only three weeks after the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed–a tripartite team of Russian, German, and French interventionists enjoined Japan to relinquish her claim to the Liaotung peninsula, in the ostensible interests of friendship, stable relations, and a “peaceful China” . Japan–stung by the appeal–acquiesced, then fumed, vowing never again to succumb to international pressure or retrocede hard won territories. She then proceeded to accelerate her military modernization program and simultaneously set about seeking a solid western partnership of her own. By 1902, when London and Tokyo signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Japan had achieved its 1895 goals of amassing a navy strong enough to contest Russia’s bid for East Asian hegemony, and of allying itself with a Western power to bolster her status, credibility, coal reserves , and fortitude in the face of crisis. The pact ensured Japan would not be diplomatically isolated as she had been during the Sino-Japanese War.

The Road to Conflict: Russian Rashness

Meanwhile, Russia–led by Tsar Nicholas II whose leadership capacities were not quite commensurate with the enormous foreign affairs challenges his nation faced–took full advantage of a vulnerable China, extracting Trans-Siberian Railway rights in Manchuria, moving two hundred thousand troops into the region to “safeguard the railroad”, then demanding Port Arthur and all of the Liaotung peninsula, which had only recently been renounced by Japan and returned to China. Nicholas, unable to amalgamate his extremist and moderate ministers’ voices into any sort of visionary strategy, tended toward “a decidedly unyielding policy in the Far East” . Though somewhat erratic and certainly opportunistic, St. Petersburg’s foreign policy–if it could be called such–had accrued for the nation substantial territorial and commercial gains with a minimum of bloodshed–or so it would seem at the time. By 1900, Russia had become the dominant land power in Southeast Asia, relatively unmindful–unfortunately–of the consternation such modus operandi engendered in Tokyo. While Tokyo deemed Russia’s Far East inroads as a threat to Japan’s national interests, Russia seemed impervious to Japanese protests and delved only deeper into Southeast Asia.

Japanese Planning: A Rational Calculus

It may well be argued that Japan’s preparation for the Russo-Japanese War commenced as early as 1890, when Prime Minister Aritomo postulated that Japan’s independence and security lay in the defense of its “line of sovereignty” and “line of interest” — a sort of Far East Monroe Doctrine or early “containment” tenet. The coordinated politico-military strategy which devolved from Arimoto’s assertion would serve Japan’s imperial aspirations well for the next half-century, especially during the Russo-Japanese War, when St. Petersburg’s encroachment on Korea was perceived as principle threat to Tokyo’s “line of interest.” Though the members of Tokyo’s Diet were not uniform in their foreign policy perspectives, they were for the most part unswerving in their fidelity to the Emperor. Japan’s Confucian, conformist history and esteemed ideal of “state before self” pervaded its imperial realpolitik, enabling the sometimes fractious Diet to unify disparate forces in the spirit of “Banzai!”. Tokyo’s Korea interests were clear, entailing political, commercial, industrial, and military motives. Japanese forces were led by competent officers who understood the Emperor’s wishes and how to motivate their men. Admiral Togo had read both Makarov and Mahan, and knew when fight and when to flee. Combat planning was comprehensive and balanced, encompassed strategic, operational, and tactical considerations, and was complemented by a research and development program, communications advances, and advanced weaponry acquisitions . Japanese strategists conducted predictive analysis, let intelligence drive operational planning, and war gamed everything; they knew they could not fail, that they’d have only one shot to bring down the Russian bear.

Failure to Plan was Petersburg’s Plan to Fail

In contrast, Russia’s lack of combat preparation was almost a matter of pride, of confidence in the motherland, her reputation, and her past as an augur of future success. The nation would soon be disabused of such notion. Russia was taken aback not only by Japan’s brazen attack, but by her military proficiency as well. For lack of any overarching strategy, Russia was most often relegated to fighting with its back up against the wall . With the short-lived exception of Admiral Makarov, Russian military leaders at Port Arthur were unable to contest Japan’s expeditionary strategy, consigning soldiers and sailors to fortress protection vice offensive assault — a mistake which eventually led to Japan’s landing forces in Korea, destroying Port Arthur and Russia’s Pacific squadron, and marching on Manchuria. Russia’s Vladivostok flotilla successes were not sustained, and were therefore insufficient to turn the war tide in Russia’s favor. In the Yellow Sea, Russia’s fight-or-flight instincts were overwhelmed by the premonition of ill-preparation, and her yellow-bellied fleet took flight vice engaging the Japanese foe–even though Russia could have inflicted insurmountable damage on Tokyo’s fleet due to Japan’s dearth of replacement ships. Japan simply could not afford any attrition of its precious naval forces. By pressing the fight, Russia may have delayed the marshalling of Japanese troops in Manchuria–the war’s center of gravity–thereby freeing Russia to project its land and sea power away from Port Arthur, toward the Japanese islands. But Russian flag officers were subject to sluggish St. Petersburg communications, challenged by extended supply lines and chain-of-command squabbles, and plagued by troop sobriety problems. Poor strategy, not surprisingly, led to ill-conceived decisions, which in turn manifested themselves as Russian operational failures.

Report Card: Opportunities Exploited or Overlooked

In retrospect, it seems that Russia could have undertaken at least two escalatory options to turn the tide in her favor. For one, she could have more rapidly increased the number of troops dedicated to the conflict. Second, she could have enriched the quality of soldiers in Asia by earlier mobilizing her superior European troops. As it was, Japan landed troops uncontested four times on the Asian mainland.

But Japan is not entirely exempt from critique either. Admiral Togo has been accused of being too timid in his initial attack on Port Arthur, failing to deliver a knock-out blow to the Russian Pacific squadron, which remained a fleet-in-being for the next year, forcing Japan to devote precious manpower and resources to besiege the port when such assets were required in the struggle for Manchuria. Oyama lost twelve thousand men in the assault on 203 Meter Hill, trading human lives for territorial advantage–which, in his defense, enabled Japanese gunners to methodically destroy what remained of Russia’s Pacific squadron. Moreover, Japan’s options being twofold on the Korean peninsula–either to destroy Russia’s Pacific squadron at Port Arthur while devoting only secondary efforts against the army in Manchuria, or, to simply blockade Arthur and direct the main Japanese thrust against the Russian army–Japan devoted significant resources to both objectives, thereby diluting the potency of each effort and achieving the desired overwhelming success in neither. As Japan lost one-quarter of its men at Mukden, and grew only weaker through successive Manchuria victories, it may be argued that Japan passed the culminating point of victory. Without its innovative diplomatic campaign to conceal such suffering and accelerate the war’s denouement, Tokyo was in serious jeopardy of having to initiate the peace process, and even beseech proud Russia to come to the table.

Was the War’s Outcome Inevitable?: The Context of Russian Judgment

Almost one hundred years later, it is relatively easy to criticize and condemn Russia for its short-sightedness and consequent Russo-Japanese War failures. How much more difficult it is to put ourselves in the 1903 shoes of the Tsar, who faced economic, political, military, and social challenges of mammoth magnitude. While William Fuller contends that the “Far East was a casino in which Russia was willing to gamble,” it may be argued that Russia was simply asserting its regional interests, and was not necessarily bent on becoming an East Asian hegemonic power. After all, Petersburg was no less impressed than was the rest of the world at Japan’s 1895 victory over China. Previously focused on its European markets, industries, alliances, and conflicts, as well as its pursuit of warm water ports, Russia had not closely heeded Japan’s assent to power. With important concerns on either side of and within a land mass spanning eleven time zones, Russian foreign policy coherence is and was exceptionally difficult to attain and maintain. In an era that knew no telephones or video teleconferences, harnessing the incongruent facets of military, economic, social, political, and diplomatic phenomena was like walking five dogs on five different leashes, trying to get them all to move forward harmoniously and in synch. Nicholas was certainly not the musher required for such task, but few men of his day were. Considering Europe’s concurrent race for Africa and US acquisitions in Panama, Cuba, Philippines, and South Pacific, Nicholas can hardly be blamed for seeking to exploit Russian interests throughout the Bosphorus, Black Sea, and Yellow Sea. He played by the rules of his Socially Darwinian day, and can be held to no more stringent account than his contemporaries throughout Western Europe and North America. Japan, France, and Britain were no less culpable vis-à-vis their efforts to secure colonies in Southeast Asia. In the race for West Pacific protectorates, Nicholas found himself unable to contend with the challenges induced by imperial overstretch, unrealized objectives, and unforeseen obstacles. His indecisiveness impeded progress in either direction–war or appeasement–and left Russia vulnerable to Japan’s seizing the initiative. How to attain, secure, and guarantee the future use and exploitation of warm water ports, capitalize on the spoils of a disintegrating and resource-rich China, and maintain cordial relations with neighbors on either side of an immense land mass, most of whom harbored expansionist and opportunistic ambitions themselves? The Tsar’s was an extraordinary challenge; it demanded a foresight and parallel policy which neither Nicholas or the advisors he chose to listen to were able to envision, craft, or implement. His ministers guilty of parochial interests and provincial backbiting, Nicholas was unable to articulate Russia’s vital interests in explicit terms, much less delegate their realization. Pressured by the economic prowess of militarily industrious neighbors like Germany, Nicholas was unwilling to listen to the most reasonable voices of his staff, those of Witte and Kuropatkin, both of whom were marginalized for their a cautious stance seen as conciliatory. Should Russia have maintained its peaceful approach of the mid to late 1880s? In hindsight, yes. Could Russia have used its Trans-Siberian Railroad as a sort of a Central Asia spice route, for amplified trade and economic gain? Perhaps.

As such, did Nicholas have any alternatives? Yes. For one, he could have attenuated Russia’s Far East ambitions, considered the growing challenges precipitated by imperial overstretch, focused on amplifying trade throughout Europe and Southwest Asia, and on placating a Japan increasingly alarmed by St. Petersburg’s meddling in Manchuria. Second, if war with Japan was unavoidable, Russia could have made its eastern theater of operations central to its security policy, possibly entailing an annulment of the Franco-Russian alliance in favor of Russo-German alliance , which certainly would have been less damaging to the Tsar’s reputation in the long run than was the War. Further, Russia could have earlier and more resolutely integrated its western and eastern fleets, a possibility which Japan feared and gambled on, though not attempted by Russia until her eastern fleet was boxed in and essentially neutralized at Arthur. Russia may have also employed its cruisers in a commerce destruction role , if not to sever Japanese sea lines of communication, then at least deny and degrade the island’s communications with its forces on the Liaotung peninsula and Asian mainland. Domestically, Nicholas could have granted earlier and more numerous concessions to the Russian people, empowered the populace, and decentralized Petersburg power, all of which–ironically–would likely have led not only to more efficient governance and a more contented citizenry, but to his own more expeditious downfall.


Since 1897, when Nicholas II seized Port Arthur as his ice-free window to the East–only two years after Japan had been strongly “advised” by France, Germany, and Russia not to occupy the Liaotung peninsula–Japan had a vested interest and almost singular intent to reclaim the important city . Tokyo’s drive to control the geographically strategic terrain was stronger and its distractions far fewer than were the Russians’. It would have behooved Russia to take note of Japanese War Minister Oyama’s 1885 dismissal of his French military instructors in favor of a German cadre intent on imparting the successes of proven Prussian tactics.

Strategically, for the Russians–critical as Port Arthur was to their warm water port objectives–they treated it almost as just another seaport city, a dot on the Russian imperial map spanning two continents and eleven time zones. In contrast, for the Japanese, the possession of Port Arthur was elevated to a matter of life and death . Tokyo had the luxury of focusing all its efforts on an interest of only secondary importance to Russia. Since Korea was more valuable to Tokyo than it was to St. Petersburg, Japan was willing to fight longer and harder than her foe. Tokyo realized that if the conflict became a total war, Russia would overwhelm Japan; the war had to remain limited for Japan to emerge triumphant.

Diplomatically, whereas Russia had pursued an opportunistic, individualistic, and aggressive course of under-the-table demands on Peking–alone almost in foraging for further Manchurian gains, Japan had openly approached Britain, Germany, and the United States for assurances of support. While the Japanese had been busy combining proactive diplomacy with polished military training and support for Russian opposition groups, Russia underestimated her foe, believing the Japanese to be flower arranging, tea drinking, geisha girl indulging artisans. Russia not only bungled pre-war attaché reporting opportunities and a French offer to intervene and mediate, but failed to execute any effective wartime intelligence collection or counter-intelligence reporting campaign. Japan, meanwhile, organized a multi-faceted information operations campaign and guerilla attacks on Russian lines of communication, practiced camouflage and concealment as well as denial and deception techniques, financed foreign Socialist revolutionary parties , and thoroughly outperformed the Russians in espionage endeavors and double agent operations.

Politically, while St. Petersburg was bogged down by domestic dissent and brewing revolution, Tokyo cunningly promulgated propaganda, shrewdly exploited world opinion, and curried favor for its endeavors across the Tsushima Strait–cold and calculated as they were–as an ostensible Eastern champion of a Western-sanctioned Open Door policy. Naval liaison officer Lieutenant Akiyama went so far as to court and cultivate ties with not only Alfred T. Mahan, but then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt–endeavors crucial to the professionalization of the Japanese Navy . Militarily, Russia lacked an urgent sense of mission, carefully considered strategic objectives, operational organization, and tactical proficiency. Its leadership was plagued by incompetence, its troops–by extension–ineptitude, and an ever increasing reliance on vodka–“the water of life”–to cope with a steadily mounting death toll. Japan, on the other hand, planned her fight and fought her plan. She won as a direct result of her superior integration of land and sea power in fighting a limited war to attain limited objectives. Whereas Mahan criticized Russia for its ineffective fleet employment–first for its dispersed, defensive posture, then for delaying its concentrated, offensive employment–Corbett praised Japan for its application of maritime force in a “situational superiority” manner, using it to land forces ashore, away from Russian troops, to support and achieve Tokyo’s clear-cut objectives . Russia never positioned itself to strategically threaten Japan, effect a blockade, or conduct an amphibious invasion. It fought a defensive, “risk nothing” campaign, attained nothing, and suffered extraordinary casualties–in military material, human life, and national spirit.

In a sense, the Russo-Japanese War pitted a poorly-trained, reluctant army subject to a policy of risk aversion versus a nationally-unified people with a risk affinity and almost itching to fight . Where Russia was indolent, reactive, and hydrophobic , Japan was innovative, progressive, and proactive, probing every possible opportunity for a combat edge. Russia’s miscalculations, at all levels–strategic, operational, and tactical–both before and during the war, became her own worst enemy, while Japan’s mindset, morale, and motivation became her most reliable allies. Having lost the nautical war, Russia incurred substantial land problems. By decimating Russia’s fleet, Japan gained and controlled mainland access, protected its island home from any chance of blockade or quarantine, was able to reinforce its army in Korea, and attack Russia with naval gunfire–all of which demonstrated the interdependence of land and sea power . Thus, Japan proved adept not only at synchronizing maritime and terra firma operations, but at integrating decisive force and international relations–isolating not only the war’s locale, but Russia as an actor on the theater’s diplomatic stage. Japan knew command of the sea was absolutely essential to victory, and she attained it. She knew that a protracted struggle would tip the attrition scales in Russia’s favor, and took measured steps to limit the war’s scope and duration.

Japan’s victory over Russia confirmed its status a new world power. Her military reputation bolstered her international credit rating, which amplified her access to financial loans hitherto denied. In this light, costly as the war was, Japan’s preparations for it proved worth the expense, and positioned and emboldened Tokyo to sustain its pursuit of East Asian hegemony. Japan had planned the war’s termination in concert with its execution, secured foreign loans to sustain its economic engine, managed its media to guarantee a supportive public, hired the best military advisors, and procured the finest weapons platforms available. She fought a limited war for political aims with nearly total means, while Russia fought a war for nearly unlimited aims with only partial means . A recipe replete with careful planning proved Japan’s winning diet, while Russia’s best assets were a large conscript population and Father Time. Tokyo planned its fight and fought its plan. Although Japan sustained tremendous casualties, both to the nation’s manpower reserve and its treasury, hers was in the end a winning formula, an investment that came to fruition in Portsmouth in August 1905, and served her well for many years thereafter.


1. Baer, George; Mahan and Corbett in the Russia-Japanese War; Video Lecture; Naval War College.
2. Evans, David and Mark Peattie; “Preparing for Battle: Japanese Naval Technology and Doctrine, 1895-1904”; excerpt from Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941; Annapolis: Naval Institute Press; 1997.
3. Fuller, William; Russia; Video Lecture; Naval War College.
4. Fuller, William C. Jr; Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914; New York; Free Press; 1992; pg 362-407.
5. Iriye, Akira; “The Emergence of Japan as a Great Naval Power”; excerpt from Japan and the Wider World; London; Longman; 1977.
6. Mahan, Alfred Thayer; “Retrospect Upon the War Between Japan and Russia,” in Naval Administration and Warfare; Boston; Little Brown; 1918.
7. Mahnken, Thomas; Japan; Video Lecture; Naval War College.
8. Storry, Richard. “A Question of Alliances” and ” ‘These Little People Will Fight’ ” in Japan and the Decline of the West in Asia 1894-1943; New York: St. Martin’s Press; 1979.
9. Warner, Denis and Peggy; “The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905; London; Frank Cass; 2002; pg. 3-20, 154-538.
10. Wilson, Andrew; A Clash of Civilizations; Video Lecture; Naval War College.




1. Wilson; A Clash of Civilizations.
2. Evans and Peattie; Preparing for Battle; p. 52.
3. Evans and Peattie; p. 67.
4. Storry; A Question of Alliances; p. 37.
5. Iriye, The Emergence of Japan; p. 12.
6. Warner, The Tide at Sunrise; p. 339.
7. Evans and Peattie; p. 84.
8. Mahan; Retrospect Upon Japan-Russia War; p. 138.
9. Fuller; Russia (video lecture); 55:24.
10. Mahan; p. 160.
11. Warner; The Tide at Sunrise; p. 6.
12. Warner; p. 155.
13. Warner; p. 19.
14. Mahnken; Japan.
15. Storry; p. 41.
16. Fuller; video lecture; 48:00.
17. Warner; p. 172, 259.
18. Evans and Peattie; p. 73.
19. Baer; Mahan and Corbett in the Russo-Japanese War.
20. Warner; p. 187.
21. Warner; p. 278.
22. Fuller; Strategy and Power in Russia; p. 401.
23. Mahnken; Japan.

Written by Glenn Yeck | Comments Off on “Russo-Japanese War Strategies”