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Healthy and General

What a 1904 War Can Teach Vladimir Putin

8 min read

When, in an expansionist mood, Russia embarked on an ill-judged war of territorial conquest against its neighbor, it did so with a grandiose sense of its conquering power. Russia’s leader, who ruled nearly as an absolute monarch and held his counterpart next door in contempt, believed that his country’s interests were threatened, that Russia deserved more influence and respect. He had envisioned a scenario in which his enemy would yield quickly in the face of overwhelming odds and accede to Russian territorial demands.

Contrary to the expectations of the sovereign and his military planners, the initial campaign went badly for Russia. This was partly because of snarled supply lines and logistics, but the biggest factor in Russia’s early defeats was its profound misjudgment of its foe. No pushover, Russia’s opponent surprised the world with its determination and ability to resist Russian might, aided by timely support from European allies.

Although the circumstances may sound familiar to anyone who has followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the above narrative actually describes the beginning of the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War. The conflict set in motion or accelerated changes that impacted two world wars, the Cold War, and the present day, and offers profound lessons for contemporary leaders in Moscow and beyond. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s military quagmire in Ukraine today is fraught with domestic dangers that, when they bubbled up during Czar Nicholas II’s reign, led to not just an immediate revolution but even bigger and longer-lasting changes years later.

Putin would recognize the unenviable predicament facing Czar Nicholas II in 1904, if he could bear to consider it. The czar had overestimated his nation’s military might, and the initial domestic support for Russia’s war with Japan began to falter as battlefield realities slowly started to seep in. Thanks to recent advances in telecommunications technology, there was no hiding that Russia’s armies were underperforming. Then, as now, Britain provided weapons and intelligence to Russia’s enemy, while the Poles seized the opportunity to collaborate militarily with Japan, which they viewed as the latest victim of Russian aggression. But the czar, isolated in his splendid palace, doubled down, a reckless gamble perhaps best epitomized by sending his Baltic naval fleet on an epic journey around the world to confront the Japanese navy in the Pacific. It did not return home.

Nicholas was nevertheless confident that Russia would ultimately emerge victorious; a reshuffling of strategy and greater commitment from the people would, he believed, tip the scales in Russia’s favor. The conflict raged for another year, but in the Battle of Mukden, in February 1905, the Japanese army broke the back of the Russian army, and shortly thereafter, the Japanese navy destroyed most of the remaining Russian Baltic fleet in the lopsided Battle of Tsushima.

Painting depicting the sinking of the Russian battleship Knyaz Suvorov.
An illustration depicts the sinking of a Russian battleship during the Battle of Tsushima. (Credit: Edward Matania / De Agostini / Getty)

Russia’s overconfident intransigence meant it missed an early window of opportunity whereby diplomacy—backed by a huge army and a respectable navy—could perhaps have secured some territorial concessions. Instead, it embarked upon a bloody contest, accompanied by credible reports of looting, civilian atrocities, and sexual violence. Russian troops proved themselves to be as brutal as feared in the territories they occupied. Russian generals were dismayed by the desultory performance of their troops, many of which lacked discipline and were unmotivated, as evidenced by widespread instances of soldiers disobeying orders. Russian efforts were also hampered by subpar technology, disagreement among commanders, a lack of combined arms coordination, and an inability to replace manpower and equipment losses in battle. Russia eventually pivoted to fighting to save face.

The unpopular and unnecessary war with Japan caused great turmoil within Russia. The economy was in disarray, food shortages were commonplace, and Russia was embarrassed internationally. For his failed war, among other poor decisions, the czar had lost the confidence of his people, sparking protests over economic woes and awful labor conditions (which were exacerbated by the conflict) that peaked on Bloody Sunday, a January 1905 episode in which the Russian Imperial Guard fired on unarmed protesters outside Nicholas’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, killing perhaps hundreds of demonstrators; they arrested thousands more. Facing military defeats coupled with domestic pressures, Nicholas finally sued for peace later in 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the Treaty of Portsmouth, which brought an end to hostilities. But peace with Japan did not bring domestic harmony: The 1905 Russian Revolution, which saw widespread unrest across the Russian empire, sowed the seeds for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the czar and led to the murder of the Romanov dynasty.

Although the parallels between the Russo-Japanese War and the current invasion of Ukraine are striking, there are also key differences, and fully appreciating these distinctions is necessary to avoid facile conclusions. In 1904, Japan was an empire on the rise and embarking on its own expansionist period, leading to its confrontation with Russia’s hegemonic ambitions in East Asia. The two powers had been engaged in years of negotiations over territory in what is now northeast China and, in a notable similarity to their opening gambit at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese in 1904 actually attacked first with a surprise strike on Russia’s naval fleet at anchor in Port Arthur on Manchuria’s Liaodong Peninsula before formally declaring war. And, like at Pearl Harbor, Japan badly damaged the fleet, thereby seizing the military initiative. Unlike the present-day Ukrainians, the Japanese did have a formidable naval fleet to bolster their expansionist agenda, and a loss for Japan would not have been existential for the country.

It is useful to illuminate the present and to confront the future by consulting the past. In this case, an analysis of the consequences of the Russo-Japanese War ought to concern Putin. There are many battlefield parallels between Russian military performance in these two wars, largely based on faulty assessments of the quality of their enemy. Putin’s far larger problem, however, is that throughout Russian history, humiliating military defeats have presaged major social and political upheaval. The Russo-Japanese War is but one example of this phenomenon. Russian failures against Germany in World War I helped usher in the Bolshevik Revolution, and the disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan gravely weakened the political coherence and credibility of the Soviet Union. To be sure, these wars did not cause all of the social unrest in Russia. In each case, internal dynamics unrelated to the wars were at play, but they interacted with the conflicts in crucial ways. In each case, the military failures exacerbated structural problems and had an accelerating effect on Russian political developments.

After the 1905 revolution, the czar cracked down on dissent while also making nominal concessions, most notably allowing some popular political representation by creating a duma, though this was not a serious power-sharing arrangement. Likewise, there are Potemkin trappings of democratic governance in modern Russia, but no serious checks on Putin’s power. One risk with a personalized autocracy, like the Romanov monarch, is that the state is seen as synonymous with its leader. In the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian military’s rotten performance suggested, by extension, something of how rotten the state had become under the czar. Given how much Putin has personalized his rule in Russia, he now risks the shambles of the war in Ukraine becoming a proxy for his own mismanagement of Russia.

Three Japanese soldiers sitting on a beach near the wreckage of a partially sunken Russian warship.
A colorized photo of three Japanese soldiers sitting near the wreckage of a Russian warship in Port Arthur. (Credit: Burton Holmes / Archive Farms / Getty)

History suggests that what domestic dissent Putin may have been able to manage before the invasion of Ukraine will be harder to grapple with in the future. The czar twice enjoyed a brief period of patriotic war fervor before his people turned on him after military defeats. This may inform Putin’s recent crackdowns on dissent, but it misses the benefit of history’s long view. Throughout Russian and Soviet history, social movements for change have often been met with repression and mass arrests, which, in time, have the opposite effect of what autocrats have intended.

The cracks of domestic discontent are already visible in Russia, thanks to Putin’s frequently contradictory lies to his own people. When the Ukrainians sank the Russian naval flagship Moskva, Russian state media falsely claimed that there had been a fire onboard, that the crew of more than 400 sailors had been rescued, and that the ship went down in rough seas under tow. The reality was that 100 Russian sailors, perhaps more, went down with the ship thanks to two strikes from Ukrainian missiles. Many of these sailors were conscripts who Putin claimed would not be fighting in Ukraine in the first place. Their families have now bravely spoken out about their sons’ deaths, demanding information and accountability from a regime that, heretofore, they suffered quietly.

Putin has written often about his views of history. If he were to consider the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War, he would do well to remember the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war does not take place outside the context of the society that wages it. Indeed, domestic unrest as much as any battlefield setbacks against Japan finally convinced Czar Nicholas II to abandon his military campaign. The present-day families of the estimated many thousands of dead Russian soldiers are unlikely to keep their peace about this senseless slaughter, and perhaps a great many other complaints besides.

Modern-day Ukraine isn’t Japan of the early 20th century, but the similarities between the dire circumstances of each for Russia can illuminate the social and political drivers that history suggests may happen now on an accelerated timeline. In fact, much as the Russo-Japanese War shaped the contours of the 20th-century world, so, too, may Putin’s calamitous invasion of Ukraine drive the forces that define the 21st.

The disaster of the Russo-Japanese War scrubbed the veneer off Imperial Russia, and it confirmed the decay across the empire. That war ended with an emerging country boldly announcing itself on the world’s stage, a loss of prestige and influence for Russia, and eventually the end of the ruler himself.

The defeat also served as an incubator for those seeking revolutionary political change. “The European bourgeoisie has its reasons to be frightened, and the proletariat has its reasons to rejoice,” exclaimed Vladimir Lenin after the fall of Port Arthur. Today, identifying any clear challengers to Putin’s power is difficult. Opposition leaders such as Boris Nemtsov have been murdered or, like Alexey Navalny, poisoned and jailed. Even if a focal point of resistance has not yet emerged, however, Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine may be the spark for unknown actors in Russia—or in exile—to organize. He should recall that in Russia, after disastrous foreign wars, domestic discontent is never far behind.