russia japan war

Written by Summaiyya Qureshi 12:13 pm Articles, International Relations, Published Content

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05: Unfolding World War Zero

Almost everybody nowadays is familiar with World War I and World War II, but many people are not aware that there was a World War Zero, or the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Fought between Russia and Japan, this war is considered one of the most devastating ever.
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Ms Summaiyya Qureshi completed her bachelor's degree in International Relations from the Lahore College for Women University, Lahore.  Her areas of interest include geopolitics, foreign policy analysis, and nuclearization.

Roots of World War Zero

The war between Russia and Japan was the first conventional war of the 20th century. With Japan’s emergence as one of the most substantial powers of Asia after defeating Imperial China in the War of 1894, the emperor of Japan, Meiji, also known as Meiji the Great, began modernization in Japan by adopting Western culture. George Rittner, a journalist, is known to have said, “In less than twenty years, Japan has acquired the knowledge it has taken us centuries to learn” 

This status of Japan led it to conflicts with other great powers, especially Russia. After defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the USSR started its expansion towards East Asia. Emperor of the USSR, Czar Nicholas II, the successor of Alexander III, ordered the expansion of the territory of the Russian Empire towards Manchuria and Korea.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 by Kogyo Tsukioka and Rawpixel
The Russo-Japanese War by Kogyo Tsukioka and digitally enhanced by Rawpixel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Along with other great actors, Russia pressured Japan to give up the strategic naval base of Port Arthur that they gained after winning the Sino-Japanese War and then forced China to lease that area to Russia. Moreover, Russia was continuously disturbing the sovereignty of other Eastern Asian states, suppressing the Box Rebellion (1900-1903) of China and afterwards staying in Manchuria.

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Under the Treaty of Aigun, China already ceded all of its northern territory of Amur and the eastern maritime region of Wusuli River to Russia, including the gracious site where Vladivostok was discovered afterwards. After discovering the city of Vladivostok in 1860, Russia started to assume itself as the “Lord of the East.” Other European powers grew to fear Russia’s rapid expansion.

An Alliance with Britain

Japan started to look for alliances and finally allied with Great Britain in 1902 as Britain presumed Russian expansion as a potential threat to British-colonialized India. In contrast, China and Korea remained neutral. After a failed negotiation with Russia, they reached the breaking point of the war in 1904. Japan started preparing its army and naval forces, spending almost 82% of its national budget on the army.

With the help of Britain, Japan molded its navy on the Royal Navies model. The Great Britan also helped Japan in the Department of Intelligence, and they were able to spread a good network of informants and spies in the far East of Russia. Meanwhile, Russia was a military power of its times, but the majority of armed forces they had employed in the eastern region were trained poorly, and most of the officer’s corps were the product of favoritism and nepotism.

The Outbreak of War Between Russia and Japan

Russia, on the other hand, was not in favor of war. The Czar thought that the war would only occur if he were to start it. However, Japan declared war on Russia on 8th Feb 1904 by attacking Port Arthur. In Port Arthur and Vladivostok, Russia had seven battleships and 11 cruises but not as advanced as the Japanese.

However, Russia’s financial resources were far better than Japan’s. Due to limited financial resources, Japan wanted to win a short war to eventually push Russia out of Korea and the Chinese Liaodong peninsula.

Port Arthur Attack

The Japanese attack on Port Arthur was meant to counterbalance the presence of Russia’s fleet at the port. Japanese co-fleet arrived at the port under the leadership of Admiral Togo, but only a few Russian ships were on alert. Japan sent its torpedo boats and attacked, damaging 3 Russian battleships. Before the Port Arthur attack, Japan deployed its troops in Chemulpo Bay, Korea. 

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Battle of the Yalu River

The battle of the Yalu River is considered the first major battle of the Russo-Japanese war. The Japanese army attacked to push back 19000 Russian men along the Yalu River and Ai River on the northern side of Korea. However, naturally, rivers are considered defensive points in the war, so there was hope for the Russian army to conquer this battle as they, fortunately, had defensive points.

Port Arthur (Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05)
A female soldier at Port Arthur” by David Foster is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

However, due to the disorganization of the Russian army, they lost this battle as well. The Russian army had expected that the Japanese army would attack along the side of the Yalu River (i.e., their defensive point) and was totally off guard of an attack from any other dimensions.

After the collapse of the Russian army at the Yalu River, the Japanese launched another attack across the river which drove Russians from their trenches. This battle cost the lives of 2000 Russians and 900 Japanese soldiers; Russia also lost its critical strategic points in Manchuria.

The 2nd Port Arthur Attack

In May 1904, Japanese armies again attacked Port Arthur, but it was a land attack this time. However, it was a hard nut to crack as a Russian military advisor ordered a suicidal human attack known as the “Nikudan Kogeki,” or a human bullet that inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese. Japan had won a string of important victories but had suffered heavy casualties.     

The Battle of Mukden

The Japanese army once again trapped the Russian army in the pincer movement. Japan was aware that Russia would be planning a counterattack, so they decided to strike first at Mukden, China, in 1905. The Japanese army on the eastern side of the Yalu River began to move through the hills of the Russian eastern flank and gave the impression that they would attack from the eastern side just like they did in the battle of the Yalu River.

The Russian army shifted its units from the western side to the eastern side, weakening the western defensive unit of Russia and it gave the Japanese army a chance to instantly launch an attack on the western side of the River which caused panic and chaos among Russian troops.

Attack at the Strait of Tsushima

USSR troops and fleets started to move from Port Arthur to Vladivostok in 1905. During this time, the Japanese repaired their damaged battleships and planned a surprise attack on the Russian army at the strait of Tsushima. The Japanese fleet, which consisted of four battleships, eight armored cruisers, and four protected cruisers, crossed in front of a Russian force consisting of 8 battleships and ten cruises and performed a U-turn on its port side, and then they again obliquely moved towards Russian vessels to open the attack.

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The Russians had heavy guns, but the Japanese army had better fire control. Only 2 Russian battleships remained out of 38, which, too, were surrounded by Japanese battleships. There was no way that Russian fleets could reach Vladivostok, so they surrendered. Almost 5000 Russian sailors lost their lives, and the Japanese lost three torpedo ships and 110 men.

Treaty of Portsmouth

When Czar Nicholas II was ready to negotiate, the US acted as a mediator between Japan and Russia. In the mediatsartion of Theodore Roosevelt in New Hampshire, they signed a treaty. In 1905, the Treaty of Portsmouth marked the end of this brutal war that killed almost 50,000 Russians and 80,000 Japanese soldiers. The significant points of this treaty were the following

  • Russia to end its influence over Manchuria and the Liaoyang peninsula
  • Russia to refrain from paying war indemnity
  • Russia to grant railway concession to Japan
  • South Sakhalin to remain under Japanese control
  • Russia to accept the dominance of Japan on nominally independent Korea

Roosevelt received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and the world recognized Japan as the world’s great power.


World War Zero caused revolutionary unrest in Russia again under the regime of Czar Nicholas II. Japan went bankrupt because of this war, leading to riots and martial law in Japan. The fundamental reason for Russian defeat that we can see is the incompetence of Russian military advisors and officials; the modernization of Japanese armaments is also one of the factors that resulted in Russia’s defeat.

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