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The Century-Old Russian Defeat With Lessons for Putin

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The Russo-Japanese War led not just to an immediate revolution, but to deeper and longer-lasting change years later.

About the author: David Gioe is a British Academy Global Professor at King’s College London, and an associate professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he is also the history fellow for the Army Cyber Institute.

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........

© The Atlantic

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