Ukraine’s path to victory may lie in Russia’s crushing Japan defeat

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Ukraine’s resolute fight to ward off Russia’s invasion endures, with its President Volodymyr Zelensky doing the rounds in Britain and the EU in a bid to secure fighter jets to help ward off Moscow. The likes of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and his counterparts in France and Germany, have spoken about the importance of Russia not winning the war, while Mr Zelensky told politicians in Parliament: “Freedom will win — we know Russia will lose.” But in recent weeks, fears Russia may be taking control of the war have grown, particularly after the city of Bakhmut, a Ukrainian stronghold, neared occupation by Moscow.

But Kyiv could take solace in being an underdog in a bloody battle with Russia from a row that erupted on this day 119 years ago when Japan declared war on the Soviet Union.

In scenes that have undertones of today’s war raging across Ukraine, the Empire of Japan and the Russian Empire traded off between 1904 and 1905, as a result of both having imperial ambitions in Manchuria — a historical and geographic region in Northeast Asia encompassing the entirety of present-day Northeast China and parts of the Russian Far East — and the Korean Empire

To the horror of Emperor Nicholas II, Japan made a surprise attack on February 9, 1904, starting a gruesome battle between the two nations, with the Soviet Union expected to easily overpower their Asian rivals.

The dispute saw Japan offer to “recognise Russian dominance in Manchuria in exchange for recognition of the Korean Empire as being within the Japanese sphere of influence”, a proposal ruled out by the Soviets.

This was seen by Japan as obstructive to their ambitions to expand into mainland Asia, and so following the breakdown of negotiations between the sparring countries, hostilities began during the assault on the Russian Eastern Fleet, at Port Arthur, China.

With the Soviets perceived as favourites to sink Japan, the fact Tokyo masterminded a victory could inspire Ukraine to their own win decades on.

This is the view of Nicholas and Lence editorial director, and former New York Times reporter, Wendell Jamieson who compared the two wars for the Los Angeles Times last year.

Mr Jamieson noted how “the world was sure Russia would win” in its fight against Japan, as it “had a vaunted military in the grand European tradition… how could little upstart Japan possibly emerge victorious?”

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He continued: “Like the conflict in Ukraine that has been live-streamed to and from smartphones, the Russo-Japanese war was witnessed globally almost in real-time. Telegraph wires and steam-powered newspaper presses sent new editions onto the streets hourly to feed a hungry public.

“The Japanese bottled up the Russian Pacific squadron at Port Arthur, and so Russian Emperor Nicholas II — ever confident of victory, despite setback after setback — shifted tactics and sent his huge Baltic Fleet on an around-the-world voyage to teach the upstart Japanese a lesson.”

With Japan’s naval operations, which were compared to the British from the same period, more modern than the Soviets, Tokyo, led by Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō, was able to easily navigate and attack its rival’s fleet, which was heavily outdated.

Around seven months into the war, with the Soviet fleet arriving in the Far East, Tōgō and his “eager fleet [met] the exhausted Russians” and “in a matter of hours, practically all the Russian battleships were at the bottom of the sea”.

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Mr Jamieson added: “Tōgō and his command staff conducted the battle from the open-air bridge atop his flagship, the Mikasa. The Russian admiral, by comparison, remained hunkered within the enclosed steel wheelhouse of his ship.

“Tōgō thus had a 360-degree view of everything that was happening, and perhaps more importantly, his crews could see him — in the open, watching it all through binoculars as shells whizzed past.

“Not unlike Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s stubbornly visible leadership today.”

Despite sustaining a number of defeats, Emperor Nicholas II would not budge on his belief that the Soviets would still win if they carried on the fight. Against the will of some of his inner circle, Nicholas continued engaging in naval battles.

Another key factor that Ukraine may take solace in was how Japan’s morale and stomach for the war never wavered, while Russia was weary and low on motivation. This is similar to the current fight in 2023.

But soon it became clear the Soviets would lose, with Nicholas attempting to avert a “humiliating peace” deal between his country and Japan. Throughout the process, Japan had offered to discuss proposals, with Russia rejecting a plan to discuss the dilemma in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

The bloody war eventually ended in August 1905, when in discussions mediated by US President Theodore Roosevelt, the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed. It was a hugely significant moment in East Asian history, with Japan emerging as the new, great world power, and Russia’s influence drained.

The loss of lives and defeat helped fuel domestic unrest, which saw the 1905 Russian Revolution erupt, damaging the country and its autocracy as a result.

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