An embarrassing Russian defeat a century ago is a warning about the risks of losing a war to China now, top US military official says

  • In May 1905, Russia's navy suffered a resounding defeat by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima.

  • It sealed Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War and eliminated much of Russia's influence in Asia.

  • The battle is a lesson about complacency in the face of new threats, a top US Air Force official says.

A devastating naval defeat 118 years ago blunted a major European power's ambitions in Asia and marked the emergence of a newly dominant Asian military.

The lopsided clash between Imperial Japan and Imperial Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in March 1905 cemented Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War, virtually eliminated Russia's influence from the Asia-Pacific for decades, and affirmed Japan as military power equal to major Western nations.

Even now, the battle can be seen as a lesson about complacency in the face of new threats, according to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the service's top civilian official.

Russia and Japan in 1905 are not the US and China today, and Russia's failure at Tsushima "has little to do" with the situation the US faces now, Kendall said a speech at the Air and Space Forces Association conference in September, but the battle is still a warning about what can happen when established powers aren't prepared to face ascendant rivals.

Great-power competition

Russo-Japanese war Port Arthur China
Japanese soldiers relieve Russian troops in an outer fort at Port Arthur after the Russian surrender in 1905.George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The events leading up to the Battle of Tsushima were quintessential examples of great-power competition in the era of imperialism.

Imperial Japan, newly industrialized and armed with a strong military based on those of Europe and the US, began pursuing its ambitions on the Asian mainland, chiefly in China and Korea, winning a major victory over China in 1895.

This put it in direct competition with Imperial Russia. Following China's defeat, Russia sought to expand its influence in China and Korea. Russia gained a lease on Port Arthur — now part of Dalian in China — in 1898, effectively giving it control of the Liaodong Peninsula, which juts into the Yellow Sea.

The Russians hoped to connect Port Arthur, at the time their only warm-water port on the Pacific, with the Trans-Siberian Railway and were expanding their influence within the court of Korea's ruling dynasty.

Japanese navy ships Tsushima
Japanese ships, seen from the battleship Asahi, sail to meet the Russians at Tsushima on May 27, 1905.Shigetada Seki via Wikimedia Commons

Unable to negotiate mutually beneficial terms with Russia on the future of the region, Tokyo sent the Imperial Japanese Navy to attack the main part of Russia's Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur on February 8, 1904 in one of history's first major surprise attacks. Japan formally declared war a few hours later.

Japan quickly gained the naval advantage, fighting off the Russian Pacific Fleet's attempt to break its blockade of Port Arthur and defeating Russian navy reinforcements at Chemulpo Bay and Ulsan.

The Japanese soon brought Port Arthur under siege from land, and Russia, with no alternatives, allocated almost 40 ships from its Baltic Fleet to the newly created 2nd Pacific Squadron, which it then sent to Asia to save Port Arthur.

'Completely destroyed'

Russian btattleship Oriol in Japan Battle of Tsushima
Russian battleship Oriol at a Japanese naval shipyard after it was surrendered following the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905.Russian and Soviet photo archive via Wikimedia Commons

After a grueling and accident-prone seven-month, 18,000-mile journey, the squadron reached the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan on May 27, 1905, where the Japanese promptly obliterated it.

Twenty-one Russian ships were sunk or scuttled and seven more were captured. Only three ships reached Vladivostok, though six others made it to neutral ports in China, the Philippines, and Madagascar.

Over 5,000 Russians sailors were killed and more than 6,000 were captured. Japan lost only three torpedo boats, as well as 117 sailors killed and about 500 wounded.

Russia navy cruiser Oleg
Russian cruiser Oleg, with damage from the Battle of Tsushima, in Manila Bay in June 1905.Collection of P.H. Proctor via Wikimedia Commons

"The Battle of Tsushima Straits did not go well for Russia," Kendall, a self-proclaimed history buff, said at the conference. "The entire Russian fleet was completely destroyed."

The battle was the final nail in the coffin for Russia's war effort. Japan had captured Port Arthur before the 2nd Pacific Squadron arrived in May, and another Russian defeat at Mukden two months earlier destroyed any hope of a victory via a land campaign.

Having lost virtually all its naval power in the Pacific, Russia was no longer in a position to strike at Japan effectively or even realistically. Japan indicated a willingness to begin negotiations mediated by President Theodore Roosevelt, and the Russians, with no other options, had to sue for peace.

'A long shadow'

China aircraft carrier Shandong jet takeoff
A fighter jet takes off of the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong in the Pacific near Okinawa in April 2023.Japanese Defense Ministry/HANDOUT via REUTERS

The US and China today are not the Russia and Japan of 118 years ago, and the US military faces circumstances distinct from those that confronted Russia at the time, but the Battle of Tsushima had far-reaching consequences that are still relevant now, Kendall argued in his speech.

"A major power, Russia, lost its influence in Asia. A major power, again Russia, saw its military credibility evaporate," Kendall said.

The outcome of the battle "amplified" the arms race between Britain and Germany and fed a perception in Imperial Germany that Russia was weak and could be dealt with in the event of a conflict, leading the Germans to feel "comfortable" entering a two-front war nine years later, Kendall said.

US China risky intercept
A Chinese fighter jet conducting "a coercive and risky" intercept of a US aircraft over the South China Sea in June 2022.US Defense Department

Russia's navy, which never truly recovered, experienced several mutinies in the following years, which "helped pave the way for the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union," Kendall said. In Asia, a rising Japan "gained the confidence to defy European powers and the US," leading it to annex Korea in 1910, invade Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937, and, ultimately, to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941.

"The point of all this is that operational and tactical defeats, especially when they involve rising and existing great powers, could have major strategic consequences," Kendall added.

Kendall has made countering China a focal point of his tenure. He and other US officials often stress that a war with China is not inevitable but that the US military needs to improve its readiness and capabilities in order to deter such a conflict.

"History, including some recent history, tells us that deterrence can and sometimes does fail. If our power-projection capability and capacity are not adequate to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan or elsewhere, war could occur," Kendall said. "If it does and we cannot prevail, the results could cast a long shadow."

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