Book Review: Russian Imperialism and Naval Power: Military Strategy and the Build-Up to the Russo-Japanese War by Nicholas Papastratigakis

This book is a fantastic illustration of the point Chris made in the military thread that navies have to anticipate and predict events 15-20 years in the future to build up naval vessels, making such advice as “build more ships” so puerile as to be useless.

Russia faced huge strategic problems after their loss in the Crimean War and watching the alarming rise of new powers like Germany and Japan along with greater encroachment of Britain into strategic areas like the Near East, Central Asia, and Far East. The Russians were also becoming very ambitious about the gradual weakening of the Ottoman Empire and eager to grab what strategic spoils they could. What makes the politics of this story so interesting are the swirling alliances for Russia. They go from thinking the Germanic powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) as their greatest threat to allying with them in case of a conflict with Britain. They in turn stay in close contact with Britain to gauge the possibility of Royal Navy intervention if Russia fights a war with the Ottomans, the Chinese, and later the Japanese.

But for the Russian navy, their primary strategic problem is the lack of viable naval bases. The Black Sea was an obvious area of contention but in any major war, it would also serve as both battlefield and bottleneck – Russia would have the tactical advantage if the Royal Navy or anyone else is foolish enough to enter for a major engagement, but the Russian navy also had a huge tactical disadvantage if they tried to exit into the Mediterranean. The North Sea or Scandinavia was not viable because they’re not only trapped, it threatens the life of the British mainland, which virtually guaranteed a direct confrontation with the Royal Navy that Russia cannot win. And even in the Far East, Vladivostok is the only viable port city, but the port freezes over half the year and the city doesn’t have the strategic value to justify a large fleet and even if it did, Russia didn’t have the resources to maintain large construction and repair facilities.

The point of all this is that Russia was almost completely unprepared for the Russo-Japanese War because they were obsessed with the possibility of a large European war and never could figure out a viable strategic situation for taking Korea. Russia controlled two ports – Port Arthur and Vladivostok. As above Vladivostok is not a good port city for a large modern fleet (it still isn’t). Port Arthur is tucked away in the Yellow Sea above Korea. The two cities are separated by 1000 miles or sailing 5x the distance by going around Korea. Controlling the two ports against Japan is a strategic nightmare, since the Japanese home islands cuts them in half by sea and nobody could justify the effort to supply both by land. The Russians constantly pressed for a naval base in Korea but even when presented with opportunities in the 1890s, the Russians were scared away by saber-rattling from Britain and Japan. The Anglo-Japanese alliance needed to be broken up but Russia couldn’t find a way through.

Even worse, the Russian navy was in a sorry state. While it had somewhat impressive numbers and it had modern battleships, Russian admirals were better known for womanizing than strategic thinking and Russian sailors spent too much time drinking and not enough practicing gunnery. A lot of it came down to being treated as secondary importance compared to the army. The Russian navy was only supposed to clear Ottoman ships and sweep out artillery to make way for Russian infantry to seize their objectives. In the Far East, the navy’s goal was to disrupt a Japanese amphibious landing in Korea and disrupt supplies, perhaps distracting the Japanese navy by bombarding coastal cities and forcing them to spread out in defense. But there was some schizophrenic thinking about whether Russia should be aggressive in swarming its enemies or fight defensively in areas that could be supported by coastal batteries, mostly because they simply weren’t sure who they might be fighting. They could be aggressive against the Japanese navy but needed to be defensive if they were joined by the Royal Navy.

Unfortunately, I was hoping for a treatment of Russian consideration during the actual Russo-Japanese War. Russia miscalculated badly and both severely underestimated the Japanese and procrastinated way too much on their own strategic considerations, and I wanted to know what Russian commanders were thinking when they started getting really bad news. They only embarked on a proper ship-building program to counter Japan in the late 1890s, a decade too late, although the Russians were aware that the Japanese had overstretched their finances and were almost desperate for another war to get more reparations and they had been well aware in the 1880s that Japan presented a medium- to long-term threat to Russian interests in Korea and northern China. The actual war gets literally a paragraph at the very end, in which it is simply noted that the Russians lost every naval battle and after the Japanese made an uncontested amphibious landing in Korea, they lost every ground battle too.

As a food, this is a salad buffet. It’s a great idea and you see all the pieces are there, but when you put it all together, it’s actually pretty disappointing. The subject matter is hugely interesting and I think there are a lot of historical lessons to be learned from the strategy and political constraints, but there’s never a punchline to get it going. Not recommended.

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