Evaluate the risks and rewards of the principle strategic options open to Russia for the use of its navy during the war.


By "looking through a clearer lens" and studying Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) lessons learned, there were some strategic options open to Russia that could have benefited the use of her navy during the war and affected the war's outcome. These strategic options include: 1) diplomatically appeasing the Japanese; 2) using her naval power more aggressively and; 3) synchronizing her ground and naval efforts to delay and deter the Japanese. As you'll see, these strategic options are interrelated.


Diplomatically the Russian government could have reduced the antagonism between Japan and herself by making some concessions "give up a little now and get it back later" to send a clear signal to Japan and the rest of the word that her imperialistic objectives and overtones in Asia were going to be limited. It could be assessed that by keeping her promise of removing Russian troops from Korea and Manchuria, Russia could have greatly reduced the tension with Japan and would probably have looked favorably upon by the rest of the world.

The greatest risks to Russia were the loss of her forward operating bases such as Port Arthur and Japan continuing with her invasion of Korea and Manchuria. However, there would have been international condemnation against Japan if she continued with an invasion after a Russian agreement to withdraw. Diplomatic appeasement could have robbed Japan of the justification she needed to wage war on Russia and occupy Korea and Manchuria.

Russia would have gained additional time with diplomatic appeasement, especially if she set the timetable for the withdrawal to gather strategic intelligence, mobilize her ground and naval forces, build better logistical infrastructure, train and exercise, and develop accurate military estimates of the Japanese. For example, Russia could have concentrated her combat power to compensate for her numerical inferiority in the Pacific, by combining her Asia Pacific naval forces (Chemulpo and Port Arthur with Vladivostok) and deploying its Baltic fleet to the Far East. Mahan states naval forces should be concentrated and not divided in peace time and wartime (Page 167). These actions would have allowed Russia to be in a position to conduct more aggressive naval operations in the Pacific theater and forced Japan to recalculate her military estimates of the Russian fleet. In turn, Japan would have delayed her invasion plans against Korea and Manchuria, especially if there was a combined Russian Baltic, Port Arthur, Chemulpo fleet at Valdivostok threatening Japan's lines of communications. However, a combined fleet at Valdivostok alone would not have deterred Japan's invasion plans for long. The Russians would have to employ a second strategic option of aggressively employing her naval might if she was to deter or defeat the Japanese.


In accordance with the writings of Mahan that naval power must be projected and the initiative taken quickly and decisively. The second strategic option Russian could have exercised was to use her naval power more aggressively to protect her sea lines of communication and deny Japan commercial and military use of the sea. Russian control of Port Arthur and the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad allowed her to control the Liaotung Peninsula. If she had the strategic intelligence, she would have known that Japan's objective was to command the sea to realize its long-term imperialistic ambitions in Korea and China. In order to accomplish this objective, Japan needed to destroy or blockade the Russian Far East Fleet before her forces would invade Korea and Manchuria. Ironically Admiral Yamamoto sent Admiral Togo a letter anticipating Russian moves (Warner, page 185); that they would collect the whole fleet at Port Arthur and will attract the Japanese and from a position of advantage forcing them to expend their strength running about. The Japanese also anticipated the Russians would use Vladivostok to launch raids against coastal Japanese towns and divide the Japanese fleet. In addition, if the Russians had the chance, they would combine their Port Arthur and Vladivostok squadrons and engage the Japanese fleet. Fortunately for the Japanese, they overestimated the capabilities of the Russians.

Russia could have prevented Japan from controlling the sea by concentrating her fleets as described in the second strategic option discussed above, and using them to actively finding and destroying enemy ships. In addition, she should have used her forces to disrupt enemy lines of communication, and seize, blockade, and protect choke points and coastal bases. As a nation of the sea, Japan's economy would have been disrupted, and it naval forces would have been diverted into protecting her lines of communications. This is another application of naval power advocated by Mahan (page 153). He stated "lines of communication dominate strategy". As a result, Japan would postpone any invasion of the mainland until she could secure her lines of communications. An example of Russia's aggressiveness that proved tactically successful took place in April 1904. The Vladivostok squadron conducted a successful raid against Wonson, destroying two Japanese coastal vessels and a troop carrier. In June 1904, they also sailed into the Korean Strait and sank two transports and damaged a third. As a result, an entire Japanese infantry battalion and 18 howitzers sank. Not only did this engagement disrupt much needed men and materials but it had a considerable psychological impact on the Japanese. Furthermore, it diverted naval vessels to protect its lines of communications in the Korean Strait and Sea of Japan.

The risk the Russians would have taken with more aggressive operations was direct confrontation with the Japanese Imperial naval which was superior to the Russians in doctrine, training, leadership, and equipment. In June 1904, the Port Arthur squadron confronted Admiral Togo's fleet. But fearing he was outgunned, Togo decided not to attack. In contrast, the Russians believed they were at a disadvantage and returned to Port Arthur. Unfortunately for the Russians, they decided to stay bottled up in Port Arthur harbor, which ultimately led to the fleet's destruction. She should have continued mining operations outside of Port Arthur like she did in May 1904, which resulted in the loss of two Japanese battleships, a cruiser and several smaller craft; reducing the number of Admiral Togo's fleet by a third.

Aggressive naval actions by the Russians would have kept Admiral Togo's fleet tied up and delayed Japan from landing forces on the Liaoyang Peninsula and threatening Port Arthur. This would have given the Russian Army additional time to accumulate reinforcements in Manchuria. Such coordination between the Navy and Army is the third strategic option open to the Russians.


This third strategic option is interrelated with the previous two strategic options addressed in this paper and if accomplished could have been a force multiplier for the Russians. If the Russians had done their "homework" in developing accurate military assessments of Japanese military capabilities, they would have understood that the Japanese army and navy were superior in doctrine, training, and resources. Furthermore, the Japanese had the advantage of much shorter lines of communication than them. By understanding this predicament, the Russians should have realized that in order to defeat this superior enemy, they required time and lots of it because they did not at the onset of hostilities have the manpower nor resources in this theater of operations to wage successful military operations against the Japanese. Furthermore, she should have understood that her Navy and Army needed to collaborate and synchronize her efforts in order to bear all her available resources against a superior trained and equipped foe.

The Japanese felt it was essential to protect their lines of communication in order to transport her ground troops from Japan to the Korean and Laiotung Peninsulas. If Russia employed more aggressive naval operations and synchronized their efforts with her Army's operations in Korea and Manchuria, she could have delayed the Japanese First Army's debarkation and advance through Korea. In addition, these combined operations would have gained Russia precious time to improve her capability to protect her center of gravity, lengthy supply lines.

The navy could have also supported ground forces with firepower similar to what the Japanese navy provided their ground forces during the siege of Port Arthur, and gained critical planning time to allow her ground forces to bolster its defensive positions. In accordance with Mahan's writings, the port could have been used to support ground forces in carrying out offensive operations against the Japanese (page 159). In addition, the Russian navy could have used her vessels to transport troops to where and when she needed them, such as conducting raids behind enemy lines. As a result, Japanese landings on the Laiotung Peninsula may have been delayed long enough for General Kuropatkin time to gain reinforcements in Manchuria thus sparing Port Arthur from an immediate siege, and giving the army time to complete Trans-Siberian railway. The risk Russia had to weigh with Naval operations outside of Port Arthur in support of the Army was a direct engagement with the Japanese Fleet.


Russia's strategic naval options at the onset of hostilities with Japan were extremely limited. Unlike Japan who used all of her elements of national power, Russia underestimated Japanese strategy and fortitude to accomplish their limited strategic objectives. She had no maritime policy and her Navy combat organization was inadequate for joint and Pacific operations. As a result, even before the onset of hostilities in 1904, the Russian Navy was at a severe disadvantage to employ any strategic option. They were hamstrung from the beginning until the end of the war.

Russian politics was plagued with incompetence at the highest levels of authority. The Tsar and his ministers failed miserably in leveraging her diplomatic, economic, informational, and military power. Leadership within the armed forces was also lacking; generals hated each other and tried to make one other fail. Not only was there a lack of leadership, incompetence was proliferate. For example, General Stoessel surrendered Port Arthur without consulting his superiors and subordinates although there were plenty of supplies to survive a longer siege. Russia also lacked strategic intelligence, adequate command and control processes, and her naval forces were split between the Far East and Baltic, and in the Far East further split by having ships at Port Arthur and Vladivostok. To make matters worst, Valdivostok was 1220 miles North of Port Arthur, ice bound for three months of the year, and her sea approaches were watched by Japan (Warner, page 6). This proved fateful to the Russians as Port Arthur would require reinforcements from the Baltic Fleet which would have to sail over 18,000 miles around three continents and through enemy waters. In addition, there was zero coordination between the Navy and Army; Joint operations were essentially non-existent.

Russia also failed to secure their lines of communication between Korea and their forward operating bases at Port Arthur and Vladivostok. Russian lines of communication were vulnerable, extremely long, and limited to one avenue of approach on sea and land. Land forces were forced to transit over 5,500 of miles to the front via the Trans-Siberian railroad. Her navy also lacked the infrastructure to support ship maintenance, applicable doctrine, competent leadership, tested and proven tactics, and adequate training.

Russia was also three years behind the power curve, since the Japanese had been planning, training, and exercising during this timeframe. By the end of these three years, Japan's navy and army were better prepared than Russia in the conduct of joint amphibious operations. She had gathered critical order of battle and operational intelligence, and war-gamed possible scenarios. She was ignorant of regional undercurrents, and unprepared for combat operations in the Far East. As a result, Japan gained the strategic advantage and surprised the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. Militarily the Russian navy was caught so off guards that even after the first surprise attack against Port Arthur she was unprepared for the second attack that followed the next day. In the end, Russia did nothing right to employ any of the strategic options outlined in this report.


The lessons learned from the Russo-Japanese War have helped to identify some risks and rewards of the principle strategic options open to Russia for the use of its navy during the war. However, as stated in the counter-argument, Russia was hamstrung from the beginning and although she had several strategic naval options open to her, she realistically could not be expected to recognize any of them. Strategically, the one option she could have used to her advantage was to wage a war of attrition and preserve Port Arthur. By doing so, she would have allowed reinforcements to gather to launch counter operations against the Japanese, and prevented Japan from gaining any victories that would secure credit ratings for foreign loans to financing their war effort. Lastly, by preventing the fall of Port Arthur, a symbol of national solidarity, the Russians could have maintained the internal security of the Tsarist government. Ultimately, Port Arthur's fall resulted in a huge psychological blow which led to widespread protests and strikes in Russia, "Bloody Sunday", and ultimately the Tsar's reputation and standing within the Russian empire.


1. Bennett, D. A., The Russo-Japanese war: Defining Victory, Marine Corps Gazette, Nov 2002.

2. Dupuy R.E. and Dupuy, T.N., The Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present, New York, Harper and Row,.

3. Handel, M.I., Masters of War, London, Frank Cass Publishers, 3rd Edition, 2002.

4. Mahan, A.T., The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, Dover, 1987.

5. Palmer, R.R and Colton, J., A History of the Modern World, New York, McGraw Hill, 1995.

6. Warner, D. and Warner, P., The Tide at Sunrise, London, Frank Cass, 2002.

Copyright © 2004 Andrew Torelli