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Japan and Russia in the Pacific - 120 years of the Battle of Tsushima

“The naval battle at the Tsushima Islands in the Korea Strait, separating Japan

from mainland Asia, was the pinnacle of that [Russo-Japanese] war.

It stands among the top five naval battles of human history.”

~ The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima

An Illustration on the 120 Years of the Battle of Tsushima

Illustration by The Geostrata

“Hegel remarks... that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” famously remarked Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, more than 170 years ago, highlighting the inevitably of the recurrence of situations in the state and society by means of human actions. 

As we are marking the 120 years of the famous battle of Tsushima, which was fought on May 27–28, 1905, it gives us an opportunity to analyse not only the impact of the that battle but also how, even after almost one and a half centuries later, the strategic predicaments in the Pacific are shaping the global balance of power.

Fought between Imperial Japan and Imperial Russia, the Battle of Tsushima is regarded as the first naval battle of the twentieth century and the decisive confrontation that helped Japan defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. 

In 1868, twenty-two years before American Naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, the Imperial Japanese Navy was formed amid the era of the Meiji Restoration. In the following years, during the Boxer Rebellion in China, both Japan and Russia increased their military presence in the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria.

Japan was apprehensive about the Russian military presence in Manchuria and demanded the withdrawal of the Russian forces from the region. However, Tsar Nicolas II declined to withdraw his forces from the strategically important region. 

Eventually on February 9, 1904, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Russian ships near Port Arthur, a Russian naval base at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria. Thus began the Russo-Japanese war, which ultimately culminated with the defeat of Russia in the Battle of Tsushima.

One of the reasons behind Russia’s defeat in the battle was the stark disparity in terms of the initial naval assets that it possessed compared to its Japanese counterpart. 

Russia had on its side the Second Pacific Squadron of the Imperial Russian Navy, which included 8 battleships, 3 coastal battleships, 3 armoured cruisers, 2 large protected cruisers, 3 small protected cruisers, 1 2nd class cruiser, 1 auxiliary cruiser, 9 destroyers, and 7 support vessels. By contrast, the Japanese combined fleet included 4 battleships first class, 8 armoured cruisers, 2 large protected cruisers, 10 small protected cruisers, 1 battlefield 2nd class, 3 cruisers 2nd class, 3 torpedo cruisers, 21 destroyers, and 43 torpedo boats. 

After the siege of Port Arthur by the Japanese in 1904, the Russians have lost their access to the Pacific Ocean in terms of naval strength since their entry to the city of Vladivostok, which was important for logistics and other strategic reasons, by naval route, which will be denied by the Japanese.

Due to this, the Russians have to use another path to reach there and reclaim their ports from the Japanese. The alternative path included Russia voyaging through the Baltic Sea under the command of Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, who sailed over seven months and 18,000 nautical miles to reach the Strait of Tsushima. 

An image of the Path of Russian Fleet by Constantine Pleshakov

Path of the Russian fleet

Photo Credit - Constantine Pleshakov

By the end of the sail, when they encountered the Japanese fleet led by Vice Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, the condition of the Russian ships was sluggish due to low maintenance, along with the low morale of the sailors. Both fleets started to approach each other. Amid such conditions, the battle of Tsushima began at 1349 hrs.

Japanese analysts describe the tactics employed by Admiral Tōgō as similar to those of the “Kuruna Gajari” formation used in mediaeval Japan, under which the attacking ships run into the adversary ship by means of a rotary attack. 

The next day, May 28, 1904, with almost 5000 Russians and 117 Japanese killed and heavy losses from its flotilla, Russia was defeated by Japan, thus marking the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

This battle in particular and the war in general demonstrated how technological advancements aided by competent commanders and well-planned strategies can fundamentally alter the balance of power. For the first time in centuries, an Asian power had defeated a European power. Both events—the rise of Japan and the decline of Imperial Russia—will have a profound impact on the events of the 20th century. 


As we see the Pacific region at the onset of 120 years of that historical battle, much has changed, yet much has stayed the same. One power, aggressive in nature, and following expansionist policies in the region creates troubles for everyone. 

Similarly, there are countries finding it hard to come to any kind of modus vivendi with that aggressor. The battle of Tsushima teaches us that no matter how big a geographical area a country has, if it fails to maintain its technological edge and friendly relations with allies in the region, it can fail miserably. 


At present, the situation in the Indo-Pacific demands joint collaboration between allies to promote interoperability between their militaries, in addition to cooperating in other international forums on the issues of convergence. Further, in this age of modern warfare, the allies must intensify their tactical and strategic capabilities when it comes to multi-domain warfare.




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