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The Russo Japanese War (or Manchurian Campaign) was a conflict that arose from tensions between the Russian Empire and the Japanese Empire in regards to Manchuria and Korea. As the Russian Empire proceeded to capture more land as they progressively annexed states they encroached on Manchuria and Korea, which Japan considered a protective buffer zone.
Alexander III moved to the alliance with Japan and rivalry with Britain in Asia, but under Nicholas II this trend soon died off. His personal feelings (after the stupid attempt on his life during a visit in Japan) didn't help it either. The reason behind efforts to keep the presence in Korea despite previous arrangements on the spheres of influence was not even in conscious state politics, just a lobby of a few merchants directly interested in obtaining the concession being condoned by an incompetent monarch.
Following the First Sino Japanese War Japan succeeded in removing most of China's influence from Korea. Nicholas II considered the war with Japan right then, even though it was doomed to be a logistical calamity even worse than the Crimean War and his Chief of the General Staff plainly told him so. A direct confrontation didn't happen yet, but Russia reacted by having other powers pressure Japan to relinquish the Liaodong Peninsula for an increased financial indemnity. In December 1897 the Russian Navy moved towards Korea, taking Port Arthur on lease. The Boxer Rebellion in Manchuria offered another excuse for Russia to move in; as one of the eight elected international powers moved to quell the rebellion Russian didn't participate in a timely retreat from Manchuria, leaving a force behind.
The Japanese entered negotiations with Russia, allowing them to keep a presence in Manchuria as long as Japan remained in control of North Korea. They also succeeded in signing the Anglo-Japanese Alliance treaty in 1902, ensuring British support during a war with Russia. Japan would sever diplomatic relations on 6 February 1904 as tensions rose.
Japan declared war on Russia on 8 February 1904, but launched a preemptive attack on Port Arthur three hours before the declaration reached Russia (a tactic for which the country would later become (in)famous). Tsar Nicholas II was stunned by news of the attack. He could not believe that Japan would commit an act of war without a formal declaration, and had been assured by his ministers that the Japanese would not move to declare war (the requirement to declare war before commencing hostilities was not made international law until after the war had ended in October 1907, effective from 26 January 1910). Russia declared war eight days later and Montenegro did so as well, though mostly in moral support due to logistical reasons and distance, and in return for Russian help against the Ottoman Empire.
The war began with the surprise attack at Port Arthur, which developed in the Battle of Port Arthur as it progressed. This battle would mostly end in stalemate as the Japanese could not easily target the Russian forces in the port and the Russians would not move from their tactically superlative position in the port. The engagement did allow for a Japanese landing at Incheon in Korea.
While the Japanese moved forward the Russians focused on stalling as reinforcements were slowly moved in. The Japanese launched an offensive with the Battle of Yalu River, but the Russians stood their ground, not moving to counter attack the repelled forces. Confrontation would continue at Port Arthur as the Japanese attempted to make entering and leaving the port impossible. They succeeded to an extent, two Russian ships escaping the port being struck by mines, the one sinking and the other returning to port for extensive repairs. In turn, 2 May 1905 the minelayer "Amur" made a night sally and the next morning two Japanese battleships were sunk by its mines--which was two more that the whole fleet managed to bring down at Tsushima. Then again, it was one of the most modern ships in its fleet.
Eventually the siege of Port Arthur came to a head as Russian ships were moved out to face the Japanese. The ships exchanged fire, eventually a direct hit on the Russian flagship resulted in the death of the fleet commander, and though no ships were sunk the Russians retreated back into Port Arthur. The Japanese eventually captured the outward land fortifications of the port, using them to launch an attack on the Russian from which they could not retaliate; five Russian ships were lost as a result.
With Port Arthur captured the Japanese 3rd Army progressed northward instigating the Battle of Sandepu and Battle of Mukden. Both victories for Japan, the Russians made a continued retreat. With news of the defeat at Port Arthur reaching the reinforcements sailing past Madagascar en route, the Japanese prepared to intercept the demoralized Russian force. 27 May 1905 the Second Pacific Squadron (formerly Baltic Fleet) attempted to sneak through the Tsushima Straits under cover of darkness but was detected by the Japanese... and mostly demolished -- only three vessels made it to Vladivistok. The battle of Tsushima is the single most decisive naval victory of the 20th century, almost completely destroying the Russian navy. It was to be decades before Russia was taken seriously as a sea power again.
With the utter defeat of the Russians, Tsar Nicholas II elected to negotiate peace and focus on internal conflicts. The American President Theodore Roosevelt volunteered to act as a mediator (winning a Nobel peace prize for his efforts). The Treaty of Portsmouth was soon signed to signify peace. Ironically, in its bid to cut their losses and avoid the Sunk Cost Fallacy the Russian government might've missed their chance to win. The war was extremely heavy on then fledgling Japanese economy, to the point that they hardly had any bargaining point during the peace talks, and top Russian negotiator, Count Sergey Vitte, was able to trade so favorable peace terms that the Japanese envoy, Baron Komura, quipped: "I don't know who's really lost here!" (the economical hardships and unfavorable peace were the main reasons for the riots mentioned below). In short, some analysts speculate that war was economically unsustainable for Japan, and even in the wake of the horrific military disasters that were Tsushima, Mukden and Port Arthur, Russia could still win, had they persisted just a couple of months more.
In the aftermath, 80,000 Japanese and 70,000 Russians were killed. Russia lost much political esteem and respect due to the incident, and was underestimated due to it during World War One. Not long after the Russian Revolution would occur though by the time it was quelled Russia was able to achieve a boon that lead back into great prosperity. In Japan the result was met with mixed feelings, the victory was considered costly and much of the public were vocally displeased, and riots and protests persisted for a while after the war's conclusion. Other problems from the war would take much longer to become apparent; the "lessons learned" of the Russo-Japanese War would lead Japan and its navy to utter ruin three and half decades later, facing the United States.
Of interest, the Japanese navy managed to destroy their own flagship during the victory celebrations due to a sake-fueled accidental fire.
Depictions in fiction:
- The first part of Diamond Chariot book in Erast Fandorin series is set in Russia during Russo Japanese War.
- Several Valentin Pikul's novels are set in this period, most notably Cruisers, starring Russian naval officers, and Wealth, where an idealistic journalist is appointed the governor of Kamchatka, which is barely settled, full of Corrupt Hicks and dangerously close to Japan. A Japanese landing ensues and is repelled by breaking out some old rifles from an disused depot, but the hero is booted from Kamchatka nevertheless by said hicks.