Vladimir Putin now faces a 1905-style national humiliation

The Russo-Japanese war marked the beginning of the end of the Tsar – Ukraine may do the same for today’s Russian leader

Jeremy Black

. 19 April 2022 • 8:00pm

The sinking of the flag ship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet provoked a sense of deja vu among military historians. Prior to the demise of the Moskva, the last time the Russian Navy suffered a comparable blow was at the battle of Tsushima, in the final stages of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Across the two days of the battle, two thirds of the Russian fleet was sunk and a number of surviving ships captured. It was a disastrous defeat, and it is not the only striking parallel between then and now.

The Russo-Japanese war, admittedly, was started by Japan after years of tensions over the two empires’ desire to expand. But the result was a calamity for the Russian regime: it was the first time in the modern era that a European power was defeated by an Asian nation, and not just any Asian nation but one that had been an isolationist feudal state a few decades earlier. The sense of national humiliation was acute for Russia – as it ought to be again today, as the world witnesses the supposed cream of the Russian military being ground to a halt by a nation that, so Putin’s logic goes, is not even a real country.

In 1904-5, the Russian navy was revealed as hopelessly outdated against Japanese ships that were both technologically more advanced and better led, drawing on British naval models that allowed them to operate with a flexibility that eluded the Russians. The Russian military in 2022 has, again, been vulnerable to new forms of warfare. President Putin’s boasts about his military and the large amount of money he has devoted to its modernisation have been exposed as nimble Ukrainian units armed have thus far routed the invading forces and weapons systems worth millions of dollars have been towed from the battlefield by farmers in tractors.

While successful at sea, the Japanese found it difficult to deliver results on land. Ultimately, neither Japan nor Russia were adequately prepared for the unpredictability of conflict and the logistical and financial strains this imposed became increasingly serious for both.

However, the crucial contrast that opened up was between the early arrogant and in part racist assumptions of the Russian leadership and the reality of an intractable conflict. So also today. Instead of facing up to the difficulties his military faces, President Putin is renewing his assault, shifting the focus to the Donbas presumably in the conviction that this time he will be more successful. The Russo-Japanese War ought to teach him the dangers of a wartime leader digging in his heels.

Tsar Nicholas II had an early opportunity to negotiate peace but chose not to, believing that the Russian weight of arms would deliver victory. It was a disastrous decision – militarily, politically and personally. In 1905, the Russian empire broke into open revolt against him. It took more than a year for the government to regain control, by which time the Tsar had been forced into a number of democratic concessions and the stage had been set for the revolution that eventually toppled him in 1917.

The parallels between Ukraine and the Russo-Japanese war are not perfect. But if I were Vladimir Putin, I would find enough in the story to worry me. His forces face a similar humiliation and, though it could again be years in the making, defeat may yet mark the beginning of the end for this modern Tsar’s hideous reign.

Jeremy Black is the author of ‘Military Strategy: A Global History’


  1. “defeat may yet mark the beginning of the end for this modern Tsar’s hideous reign.”

    I hope to God you are right Jeremy.

    Related: Gary Kasparov said on FB yesterday that putler will likely be taken out by one of his entourage. Where’s Beria when you need him?

    Liked by 5 people

  2. A piece of putrefying RuSSian toilet waste masquerading as a commenter has posted.
    He claims that is his name is “alan levinson”, but it’s more likely to be Ivan Shitzov from the SP troll farm:

    “There is a direct parallel to the American civil war with the Brutish empire of the East india company ‘s commitment to break up its main rival the United States by supporting its raw materials source in the confederacy. Like Lincoln President Putin was faced with a military alliance determined to break up his country on behalf of the new incarnation of empire with the British poison takeover of American foreign policy. Like Lincoln at first coming in soft caused losses to the North Putin is discovering that Ukraine like the confederacy is a pawn of pure evil. During the civil war the Russian government threatened the British against intervening on behalf of their puppet’s in the confederacy. Just as Lincoln had Grant and Sherman President Putin has generals who can bring a victory for all humanity by defeating the empire of lies.”

    A Splendid reply came from “Bot Man” :

    Reply to alan levinson

    “I poison my enemies, I lie to my people, I change the law to prevent the truth being heard, I shell civilians, I arrest my own people when they make mistakes, I kill my political opponents, I send conscripts to their death, I am the new Hitler.
    I want to destroy a flourishing democracy on my doorstep, I want that country’s natural resources, I don’t believe the people in that country have a right to exist, I mourn the loss of Empire my country agreed to give up, I resent that NATO can defend countries from attack by me, I have billions of taxpayers money parked with Oligarchs on my behalf.
    I am small, insecure, craving power and attention. I am a needy psychopath.
    I fake election results so I can stay in power beyond my elected mandate.
    I am Putin, the new Hitler.”

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Another good comment from a reader :

    Dario O’Grady:

    “The philosophy of Putin and his KGB cronies is such that Russia will not change if he is removed and it has been preached as the way of true life for the Russian it will be generations before there is a majority who accept that this philosophy is a destructive path to nowhere. This is why it is so important that Europe and Germany in particular are persuaded to drop Russian energy, to hobble this regime as the age of petroleum comes to an end and their grip on these resources are lost as the world moves beyond them, otherwise the west will have a powerful angry evil empire still hell bent on its aims and with the economic might to fulfill them.”

    Liked by 4 people

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