- Russian Imperialism and Naval Power: Military Strategy and the Build-Up to the Russo-Japanese War by Nicholas Papastratagakis
Given its significance for East Asia the haul of new scholarship generated by the centennial of the Russo-Japanese War could only be described as disappointing. Perhaps this is not surprising as Russians find little to celebrate, and even Japanese view the event, a national triumph paving the way for later tragedy, with ambivalence. Yet even in English the production of new works was quite meager and generally confined to edited collections.1 Nicholas Papastratagakis’s Russian Imperialism and Naval Power: Military Strategy and the Build-Up to the Russo-Japanese War does help add a previously hidden element to this historiography but is really more at home, and more useful, in discussing the effects of the evolution of late nineteenth-century imperialism and the rise of “navalism” during the 1890s on Russia as a whole.
Russia’s place as both an imperial and naval power at the turn of the twentieth century was unique and presented Russian strategists with many pressing and often mutually reinforcing problems. One of the most helpful contributions of Papastratagakis’s work is to contextualize Russia’s experience within the transformation of Western imperialism from the more informal commercial variety predominant through the mid nineteenth century, at which the British particularly excelled, and the more frenetic militarized scramble for overseas colonies and territories which characterized late nineteenth-century “industrial imperialism,” at which Britain was no slouch but was hard pressed by the efforts of Germany, France, Russia, and others including the United States and Japan. In the 1890s the object of this new imperialism was increasingly East Asia, particularly Qing China.
This change was accompanied by the rise of a new instrument of and symbol for imperial success: a blue water navy. The works of Alfred Thayer Mahan especially helped to articulate the need for and to stimulate interest in the possession of a large fleet of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers as the primary means to either protect one’s communications between metropole and colonies or to break the connections of rival powers by destroying their battle fleet thereby securing “command of the seas.” While not universally accepted, especially by those [End Page 1010] emphasizing defensive measures against fleets such as torpedo boats, minefields, and (eventually) submarines while long-ranging cruisers attacked the enemy’s merchant shipping, Mahan’s ideas were eagerly taken up by those who saw the possession of a battle fleet as the ultimate expression of imperial power, notably Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany but also his cousin, Nicholas II, tsar of Russia.
Despite the fact that Russia was first and foremost a land power, the tsar’s fondness for the navy was a principal factor allowing it to take advantage of the new environment. But, as Papastratagakis notes, the Russian navy faced several challenges in its quest to become a useful agent of Russian imperialism. These challenges fell into three major categories—the geographic, the political, and the organizational—which made the overall task of deciding upon and pursuing a strategic vision exceedingly difficult. The geographic challenge was that the vast territory of imperial Russia encompassed three potential theaters of action, the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Pacific, which were totally unconnected from each other and where forces deployed were incapable of providing mutual support.
While the proximity of St. Petersburg and Russia’s western frontiers made the Baltic the most important theater strategically, the difficulties involved in building a fleet that could stand against Great Britain or imperial Germany was daunting. Russia’s Pacific frontier was distant, with poor communications links to the heartland (at least until the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed) and suffered inadequate bases (Vladivostok froze for several months) with poor support and repair facilities. Worst of all was that the Black Sea was, since Russian warships could leave only with permission from Turkey (unlikely to be forthcoming), essentially a landlocked lake.