The Russian invasion of Ukraine is proving to be one of the most destabilizing political developments of the twenty-first century. The long-term effects of this conflict will be felt for years to come, particularly within Russia itself. This conflict is reminiscent of another conflict over a hundred years ago, the Russo-Japanese War. The Russo-Japanese War was a turning point in Russian history as it weakened the Russian government both internationally and domestically, leading to the Bolshevik Revolution twelve years later. Likewise, the recent invasion of Ukraine has isolated Russia from the international community and exacerbated political unrest domestically. The Russo-Japanese War may provide valuable insight into the long-term effects of the current conflict
At the turn of the century, the Russian Empire was under significant pressure both domestically and internationally. The unification of the German Empire in 1871 solidified its status as a great power, threatening the power balance in Europe. Following the decision of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1887 to not renew the Reinsurance Treaty, Russia had to counter the growing ambitions of Berlin by a show of strength. Domestically, there was considerable political upheaval as the Czar promoted russification policies alienating a majority of his subjects and a proletariat formed from an industrial boom (Sebag 2016, The Romanovs, p. 509). The growing political unrest resulted in brutal crackdowns by the Czar’s administration. To distract from these domestic troubles, the Czar looked East, spurred on by the legacy of Russian expansion. This led to a military buildup in Manchuria and the breakdown of negotiations between the Japanese and Russian diplomats (Nikolai wanted both Manchuria and Korea). Though the war officially began with the Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur, Russian expansion into Manchuria in the years prior and Russian refusal of Japanese diplomatic offers heightened tensions between the two empires. The war resulted in a shocking Japanese victory that destroyed much of the Russian Pacific and Baltic fleets, weakened the Russian position into a near secondary status, and weakened the position of the autocracy of the Czar domestically. With the withdrawal of Russian forces from Korea and Manchuria, the Czar pivoted to the West, strengthening his support for Serbia to restore Russian prestige and legitimacy. This backed the Czar into a corner, forcing participation in the First World War, resulting in the destruction of the Romanov dynasty by the Bolsheviks.
It is also important to identify the atmosphere around the rise of Putin and the ascension of Nikolai II. The Czar came to power at a time when aristocratic rule across Europe was being replaced by democratic reforms. The assassination of Alexander II and the autocratic influence of Alexander III pivoted Nikolai II towards strengthening his regime. Putin came to power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and had to contend with the Chechnya conflict. Like Nikolai II, Putin solidified his autocratic regime and rolled back democratic reforms. Similar to the Czar, Putin has worked to restore Russia’s status as a great power by expanding Russia’s borders in Chechnya, Georgia and now Ukraine, the historical backyard of Russia.
How does this relate to the current war in Ukraine? Part of the reason for the Russian expansion into the Far East was to secure a warm water port in the Pacific and foster economic growth in the region. Warm water ports are important to Russian security as they are vital to the protection of Russian interests and power projection. The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the vital port at Sevastopol in 2014 strengthened the Russian presence in the Black Sea. This action weakened Ukraine economically and emboldened the Kremlin. President Putin has also invoked historical ties between Russia and Ukraine to justify the invasion. Like the Czar, Putin is using the legacy of Russian dominance and expansion in the region to both show strength as a major international player and crack down on political dissent domestically. However, Putin has underestimated Ukraine and miscalculated the political implications of the conflict, similar to that of the Czar and Japan.
The Czar, fueled by racial prejudices, believed the numerically superior Russian forces would defeat the Japanese. Instead, Russian forces were defeated in nearly every instance, humiliating the autocratic regime. Likewise, it is clear that the Russian military has been humiliated in the last three weeks with approximately two to six thousand casualties and another thousand vehicles and heavy material, artillery, missiles, etc., destroyed in Ukraine. The Russian advances have stalled with logistical issues stemming from Ukrainian defenses and Russian supply chains. The damage to civilians in Ukraine is also damaging Russian status abroad, providing greater support to the Ukrainian cause.
Will Vladimir Putin face a similar situation to that of Nikolai II following the war? I believe it is possible. The actions of the Ukrainian people have shown that they may continue to resist Russian occupation following the cessation of hostilities. The Covid-19 pandemic has isolated Putin, from his people and inner circle, and continues to be isolated through the current conflict. This separation between the Russian head of state and the people existed in the last years of the Romanovs, leading to poor national decision-making by the Czar based on misconceptions of the connection between the dynasty and the people. Something similar may be happening now, but it is unclear if any removal of Putin will take place in the near future. A major contributor to pressure on Putin is the recent economic sanctions that have devastated the Russian economy. The effects of the sanctions imposed by states around the world are creating pressure on the oligarchs supporting Putin that can add to Russian domestic issues, possibly resulting in a change in leadership.
As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” and I believe we are witnessing such a rhyme today in Ukraine. Putin’s gambit to maintain Russian prestige and great power status in the twenty-first century resembles the efforts of Nikolai II to do the same. In both cases, efforts to solve the dispute diplomatically were rejected by Russia. The failure to achieve a clear victory weakened Russia’s position internationally and the strength of the regime domestically in both cases. If the legacy of 1905 is any indication, Putin is leading Russia into an unstable and uncertain future.
Leo Field is a MA student in the International Security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He holds a B.A. in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations and minors in History and German from Stonehill College. He has interned with the Eurasian Partnership Foundation in Yerevan, Armenia, and became interested in International Relations and Political Science after participating in the NYLF National Security program in high school. After graduating Leo hopes to pursue a career with the State Department, serving in embassies abroad.