In the early years of Tsar Nicholas II's reign, besides his mother, uncles and official tutor, he was also coached by his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Being cousins, Kaiser Wilhelm often used this private channel to influence Tsar Nicholas about European affairs. The former would encourage the latter to stay away from European affairs so that Germany could deal directly with France. Kaiser Wilhelm encouraged the Tsar to think that Russia had a holy mission in Asia, and that it was Russia's task to develop the Asian continent and defend Europe from the Great Yellow Race.
For years, the German Chancellor Bismarck had also been encouraging Russia to expand its presence in Asia as a way of diminishing its influence in Europe. By doing so, Germany also hoped to reduce the risk of war in the Balkans between its ally Austria-Hungary and Russia, so that Germany could focus on dealing with France.
Moreover, the Germans had also calculated that whatever Russia did in Asia, it would come into conflict with either the British or Japanese. With Russia tied down in the Far East, Germany would have greater flexibility to exert its own influence in Europe. Given such encouragement, besides the Russian Tsar, many Russians were also enthusiastic to venture into the Far East.
Tsar Nicholas II
Port Arthur and Korea
For Russia, the occupation of Port Arthur in 1897 was a joyous occasion. Russia finally had an ice-free port in the Far East. After the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, Russia temporarily occupied Manchuria. With that, it began to direct its attention towards the Korean peninsula, which was under the Japanese sphere of influence.
A group of Russians began to plan to acquire the territory from Japan. They established a private company called Yalu Timber Company and began moving Russian troops, disguised as workers, into Korea. If these soldiers/workers were to get into trouble, Russia could disclaim any official responsibility over their actions. However, if they succeeded in penetrating into Korea, Russia would eventually gain a new province together with its vast natural resources.
Sergei Witte, the Russian Finance Minister, strongly opposed this risky plan, though Tsar Nicholas overruled him, as he was impressed by the leader of the group, a former cavalry officer named Bezobrazov. It also did not help that Kaiser Wilhelm chipped in with the advice that "it is evident to every unbiased mind that Korea must and will be Russian".
Russia's approach was met with Japanese opposition. In 1901, Japanese representative Ito Hirobumi visited St. Petersburg to negotiate, though he was treated in a shameful manner. Ignored and finding no one to negotiate with, he put his requests in writing, but the Russian replies were often delayed for days. Finally, Ito left Russia in despair.
In 1903, the Japanese Minister in St. Petersburg, Kurino Shinichiro tried again in vain to seek an audience with the Tsar, urgently warning about the need to negotiate the Korean issue. In February 1904, Kurino also left Russia without any success in resolving the matter.
Russian troops in Manchuria
The Russians chose to treat the Japanese in a shabby manner as they were confident that Russia could easily win a war against Japan. The Russian generals thought that it would not be necessary for the Russian army to fire a single shot for Russia to win. One said that the Russians could "annihilate the Japanese monkeys by simply throwing their caps at them". Even the Minister of Interior openly welcomed the idea of a "small, victorious war", declaring that Russia had been "made by bayonets, not by diplomacy".
Tsar Nicholas, surrounded by his like-minded advisors, thought that the war could only be begun on Russia's own terms. At the New Year's Day diplomatic reception for foreign diplomats, the Tsar spoke grandly about Russia's military might.
It was against such a backdrop that the Russians were greatly shocked by the Japanese surprise attack on 8 February 1904. Upon his return from the theatre, Tsar Nicholas received a telegram from Admiral Alexeiev, his Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief in the Far East which read
"About midnight, Japanese destroyers made a sudden attack on the squadron anchored in the outer harbour of Port Arthur. The battleships Tsarevich, Retvizan and the cruiser Pallada were torpedoed. The importance of the damage is ascertained."
Stunned by the turn of events, Tsar Nicholas wrote the text of the telegram into his diary, adding, "This is without a declaration of war. May God come to our aid."
Destroyed vessel at Port Arthur
When the news reached the general public, huge crowds filled the streets of St. Petersburg. Students carrying banners marched to the Winter Palace, singing hymns. Tsar Nicholas acknowledged them with a salute. However, he was now worried about the war that had broken out. While the people now looked forward to a quick victory, he was aware of the poor state of the Russian military and the massive logistical constraints of fighting a war in the Far East, far from Russia's industrial base.
Russia now had to work out how to transport guns, munitions and food, as well as troop reinforcements, over four thousand miles on a single track of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Moreover, the railway was not fully completed with a gap of a hundred miles around the southern end of Lake Baikal. While Russia, on paper, had a numerical advantage over Japan, it had only about 80,000 regular troops in the Far East, who were also poorly trained and equipped.
With their surprise attack, the Japanese had also managed to gain command of the sea. Russian ships which had survived the initial onslaught were now trapped at Port Arthur. With the sea secure, Japanese expeditionary forces were free to land where they chose on the Asian mainland.To make things worse, Russia's distinguished admiral, Stepan Makarov, was killed in April when his flagship hit a mine.
Tsar Nicholas watched with growing dismay as news reached home about successive defeats both on land and at sea. His first reaction was to go to the front himself and command his troops, though this was later overruled by his uncles. Instead, he visited military camps, reviewed troops and passed out images of St. Seraphim to soldiers about to be sent to the Far East front. The Tsarina cancelled all social activities and turned the Winter Palace's ballrooms into workplaces for women to make clothing and bandages for soldiers.
Faced with the prospect of a humiliating defeat, Tsar Nicholas decided to send part of the Baltic Fleet to the Far East to restore Russia's naval control there. However, when this fleet was destroyed by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima, Tsar Nicholas recognised that Russia had lost the war. Recalling his former Finance Minister Sergei Witte, Tsar Nicholas despatched him to the United States to make the best of a peace conference which US President Roosevelt had offered to mediate.
Partly due to Witte's diplomatic efforts and the fact that Japan was facing financial difficulties in continuing the war, Tsar Nicholas adopted a tough stance in which he expressed his willingness to fight on. This was his way of ensuring that Russia did not have to capitulate to all of Japan's demands at the negotiating table. In the end, Japan, seeing the bigger picture, decided to compromise on its initial demands.
Nonetheless, the Russo-Japanese War had effectively ended Russia's "holy mission" in Asia. Humiliated by its defeat by an Asian power (a first in modern history), Russia began to return its focus to Europe. However, by now, with internal discontent within Russia reaching feverish levels and its military in a terribly weakened state, Russia was no longer a Great Power to be feared.