Today’s regional tensions all come down to that ‘other great game’

The spring of 1905 was difficult for Russia. A year into its conflict with Japan, it had yet to score a single major victory. Some blamed incompetent leadership — one general was described as “deaf, aged and jittery” — while others lamented an overall lack of initiative.

Then, there was intelligence, which was spotty at best: Half the time, the Russians did not even know where the enemy was. Perhaps worst of all was a disease of the mind that seemed to affect much of the top brass, particularly the tsar and his entourage in far away St. Petersburg: hubris. Few had taken Japan seriously. This proved a costly mistake.

On their end, the Japanese were leaving nothing to chance. And unlike the Russians, they knew how to generate momentum. Their opening salvo on Feb. 8, 1904 had been a surprise attack on Port Arthur, a strategic naval base at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, which Russia had occupied since 1897. It was not the devastating blow that some had hoped for, but it gave Japan enough room to land troops unopposed on the west coast of Korea. By the end of the month, Tokyo had already achieved its primary objective: boot the Russians out of the Hermit Kingdom. The wind never turned.

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