Could Russia have beaten Japan in 1904/05? At least on paper, sure but more than a few butterflies would have been needed to give the Russians victory.

Most students of WW1 would have had at least a glance at the Russo-Japanese war being the first great conflict of the 20th Century. Russia leases Port Arthur from the Chinese giving them a Pacific warm-water port. Japan feels threatened as they had designs on China and this would seem to give the Russians the upper hand in dictating policy in the Sino-sphere, as well as threatening Korea. War is declared, the Russian Pacific fleet is battered by the Japanese whilst the land war is more stalemated. The Russian European Fleet arrives in the Far East and this too is defeated allowing Japan the ability to invade Sakhalin island.

How did the Japanese win? Well, correctly they invested more in naval power rather than land power enabling them to win huge victories against the Russians. Russian strategy was to have held fast until the reserves can be brought in from the west whereby the Japanese could have been cleared out with ease. Japan’s surprise attack on Port Arthur caught the Russians with their pants down and drove home the point that the element of surprise can be worth legions on the battlefield.

Added to the mix was that the Russians were effectively isolated diplomatically – France nor Germany would help (Germany were still an nominal ally at the time) whilst the Japanese benefitted from assistance from the British, particularly utilising British Intelligence assets and the banning of Russia from using the Suez Canal allowed Britain to keep tabs on the progress of the Baltic Fleet.

So to make Japan lose, one needs to bolster Russian naval defences or at the very least weaken the Japanese (easier for the former, harder for the latter, not without serious butterflies). Also, if the Russians had more troops in the area, they could have chased the Japanese out of Manchuria and even Korea. This would have completely buggered up the Japanese – the Home Islands were practically impregnable at this point; there weren’t enough assets to mount even a half-hearted invasion but a massive naval victory by the Russians could have seen coastal cities bombarded.

I think more support for the Russians by at least France would have been useful as the French had more war materiel’s in the area and there could have been greater co-operation in this area. Perhaps the lack of an Entente Cordiale could have encouraged the more hawkish elements of the French military to offer more military assistance to their allies.

It’s more plausible to have a narrow Japanese defeat than a major one – let’s say that the Dogger Bank incident hasn’t happened, the Russians are able to use the Suez Canal and can rush to the Far East a lot more quickly together with a number of land battle victories. The Japanese situation becomes very precarious and they panic. The Russians are able to take advantage of some mistakes and with the battle of Tsushima, albeit narrowly and can relieve Port Arthur. Increasing diplomatic pressure from President Roosevelt and the British who are getting wary of the enhanced Russian position force both sides to the table. The peace treaty hammered out between the two is pretty much Status Quo Ante Bellum with some minor Japanese concessions. They are allowed to keep Korea but have to respect the Russian position in China and Port Arthur. This leads to anti-military riots in Tokyo but are quelled leaving a less hawkish Japan and just for the hell of it, Yamamoto is killed at Tsushima.

Russia on the other hand still undergoes a revolution but one which is less radical than in OTL. There are victory parades and a great outpouring of patriotic fervor by the populace but the underlying antipathy towards the Tsar still remains. Some concessions are granted, not least in light of “lessons learned” from the war. Military reforms go ahead slowly but steadily building on the back of the ground campaigns. Russian adventurism remains a sticking point and they are more likely to dabble with European affairs, particularly during Balkan Wars. The first Balkan War proceeds more or less on schedule but a stronger Russia is able to keep the peace between Bulgaria and Serbia so there is no second Balkan war and the Russo-Bulgarian Alliance is preserved.

So let’s jump ahead to WW1 and this is where it’d get harder to predict. Franz-Ferdinand is still shot by Princip and here’s your point of real divergence. Either Austria-Hungary are terrified of Russian intentions and insist on less harsh terms on Serbia which are accepted – it was only the lack of territorial integrity that was the sticking point which can be removed. Or the Russians are immediately jumping to Serbia’s defense and it’s clear that war can’t be stopped as early as June.

If Serbia accepts Austria’s demands to co-operate, general war in averted and the longest summer continues unabated. Chances are that with the death of Franz-Josef in 1916, internal fracas within Austria-Hungary leads to break up of the dual monarchy as nationalist pressures erupt (either in war or another International Congress). If WW1 breaks out, expect the battle of Tannenberg to perhaps go the way of Russia (especially if they have leaned how to encode their radio signals!) After that…well, it’s anyone’s guess but the Germans will be on the back foot in the east with all their best troops fighting in France.