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SERGEEV Evgeny, Russian Military Intelligence in the war with Japan, 1904-05 (by Marco Pluviano)

Evgeny Sergeev, Russian Military Intelligence in the war with Japan, 1904-05, Routledge, London and New York, 2007, pp. 252.

The author of this book is Evgeny Yurevich Sergeev, a Russian historian. His main fields of study are Great War, and the Russian policy and action in Eastern Asia, with a focus on the so-called « Great game ». He is senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Science, Institute of General History, and he is leading the department devoted to the W.W.I. He is also Professor in the Russian Academy of Science State University of Humanitarian Studies.

He had consulted an impressive number of sources to write this book, both from Russian archives (he knows very well Russian military archives) and from western archives (he had visited London Public Record Office and Washington National Archives). He had also used books and journals published in Russia and western Countries all during these last hundred years (a good number during and immediately after the 1904-05 war), and also some studies published by Japanese historians.

At a first glance this book could seem a little specialized, but it really is very useful to understand Russian Army’s evolutions and its changes in the pre W.W.I. decade, and the genesis of Soviet Russia passion for Military Intelligence (M. I.). But, more of all, it can help us to understand Russian Army’s situation on the eve of Great War.

The book is not only focused on military intelligence, but on the Russo-Japanese war at all, and it pays attention to the gap in the strategic thought between Russia and Japan. Russian political and military leaderships were not able to fully adapt themselves to this new kind of war, because they remained linked to the traditional warfare.

The book also shows Russian military leadership’s weakness in the technical and « ideological » fields. This was partly due to the policy of patronage and social favoritisms followed for the higher ranks’ promotions. The author also devoted some attention to Russian Staff’s racist attitude that was shared by the other European military leaderships. They all were sure that an Asian army never would be able to defeat a « white » army. The Russian leadership fully lacked to know and to understand Japanese developments in the technical and military fields; they begun the war joking about « yellow monkeys » and similar absurdities.

The book sees the Russian incapacity to develop a modern and effective network of M. I. in East Asia during the first stage of the war as prove of strategic backwardness. Russians were unfit to develop both an effective system of interception and decoding – SIGINT – (but in the progress of the war they became more skilled in this field), and a useful network of informers – HUMINT. In this last field Japanese remained much more advanced than Russians, especially about the collection of information behind enemy’s lines, the infiltration of spies and saboteurs, the interrogations of POWs and local inhabitants (also because Russian officers seldom knew Asian languages).

But, the book also shows us a Russian great achievement: the travel of the Baltic Fleet from Libau to the Chinese Sea. The whole plan was very difficult, a real big strategic risk and the Russian naval leadership probably underestimated Japanese Navy ability. At the end the fleet was badly defeated in the battle of Tsushima, but its six months long safe travel (a part the Dogger Bank Incident) were a masterpiece in the domains both of the logistics and of the intelligence.

After this defeat some Russian leaders, both in the Army and in the politic world, had began to campaign for a change of the strategic and tactical attitudes, and of the system for officers’ promotions. This book shows us that there were some important changes in these fields but, unfortunately for Russia, not all the lessons of 1904 and 1905 had been fully learned. We know that both about weapons and victualling improvement, and soldiers’ welfare Russia remained backward in comparison with the main European armies. Instead, they continued mainly to rely upon soldiers’ number and their traditional social submission, but the terrible novelty of the Great War broke all the traditions and the outcomes are well known.

During the 1904-05 war Russians improved their Military Intelligence, and they also enlisted local scouts and irregular troops. But, only at the end of the war they began a widespread debate about M.I. failures, and about the needs of a more developed network of intelligence in the border districts. This debate went on until the outbreak of W.W.I., and it was the cornerstone of the Russian M.I. impressive growth. But, security’s failures during the war also were the origin of contemporary Russia’s obsession with internal and external security, and with the saboteurs’ and spies’ menaces.


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