Relief map of eastern Russia

Russia so dominated the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that it would be fair to describe the latter as a new Russian empire. Extending from Smolensk in the west to the Bering Straits in the east, Russia is a vast country with tremendous natural resources and a population in December 1941 of 193 million persons. These were being heavily exploited in 1941 to support the armies attempting to halt the German invasion of western Russia.

Russia was the traditional enemy of Japan. The two nations had clashed in 1905 over control of Port Arthur, located at the tip of the Kwantung Peninsula, and over railroad concessions in resource-rich Manchuria. The Russians had come off worse in the fighting, particularly at sea, and Japan achieved most of her war objectives. Japan later participated in the Siberian Expedition of 1918-1922, which was prompted by the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent withdrawal of Russia from the First World War.

There was a brief period of détente between Russian and Japan from about 1925 to 1931, arising as much from a shared antipathy to militant Chinese nationalism as anything else. When the Russians stormed into northern Manchuria in response to the seizure of the Russian-owned Chinese Eastern Railway by Chang Hsueh-liang in July 1929, the Japanese government responded with "benevolent neutrality" (Goldman 2012). However, when Kwantung Army seized control of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese and Russians suddenly shared an ill-defined border three thousand miles long. The Japanese demanded the right to transport troops on the Chinese Eastern Railway, then refused to pay for their passage. Senior Japanese military leaders talked openly of a preventive war against Russia, and this was widely reported in the Japanese press. Russia responded with a campaign of appeasement reminiscent of what was later attempted by the Western democracies in Europe with respect to Germany. When this proved unproductive, Stalin embraced Chiang Kai-shek, ordering the Chinese Communists to make common cause with the Kuomintang against the Japanese and providing significant military assistance (particularly in the air) to the Chinese. Russian aid amounted to 904 aircraft, 82 tanks, 1140 artillery pieces, and several thousand advisers and "volunteer" pilots. By mid-1939, 28 of the 34 Japanese divisions in Asia were committed to the fighting in China, which became a quagmire for the Japanese Army that admirably suited Russia's national interests. (The parallel to more recent quagmires is noteworthy.)

As relations between Japan and Russia continued to deteriorate, Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 with Germany, in which the two nations pledged to cooperate against Russian Communism. Japanese troops clashed with Russian troops at Changkufeng in the summer of 1938 and with Russian and puppet Mongolian forces at Nomonhan in the summer of 1939, with the Russians coming out ahead in both cases. The unpleasant outcome of these clashes likely exerted a strong influence on the Japanese decision to strike south into southeast Asia rather than north into Siberia.

Axis diplomacy towards Russia was uncoordinated. The Russian-German non-aggression pact of August 1939 took the Japanese by surprise, and Japan made her own non-aggression pact with Russia in April 1941. This cleared the way for Japan to move against Southeast Asia.

Both Russia and Japan considered it to their advantage to maintain strict neutrality with respect to each other during most of the Pacific War, even though Germany ignored its nonagression pact and invaded Russia in June 1941. Both Japan and Russia maintained large garrisons along the Russian-Manchurian border, but these were often tapped for reserves for the active conflicts in other theaters. Considerable Lend-Lease to the Russians passed through Far East ports via Russian-flag vessels and was not interfered with by the Japanese.

There were mistaken fire incidents against the Russians by both the Japanese and Allies. On about 24 January 1942, a G3M "Nell" from Mihoro Air Group sank the Russian merchant ship Perekop east of Natoena Island (108.181E 3.933N), killing eight of the crew. On 11 October 1942, I-25 mistakenly sank the Russian submarine L-16 500 miles (900 km) west of Seattle after mistaking it for an American submarine. L-15 was nearby but did not identify the attacker, and the Russians protested to both the Japanese and the Americans.

The western Allies were initially anxious for Russian intervention to prevent the Japanese from transferring reinforcements from Manchuria. At the Yalta conference of February 1945, Roosevelt agreed to Stalin's demands for the Kurile Islands, Karafuto, Port Arthur, recognition of Russian control over Mongolia, and Russian control of the South Manchurian Railroad in return for Russian intervention and recognition of the Kuomintang as China's sole legitimate government. By April this bargain was looking poorer and poorer to the Americans, who in April 1945 cancelled plans to work with the Russians to base B-29s in the Soviet Far East. Hastings (2007) has concluded that Russian diplomats played the Japanese to prevent a Japanese surrender before Russian could transfer enough troops to the Far East to carry out their intervention. However, Smith (1985) has concluded that Truman was still anxious enough for Russian intervention at the time of the Potsdam Conference that he did not press Stalin on the issue of Poland.

Russia denounced its non-aggression pact with Japan in April 1945, and launched a swift and crushing offensive into Manchuria in August. At the same time, Russian troops seized the Kuriles and Karafuto and entered northern Korea. All but northern Korea remain under Russian control today.

Order of battle

By 1941 there were 30 divisions and 2800 aircraft in the Soviet Far East holding the attention of considerable Japanese forces. These were occasionally tapped for reserves for the life-and-death struggle in the west, but the Russians rapidly built up these forces again following the surrender of Germany in April 1945.

By August 1945 there were 80 divisions, 3700 tanks, and 500 aircraft massed on the Manchurian border. According to Hayashi (1959), the Japanese identified the following units:

Soviet Forces Far East (Vasilevsky)
Trans-Baikal Front (Malinovsky: West Manchuria and Inner Mongolia )     
4 infantry divisions
2 tank divisions
3 tank brigades
1 cavalry brigade

First Far East Front (Meretskov: East Manchuria and North Korea ) 10 infantry divisions
1 tank corps
1 tank division
2 tank brigades.

Second Far East Front (Purkayev: Northern Manchuria ) 4 infantry divisions
1 tank brigade.


Carpenter and Polmar (1986)

Coox (1986)

Goldman (2012)

Hastings (2007)

Hayashi (1959)

Roberts (2011)

Smith (1985)

Wolk (2010)

Womack (2006)

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