Everyone knows about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Russia sailed its entire Baltic fleet to Japan the long way around only to see it sunk by the better trained Japanese navy within hours. The war marked Japan’s rise to modern power status, and hammered another nail in the coffin of Tsarist Russia.
But, how many people know about the Russo-Japanese conflicts in the late 1930s, which culminated in the brutal battle of Nomohan (Khalkin-Gol) in Mongolia? Joel over at Far Outliers has a great post on the topic.
Less than a year later, at Nomonhan [Khalkhin-Gol], on the border with Outer Mongolia, the Japanese, armed with Molotov cocktails, sabers, field guns, and some light tanks, attacked General Zhukov’s Soviet tank brigades. The fighting on ghastly, mosquito-infested terrain went on for months and ended in a slaughter. The flatlands were filled with Japanese corpses, feasted on by black desert vultures. More than twenty thousand Japanese died of hunger, thirst, and disease, as well as from Russian bombardments. Colonel Tsuji was duly promoted. But the plan to strike north was abandoned. From then on all the action would be to the south.
Also check out the discussion in the comments about what might have happened if Japan had turned its full attention to expansion into Siberia during 1941, rather than expansion through the Asia-Pacific region. General consensus seems to be that it would have been a disaster for Japan, whose Army simply wasn’t designed for fighting in wide open spaces. But, by forcing the Soviet Army to fight on two fronts, it could have been a boon for Nazi Germany.
The Soviets were just hugely superior in terms of tanks, heavy artillery, aircraft, heavy and medium machine guns, communications, intelligence, and logistics. To give a very specific example: Japanese forces in theater had absolutely nothing that could deal with Soviet tanks. Their own tanks, while tolerably well adapted to fighting in China (where small, lightly armored tanks with a very high gear ratio made a certain sense) were literally unable to harm the Red Army’s beasts; and they completely lacked tank-killing weaponry.
Probably the most interesting thing I’ve ever read about the Russo-Japanese rivalry in Mongolia is Haruki Murakami’s book, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. There are a couple of flashbacks in the book – in reality they work as standalone short stories – following the adventures of a Japanese soldier in Mongolia in 1938, plus a follow up story about the experiences of the same soldier in a Siberian prisoner of war camp/gulag in the late 1940s.