By Dale Cozort
What actually happened: In the late 1920s and early 1930s the Soviet Union rapidly built up its industrial and military power. Japanese leaders were very aware of the trend. They figured that by around 1936 the Soviets would build up an overwhelming force that would endanger the Japanese position in Manchuria and Korea. Influential Japanese leaders publicly advocated a preemptive strike to push the Soviets out of the far east before they became too strong. The Soviets took that possibility very seriously and built up their forces in the area much more rapidly than the Japanese thought they could. There were serious rumblings in diplomatic circles of a Japanese attack on Vladivostok in the spring of 1934. Then the Germans began openly rearming, and the Japanese decided that the bulk of Soviet attention would be focused on Europe rather than Asia and the threat of war receded for a while.
What might have happened: If the Japanese had decided to go after the Soviets in say spring 1934, it would have been a very strange war. I need to do a lot more research, but based on what I know now, my guess is that it would go something like this:
Spring 1934: The Japanese use their naval superiority to take strategic coastal and island areas in the far east. The Kwangtung army moves north.
Late Spring 1934: The Soviets counterattack in Manchuria and quickly put the Kwangtung army in a very bad situation in Manchuria. The Japanese were too cocky and had developed bad habits from fighting Chinese warlords in Manchuria. Also the Soviets had already built up a very significant tank force. The Soviets would have also tested out some of the air power theories of the day by trying to bomb Japanese targets with a fleet of 170 long range bombers that could in theory reach Tokyo. I suspect that those bombers would have caused panic but not a lot of damage. Press reports make the Red Army advance look very threatening. There is a world-wide Red Scare. Latvia and Estonia look frantically for foreign protectors, but don't find anyone willing to make a commitment.
Late Spring 1934: Hitler take advantage of the fear generated by the Soviet advance to begin openly rearming.
Summer 1934: The shock of defeats in Manchuria force the Japanese to clean house. It also forces them to buy tanks and other equipment abroad as a stopgap while rushing competitive designs into production. (Getting tanks abroad might be difficult, but with tank factories all over the world starving for orders, someone would be willing to sell--probably France or Britain). The Japanese stabilize things in Manchuria, at least partly because the Soviets exhaust themselves and lose combat power as tanks break down and logistics get iffy.
Late Summer 1934: The Japanese seize Vladivostok if they haven't already, then do a breakout along the rail lines to cut off Soviet forces in Manchuria. They may or may not succeed in doing that before winter comes on. For now, let's assume they do. That's an iffy assumption, but the pre and early-WW2 Soviets were prone to pushing a successful offensive too far and getting cut off.
Winter 1934-35: The Soviets try to re-establish contact with their cut off forces throughout the winter. There is heavy use of armored trains on both sides--a very different type of warfare than either World War I or World War II. If the Soviets do get cut off and fail to relieve the force, then they would face a major defeat, losing a well-equipped modern army. The Japanese estimated that the Soviets had roughly 230,000 men in the region in 11 rifle divisions, two cavalry divisions and two mechanized brigades. They claimed that the Soviets had 650 tanks and 500 aircraft in the region. I'm going to assume for the sake of the rest of the chronology that the Japanese succeed in keeping these forces bottled up until they are destroyed. Again this is iffy, but the bottled up forces would be the bulk of Soviet power in the area.
Late 1934: With the Soviets occupied in the east, Hitler makes an audacious move. He sends a force into Estonia and Latvia to "protect them from the Soviets". Neither country is thrilled, but they prefer the German presence to a Soviet one, or to being fought over by the Soviets and Germans. This is a typical Hitler bluff. His army is nowhere near ready to fight the Soviets yet, and the forces he can send initially are minuscule, but he gambles correctly that the Soviets will be unable to react immediately, and unwilling to start another war once the Germans are in place and have built up. That gamble gives Hitler a window on Russia, but it also forces him to defend that window, which means the German army has to rearm faster than it did in our time line. Hitler aims for the capacity to take part in the war against Russia as soon as possible. Rearmament is faster but less balanced and with less advanced equipment in our time line. Germany ends up with more fighter bi-planes and more Panzer I and IIs than in our time line, but that increase comes at a cost in terms of their ability to afford ME-109s and Panzer IIIs and IVs later. Germany will be more powerful in 1935-37 than it was in our time line, but less powerful in 1939-41.
Spring 1935: The Japanese take as much of Siberia as they think they can hold. The Soviets fight on, and the Japanese realize that they don't have a formula for ending the war. The Soviets just keep building up new forces. The Japanese install a puppet White Russian government in the occupied Soviet territories, and try to bring Russian anti-communist exiles into the fight on their side. Some hate the communists enough to do it. Others choose nationalism over anti-communism. Japan faces growing discomfort in the west--especially in the U.S.--over the size of the Russian territory they are holding.
Summer 1935: Both sides build up, with the Japanese training and equipping a large but not very effective White Russian army, while the Soviets build up their forces. The Japanese launch a series of offensives aimed at forcing the Soviets to defend specific important objectives, which theoretically should defeat the rest of the Russian army. The Japanese also foment and support revolts in Soviet Central Asia. The Soviets are unable to bring their full weight to bear on the Japanese because the Germans are building up in the Baltic and the Poles are making moves that the Soviets consider threatening. I'll talk about that in more depth later. The Italians send groups of "volunteer" aviators and army personnel to help the Japanese. These people do better than one would expect given Italian army performance in World War II, but the Japanese are not impressed. The world is appalled at Japanese discoveries of labor camps and mass graves, though neither are anywhere near as common as they would have become in our timeline. Rescued labor camp inmates make up the most motivated part of the Russian puppet army.
Winter 1935-36: The Russian do a massive offensive that almost but not quite, sends the Japanese army to a Napoleon-style defeat. The Japanese hold on, and end up defeating the over-extended Soviet army when spring comes.
Spring-Summer 1936: The Japanese take advantage of temporary Soviet weakness to help anti-Soviet forces capture large parts of Central Asia, and threaten the Caucasus. The Japanese are extremely overextended though, and are only able to do this because the Soviets are increasingly forced to allocate forces to deal with the threat of intervention from Nazi Germany. Germany is building up in the Baltics, and the Soviets are trying desperately to deter them.
Fall 1936-Summer 1937: Both sides build up and launch small offensives. The Soviets make some progress in Central Asia. Both sides are feeling the losses and are nearing exhaustion. The Japanese are not capable of reaching the vital centers of Soviet industry. The Soviets keep building up, but they have to focus more and more of their attention on the Nazi threat. They have lost a great deal of resources, and a large percentage of their trained manpower, but they keep fighting and keep cranking out tanks and aircraft in astonishing quantities--nowhere near what they did in World War II because the industries were much less mature, but still astonishing. The Japanese are also building their war industries, but still find themselves barely keeping up with the rump Soviets.
Fall 1937: The war ends in a "brigand's peace". The Soviets give up almost everything that they've lost and Japan declares victory. Why? Because the Soviets know that the Nazis are going to join the war if it continues. Japan knows that the Nazis are planning to join the war too, but the Japanese are exhausted and quite willing to take their winnings while they still can.
How realistic is all of this?
The specifics may be wrong, but I suspect that the general outline is pretty close to what would have happened. The 1934 Soviet army was strong in equipment but the structure and leadership lent itself to pushing offensives too far. The Japanese would have started out behind in equipment, but the Japanese soldiers of this era were very tough, well-trained people. Offensives on both sides would have followed the rail lines much more than they did in World War II. Neither side was very motorized and neither had the resources to get motorized during the war without outside help. The Soviets would not have had the industrial power that they had in World War II. They also wouldn't have had American Lend Lease to fill in the gaps in their production. That means no 500,000 trucks to motorize their army, and no American food to help keep the army fed. Both sides would have bought arms and equipment from abroad to some extent, but neither side was rich in foreign exchange, so that would have dwindled as the war went on. Neither side was really capable of knocking out the other, so I suspect that they would have fought to exhaustion.
Possible short-term worldwide impacts of the war:
A worldwide red scare in 1934 as the Soviet army takes the offensive in Manchuria. This would allow Hitler to openly rearm with less opposition because he could say he was arming Germany against the "red menace". As the Japanese found evidence of what had gone on in the Gulags, the Soviets and Western Communist parties would have had less sympathy on the worldwide stage.
Some military myths would have probably been exploded. Tankettes would have been proven close to worthless earlier. Fighter biplanes would have probably been shown to be deficient a little earlier than they were in our time line. I suspect that Japan would have been the first to switch to monoplanes, and that those planes would have been devastatingly effective in the last few months of the war. Strategic air power could be cut down to size a bit. All of these things would require that other governments of the world draw the right lessons from the war, which might or might not happen.
Fascism might have drawn more people in as a lesser threat than communism. Hopefully that wouldn't have led to a fascist France or England, but I suppose that's possible, at least in the French case.
Mussolini might not invade Ethiopia--or that invasion might at least be delayed. He invaded historically as a result of French and English efforts to draw him into a common front against Hitler. That wouldn't seem necessary in this time line. He might not feel that he had the leverage to do it in this time line.
The Spanish civil war would take a very different shape if it happened at all. The Soviets wouldn't be in a position to intervene with lots of military hardware in 1936. If there was a war it would probably be shorter and less international.
Countries significantly stronger in 1938 than in our time line:
Italy--In our time line, by the time World War II started the Italians had already been fighting in Ethiopia and Spain for several years. Those wars drained Italy and accounted for part of the weakness in Italian military performance in WW2. Take away those wars and Italy wouldn't be the equivalent of Germany, or even France, but they would be significantly stronger.
Poland--In the early 1930s, Poland and Japan were tacitly allied against the USSR. The Poles would have probably been very happy to sell the Japan anything that Poland's rather weak arms industry could produce. I suspect that Poland would have had that market pretty much to itself after early 1935. Result: A stronger Polish arms industry expanded by exports to Japan.
Nationalist China--The Nationalist Chinese were trying to build up military industry in the interior of China, just like the Soviets were building up military industry in the interior of Russia. The Chinese started from a lower base, had fewer resources, and were still fighting their civil war. They figured that they would be strong enough to defend themselves against Japan by 1940 or so. Japan kept nibbling at Chinese territory until the Nationalist Chinese were forced to fight three years before they were ready. In this scenario, Japan would start 1938 with their forces over committed, and with far less of China in their hands. The Nationalists would have more time to build and consolidate.
Countries weaker than in our time line.
Germany & Japan--They would have larger but less modern forces. Building those forces would have made their economies less capable of rearming with more modern weapons.
The Soviets--They'd have fewer resources, no giant gold infusion from the Spanish Republican treasury to help them economically, and they would have been putting resources into building weapons that in our time line would have gone to building their weapons industry.
Reactions and impacts in the warring countries
--->Japan: 1) Stronger military industrialization. They would be capable of building more tanks and aircraft in 1937 than they could in our time line. 2) Stronger army, especially in the tank realm than in our time line. 3) Weaker navy. With the bulk of the fighting on land, the navy would not get the emphasis that it did in our time line. 4) Weaker economy. Japan would be capable of building more military hardware, but less able to afford to do so. The burden of maintaining an army to defend the conquered territories would make this much worse. Modernization would slow down. Building up too early can be bad, as the Italians proved in World War II. 5) Little offensive power for the next five years or so. They would be quite busy defending what they had. They could handle Chinese warlords, and they might even do some small-scale expansion in northern China, but that would be the extent of what they could do.
The Soviets---> Soviet internal politics might turn nastier a little sooner than it did in our time line. Someone would need to get the blame for defeats. Stalin was nowhere near as strong in 1934 as he became later in our time line. He might get pushed out, or he might launch a preemptive purge. Expect Soviet politics to get very treacherous in 1935. I'm guessing that Stalin might get pushed to the sidelines or have his power reduced temporarily, then come back after the war and try to purge his enemies. I doubt that he would ever get the kind of absolute power that he had in our time line.
Consequences Through 1942: This gets extremely iffy. My guess is that the second World War would be somewhat recognizable, but very strange if it happened at all. Germany would not be able to turn it's buildup into an invasion of the Soviet Union without Japanese help, at least not in 1937. Hitler would probably build up a little while longer, then realize that he needed to back off or turn the buildup into gains for Germany or the German economy was going to tube. I'd say he cuts a deal with the Soviets where both sides cut their forces in or near the Baltics. That frees Hitler up to deal with the states of Central Europe. He would want to take about the same path he did in our time line--remilitarize the border with France, take Austria, then go after the Czechs. He would be starting a year later though. The French might or might not allow the unopposed remilitarization. A different political situation in France, which there almost certainly would be, might force the French to fight. A French/German war in 1938? It wouldn't have been a German cakewalk. The French had plenty of equipment that could handle Panzer Is and IIs and fighter biplanes. Hitler might not have tried the remilitarization in 1938. He had a pretty firm grasp of French politics. If the Germans weren't able to remilitarize their border with France in 1938, war would have probably been delayed for a few years. Britain and France wouldn't have gone to war preemptively. The Germans would need a few years to re-equip. It would take longer than in our time line because Germany would be weaker financially. Say war in 1942 to remilitarize the Rhineland. I have no way of predicting how that would go. By this time, things would have diverged so far that the armies would be nearly unrecognizable equipment-wise. What would a French tank from 1942 look like. How would it be deployed? Who knows?