Staunton, November 30 – Seventy-five years ago, Moscow launched what became known as the Winter War against Finland. It used much the same propaganda and tactics it is using against Ukraine now. It faced far greater resistance than its vast disproportion of forces had led it to believe. And thanks to that resistance, it achieved far less than Moscow had expected.
Not surprisingly, many commentators in Ukraine and even in Russia and Finland are drawing parallels between the two Russian wars, parallels which carry with them lessons for all sides about the failures of international diplomacy, the continuities of Russian policies, and the relative importance of arms.
In an essay in Novoye Vremya Ukrainian commentator Oleg Shama provides the basis for these and other observations conclusions for the present situation in Ukraine and the world as well.
In August 1939, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin came up with a grand bargain dividing Europe into spheres of influence, Shama recalls. On the basis of that, Moscow forced the three Baltic countries to capitulate to its demands and then illegally annexed them to the Soviet Union.
But the Finns refused to go along. They “wanted to retain their neutrality” in the looming war, and they recognized that the presence of Soviet forces on their territory would not only be an insult to their independence but would inevitably draw them into that conflict on one side or the other.
But the Soviet government had no intention of backing away from what it thought were its rights under the Molotov-Ribbentrop accord, Shama says, all the more so because Moscow believed that Finland should be part of the USSR since it had been part of the Russian Empire between 1809 and 1917.
The Kremlin tried diplomacy, demanding in talks with Helsinki that lasted more than a year that Finland rent Khanko Island and agree to a shift in the border 60 kilometers away from Leningrad. Such a concession, Soviet diplomats and generals said, was required to ensure the defense of the northern capital. But the Finns refused and in October 1939 broke off talks.
On November 3, Moscow mobilized the Leningrad military district, and on November 26, Russian special forces organized a provocation involving what Soviet propagandists asserted was an attack on USSR forces by Finnish ones. Helsinki denied involvement and said it would conduct a full-scale investigation.
But Moscow wasn’t interested in talks, and on November 30, 1939, Stalin ordered his forces to begin to attack Finland. On that date, Soviet planes dropped 600 bombs on Helsinki, killing 91 Finns.
“Despite Kremlin propaganda,” Shama continues, “the Finns were not prepared for war. Their army consisted of 30,000 soldiers and officers,” and they had been reducing their defense spending for two decades confident that the League of Nations would prevent any attack and guarantee their security.
But the unprovoked Soviet attack so angered the Finns that thousands of them immediately took up arms and went to the front, often without uniforms because none were available. They were vastly outnumbered in personnel and arms, but they were inspired by Marshal Mannerheim who said “we are fighting for our home, faith and fatherland.”
Soviet forces were inspired by a quite different idea: they had been told that they were “freeing the Finnish people from the oppression of the capitalists,” but after a few days Soviet soldiers on Finnish land were asking themselves “Why are we liberating the Finns? They live so well.”
Moreover, the Soviet forces found they had no one to liberate because the Finns withdrew from the border regions, burning their homes and farms so that the Soviets would not get anything they might use against Finland.
Then, one day into the fighting, the Soviet media announced that in a “liberated” village near the border, a new Finnish government had been formed, headed by Otto Kuusinen, the communist whose revolt Mannerheim had himself put down in 1918. A day later, he signed a mutual assistance pact with the Soviet government to “legalize” the Kremlin’s aggression.
In preparation for this campaign, the Soviet military had created, beginning in October 1939, a “Finnish Peoples Army,” filling it with Finns and Karelians who lived on Soviet territory and then even with Belarusians. That step led to a Soviet joke at the time, Shama says: “Minsk Finns will march onto Finnish mines.”
Finland had erected some defenses earlier, and the Soviet command was well aware of those and quite prepared to go around or over them. But, as the Ukrainian commentator points out, Moscow had not taken into account the Finnish will to fight and expected an easy and quick victory, one that was supposed to be complete by Stalin’s birthday on December 21.
The Soviet advance slowed as Finnish resistance grew, but the Finns, having suffered 25,000 combat dead in the course of 105 days of fighting, finally had to sue for peace, even though they had inflicted 126,000 dead on the invaders. And they had to yield a tenth of their territory to Moscow.
But that was less than Moscow expected to gain, and so it could hardly justify the claims of victory it put out and that were accepted by some in the West. Moreover, the way in which Finland and the Soviet Union treated their combat losses spoke volumes about the differences between the two countries, differences which are in evidence in Ukraine and Russia now.
When the war began, Mannerheim ordered that “each soldier killed was to be buried with military honors” in specially designated cemeteries. In the Soviet Union, Andrey Zhdanov, head of the Leningrad CPSU obkom, “categorically forbid telling relatives of dead soldiers about the destruction of their near ones” and to take other steps to hide such losses as well.
On this anniversary of the Winter War, Ukrainians are thinking about that conflict perhaps more than any other people except for the Finns. Roman Bochkala, a Ukrainian military analyst, spoke for many in his country when he wrote of that long-ago conflict in terms every Ukrainian would recognize as like the one now.
Like Ukraine, the Finns faced an overwhelming adversary, “a horde [which] wanted to suppress its opponents by its size. David went into the ring against Goliath. And he won.” Of course, Bochkala writes, the Finns were frightened but they were not intimidated, and “they fought like lions.”
They understood something that Ukrainians should as well: “in war, the main thing is not quantity but motivation and intelligence.”
Vadim Shtepa, who lives in Karelia and who supports Ukrainian efforts to defend their nation against Vladimir Putin’s aggression, reflects on this anniversary: “What can one say? The only thing is to wish our Ukrainian friends [in this new Winter War] to be no weaker than the Finns!”