Lessons From the Winter War

A small democracy gets demands and threats from Moscow, refuses to budge, is then invaded by overwhelming force, but manages to defy the odds and survive and fight back. This is happening now in Ukraine, but it happened before in Finland back in 1939-40 during the so-called “Winter War.” I interviewed Dr. Tomas Ries about the parallels and differences between Stalin’s war against Finland and Putin’s war against Ukraine, and if there are any lessons that Ukraine can draw from this history. Ries is a recently retired senior lecturer in security and strategy at the National Defence College, Stockholm, Sweden. He is the author of Cold Will, a book about Finland’s wars with the USSR, and has followed Finnish defense policy closely for decades. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Andrew Fink: Could you tell us about the Winter War (the Soviet invasion of Finland)? Why did it start and what happened?

Dr. Tomas Ries: Basically, throughout the 1930s Stalin was getting more and more worried about Hitler, and Stalin tried several times to have some kind of defensive alliance with Britain and France, but they turned them down. Then he also saw what happened with the Austrian Anschluss and the Munich Agreement that dismembered Czechoslovakia, that the Western allies didn’t react, and that is when he switched over to Hitler in 1939. Stalin contacted the Germans in January 1939 and within six months they had ironed out a non-aggression pact with a secret appendix that divided up northeastern Europe and Poland. Stalin figured that if he can’t get an alliance with the Western powers, he could at least get defense in depth this way, because he was always worried about an attack from Hitler.

Stalin had earlier contacted the Finns saying he would like to have discussions about a “mutual defense arrangement” but he didn’t really get any response. Then after the Nazi Soviet pact he contacted the Finns again, and also the Baltic states [Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia] and presented his demands—which was the right to have some Soviet bases in their territory and changes in the border. His proposal would have pushed the Finnish border further north from Leningrad. The three Baltic states agreed to Stalin’s demands, but the Finns did not. 

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