Lessons From the Winter War
In 1939, Stalin’s Red Army thought it would capture Helsinki in a matter of weeks. Finland had other ideas.
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.
Fink: Do you think that Stalin’s initial offer to Finland was a genuine offer, or would Finland have wound up just like the Baltic states, part of the Soviet empire?
Ries: It is hard to know, but I suspect that Finland would have wound up just like the Baltic states. One of the problems for the Finns was that the border adjustments that Stalin wanted to make on the Karelian isthmus would have pushed the border too far north.
These were reasonable from the Soviet perspective, Leningrad was almost within artillery range of the Finnish border, but it would have meant that most of the Finnish defensive lines and preparations would have fallen on the Soviet side of the new border. Then, Finland would have been much more vulnerable to an offensive. The Karelian isthmus acted kind of as a funnel, it forced the Soviet forces to concentrate, but if they got beyond the Karelian isthmus they could have opened up into the rest of southern Finland.
Of course, the peaceniks all say that “If Finland just would have agreed, then everything would have been fine.” I have no documentary evidence for this, but my hunch is that Finland would have gone the same way as the Baltic states.
Fink: So, back to the run-up to war.
Ries: Soviet rhetoric against Finland got increasingly threatening, but then after October it died down. Some Finns thought “Oh, ok, maybe the crisis is over” but then on the 30th of November 1939, the USSR attacked with full force. Stalin had actually been preparing for war with Finland for about two years. … The Soviets built up the materials for their invasion of Finland over two years in great secrecy, roads, warehouses and depots, rail networks. (This is a big difference between what happened then and what is happening now in Ukraine.) While they were negotiating with Finland, the Soviets were secretly increasing the number of divisions they had lined up to go in.
Fink: My understanding is that Stalin believed the war against Finland would be over very quickly.
Ries: Yes! And this is where we get into some similarities with the current Ukraine war. Stalin’s initial belief, and this belief was shared by most of the Western states, was that the Red Army would have occupied Helsinki within two or three weeks. This was reasonable, the Soviets had about four times as many troops in this fight as the Finns did and way many more tanks. The Soviets had a very mechanized, motorized army while the Finns basically still had an army of foot soldiers, with hardly any tanks and a very limited air force. We also know that the Red Army was expecting to occupy Helsinki within a few weeks, because when the Finns destroyed some Soviet units earlier in the war they found marching band equipment and a bunch of fancy dress uniforms that the troops were supposed to wear when they were marching through Helsinki.
Fink: I heard that the exact same thing just happened in Ukraine, in terms of finding dress uniforms!
Ries: Yes. I heard that a few days ago. So, there was that, and also in Northern Finland after the Finns annihilated two Soviet divisions they found documents giving the Soviet troops strict instructions not to cross into Sweden when they reached the other side of Finland!
So it is quite clear that Stalin, and basically everyone, thought this would be over in a few weeks. And this is a similarity between that war and this one in Ukraine—we all thought pretty much that Russia would quickly occupy much of Ukraine and at least knock out Kyiv and the government, but they didn’t. It is a similar phenomenon—the top leader had an overly-optimistic view about what the Russian/Soviet army could do.
Fink: So how did the Finns stop the Red Army?
Ries: First of all, Finland had mobilized the whole army when the Soviets had started trying to “negotiate” with Finland. The Finns managed to keep their whole army in these defensive positions until the Soviets attacked. Now, that was not an easy thing to do, because a lot of politicians in Helsinki had pushed for these soldiers to head back to the factories and farms when they thought the crisis was over, these people were badly needed in the economy. The arguments of the Finnish defense forces prevailed, thank heavens, and so when the Soviet attack came, all the Finnish forces were in place and they had had time to prepare—refresher training, preparing defensive positions, stuff like that. Now, this is a big difference from the current Ukraine war. Zelensky, for I think pretty good reasons, didn’t fully mobilize until after the attack, but Ukraine had a fairly good, veteran, army before Putin attacked this time.
The Finns had expected that the main Soviet attack would happen up the Karelian isthmus. They were taken by surprise at the strength of the Soviet attack in northern Finland, especially in the far north. The Finns did not believe the Soviets could bring such heavy forces to bear there. The Finns very rapidly adjusted their defensive posture and adapted their tactics. The Finns in the north were helped by one very important fact, and this is another big similarity with the current war in Ukraine; the Soviet mechanized divisions were road-bound—they could not leave the roads. In northern Finland this was because of the surrounding swamps and forests, in Ukraine it is because of the mud, but this is the same phenomenon. In Finland the Soviets got stuck, not quite in 40-mile-long traffic jams like the Russians have experienced now in Ukraine, but they got stuck on the roads while the Finns were able to move in the forests. The Finns were good at skiing etc., and they could stop the Soviet attacks and then move through the forest and cut the Soviet forces off. There was deep snow, with temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius.
Down south, on the Karelian isthmus, the Finns were pushed back, but they were so prepared that they were able to stop the first Soviet assault by December. After that, we reached the second stage of the war. This might also be a similarity with Ukraine: When Stalin realized that he was not going to overrun Finland in two or three weeks he pulled back the attack—he kept the Soviet positions they had captured but re-organized the attack … Stalin virtually doubled the number of troops and tanks he was putting in, and then in February he launched the second major offensive. The Soviets just attacked up the Karelian isthmus and just turned the fight into a meat grinder—they just kept pushing using their superior numbers. Sooner or later there would be more Soviet troops left alive on the battlefield than Finns. … The Finns managed to hold out, but they had to constantly retreat back. Now Putin might be doing something similar now in Ukraine, but there does not seem to be more forces coming in, not in the same volume.
The Winter War ended after the Finns managed to hold out long enough that Stalin felt he had no more time to spend on this offensive. There were other factors, for example, the British and the French had started talking about sending an expeditionary force to northern Norway and from there to come in and assist the Finns. The real reason for this was to secure some mineral and iron ore mines in northern Norway and northern Sweden (for the fight against Germany). This small expeditionary force would not have made much of a difference militarily to the Finns, but Stalin did not want to get into a direct war with France and Britain, he wanted to keep the option for an alliance open.
Also, the war had become so embarrassing for the USSR, just like it is for Russia in Ukraine now, everyone was thinking, “Look, the Soviet army is just useless, it can’t even crush a rinky-dink little neighbor!” And finally, by around March spring was coming, which meant that the spring thaw would come. During that winter the ground in Finland on the Karelian isthmus was rock hard, but it was about to turn into mud. This would have made it very, very difficult for Soviet mechanized forces to continue their advance.
In February/March 1940, Stalin opened up negotiations with the Finns again. Now, the Finns were pretty desperate themselves; they knew that they were in real trouble. The commander of Finnish forces, Marshal Mannerheim, had begun his career as an officer in the tsarist army. [Finland had been part of the Russian empire.] He had graduated from the Russian military academy in St. Petersburg and become a brigadier general. He had left Russia after the revolution, but he really understood the Russian psyche. Right towards the end of the war when Stalin started a new offensive, at that point the Finns had basically run out of artillery ammunition, they had almost nothing left. Mannerheim decided that the Finns were just going to fire everything they had, and of course he knew that negotiations were reaching a tipping point. His calculation was that by bluffing and firing off everything they had, they would convince Stalin that they had huge reserves of ammunition, so this would convince Stalin that it was a better idea to make a deal rather than continue the war. If Stalin had called that bluff, their lines would have been broken, because they had used up everything.
So, during the negotiations the Finns agreed to Stalin’s territorial demands. The war ended in what was in effect a Finnish victory, because a defeat would have meant Soviet troops overrunning Finland.
Fink: Can we talk briefly about the political and propaganda side of the war from the Soviets, what did they say they were doing during this invasion?
Ries: Here we have some big similarities with the Ukraine war. The basic Soviet line was that they were going there to “save the Finnish proletariat from the bourgeois, the ‘White Forces.’” Stalin established a second Finnish government under his control under a Finnish Communist named Otto Wille Kuusinen. This guy was going to be the quisling and take over in Helsinki. Stalin said that Kuusinen was the “real” Finnish government, that it really represented the downtrodden Finns. Now, of course, there is a difference with what Putin is doing now, in that Stalin did not call the Finns “fascist,” because at the time he had an agreement with Hitler. Also, I don’t think Stalin accused the Finns of doing any sort of genocide. In general, however, it was the same general thing as what Putin is saying about the Ukrainian government now: It is a rotten, oppressive government and the people had to be “liberated.”
When the Finns saw the Soviets set up the Kuusinen government, they knew it was an all or nothing fight, that if they didn’t fight they knew they were going to be swallowed by the Soviets. Stalin dropped the Kuusinen government sometime around February 1940, and this was a sign to the Finns that a settlement might be possible, that Stalin wasn’t going to seek total control of Finland.
Fink: Okay, so they made a deal in early 1940, and that ends that war, but could you briefly talk about Finland’s participation in WWII, later on?
Ries: After making a deal and ceding territory in 1940, the Finns watched Stalin make “deals” with the Baltic states and then occupy them. Then in the summer of 1941 Hitler launched operation Barbarossa against the USSR. The Finns made an arrangement with the Germans to become “brothers in arms.” This was not an alliance, which is a bit of a technicality. One reason the Finns went in for this was that they wanted to retake the territory that they had lost. The Finns took the territory back right up to their old border on the Karelian isthmus, but they did not support the German attempt to occupy Leningrad. They also didn’t assist the German attempts to cut off the railway links between the port of Murmansk and the rest of the USSR. This was a very important supply line for the USSR, a lot of equipment from Britain and America was arriving via this link, and the Germans were trying to cut this off. The Finns didn’t help them there. I think the Finns probably could have cut that supply line if they had wanted to. Marshal Mannerheim’s reasoning in not helping the Germans with this was: If the Germans can’t beat the Soviets on their own, it is not going to make any difference what we do up here, and we want to keep open an option for a negotiated peace with Stalin. North of Lake Ladoga the Finns advanced very far, and they took a big piece of territory, but this was just wilderness and didn’t threaten Soviet defenses. Mannerheim’s reasoning for this was to keep this territory a bargaining chip that they could cede. After this they stopped. They did let a German mountain division try to cut the Soviet supply lines up north from Finland, but the Germans couldn’t do it.
So, the Finns took this territory in 1941 and then stopped and held these positions till 1944. In mid-1944 Stalin decided he was going to knock Finland out of the war. He gave the Soviet commander one month to knock out the Finns. During that month, June 1944, he threw half of all available Soviet tanks and aircraft against the Finns. The Finns were able to stop this massive offensive by the skin of their teeth, but this time their military situation was less desperate. They had built up their supplies and defenses. After that offensive failed, Stalin gave up. This was a sideshow for him, and he reached a second peace agreement with the Finns. It was a tough agreement, but again Finland kept their independence.
Fink: After the war, how did Finland manage to keep their independence without joining NATO?
Ries: Finland’s situation after WWII was incredibly precarious. She had managed to maintain her independence, but the Soviets still had an immense military superiority. There was a lot of pro-Finnish sentiment in the West, especially in America, but the Finns could not count on any support. Finland managed to stay independent, initially, through skillful diplomacy. They adopted a two-track security strategy towards the USSR. This consisted of a realization that Finland had to concede to vital Soviet security concerns, she simply could not refuse them because the Soviets would just overrun them if they thought that they had to. But, beyond that, Finland could deter further Soviet attempts to increase her control of Finland by her own military forces, not because the Finnish army could defeat the Soviet military, but that it could make the price of any fight so high that the costs of invading Finland for other-than-vital reasons would not justify the gains. So, they would reassure that vital Soviet military-strategic interests were guaranteed in Finland, and at the same time build up Finland’s army. Throughout the Cold War Finland kept an as-strong-as-possible defense army against the Soviet Union. The Soviets remembered fighting the Finns, and they knew that the Finns really could fight hard. During the Cold war the Finns had something like half a million forces in their reserve, a huge potential army for the size of the country, and these troops were all trained and equipped to do one thing: defeat Soviet heavy armor attacks.
So, the Soviets decided (after taking a look at this army) that as long as the Finns were not causing them real, serious trouble they could accept the fact of their independence, because they would kick up a hell of a fight if we tried to occupy them.
Fink: Can you talk about the concept of “Finlandization”?
Ries: So, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet-Finnish relationship had more-or-less stabilized. Then, the Soviets were constantly trying, in every other non-military way, to reduce Finland’s independence. This is where “Finlandization” comes in. The Soviets would say: “Well of course if we are going to believe that we are really not threatened militarily through Finland … then we have to have a very friendly relationship. A friendly relationship means that you are going to vote for us in the U.N. when we condemn Western fascists for this or that. Of course, you are going to trade mostly with us. Of course, you will not publish books by Solzhenitsyn and others because that is all Western anti-Russian/Soviet propaganda, etc.” This is where the real battle took place for Finland throughout the Cold War. The Finnish foreign ministry and intelligence service were fighting a constant battle against Soviet attempts to increase their influence and control in the social spheres of Finland. The Finns could not speak about this openly (to avoid antagonizing the Soviets) but most Finns seemed to realize instinctively what was going on. However, there was a significant minority of Finns on the left wing, some of them Soviet agents, most of them useful idiots, who actually said: “Yes, the Soviets are friendly, and we should just get rid of the army so they won’t be threatened by us.”
Fink: Some are talking about “Finlandization” as a “cure” for the conflict in Ukraine. Do you think there is an analogy there? Are there lessons that Ukraine can draw from Finland’s Cold War experience, especially for a possible post-war predicament?
Ries: The analogy would be: If Ukraine would accept a peace agreement with Putin by giving up some territory and giving up some political things … I absolutely don’t think that this is a solution for Ukraine. The reason for this is because Ukraine is not in the same exposed position towards Russia today as Finland was towards the USSR during most of the Cold War. Ukraine has a large direct border with NATO, it has tremendous sympathy from the West, it has already gotten a lot of support and weapons. During the Cold War, Finland could not get any of this, she was basically left on her own. Ukraine does not really need to submit to Finlandization.
Maybe, there could be some kind of concession with regards to Crimea. Crimea is a difficult point, the Russians really consider it a vital interest. The military and civilian port facility infrastructure there are so important for Russia that I suspect that some kind of agreement has to be reached. This does not necessarily have to mean that Russia has total control of the area.
Right now, to me, it seems that Ukraine is winning this war. They are wearing down the Russians more than the Russians are wearing them down. This is done at a huge cost, cities destroyed, casualties, but from everything I see and hear they are actually winning the fight against the Russians. The big question now is if Putin can mobilize and send in more troops, like Stalin did, to start a big second offensive. But, from everything I hear, he does not have those resources, even if he made a general mobilization. Also, I don’t think most of those young men would want to fight, nor would their families. It also seems the Russians don’t have the equipment or the logistics train. If we look at what they sent into Ukraine and the current Russian logistical shambles—this is a huge difference with the war with Finland. Stalin had really built up the logistical capability before the war. Now, it seems, the Russians have no logistics capability at all. So, it looks like the Ukrainians are beating the Russians!
So, right now I would say it would be crazy for the Ukrainians to get into any quick Russian peace deal. Now, the Ukrainians are winning at a huge cost, but the Ukrainians seem still willing to make this sacrifice. The other problem is, if you make a deal with Putin it is not worth anything. He breaks deals. He lies through his teeth about everything. So, Ukraine might end up like the Baltic states in 1940—they conceded to Stalin’s demands and the Soviets used those bases to occupy them.
There is also one more consideration: If Putin continues in this war for two or three more months, I think he is finished. This is for two reasons: Everything about this war has been a failure for him, massive failures. NATO is united like never before. Finally our politicians are waking up to the reality of Putin, which will totally change our Russia policy. Also, the Russian economy is likely to be really shattered by the sanctions. I think the Russian elites, not Putin’s closest circle which basically sees the world the way he does, but the second circle of elites is going to say: “This guy has made too many mistakes, we should not let him continue.” The other thing that I think might tip the whole thing is that after two or three more months it is going to be more and more difficult to keep the truth about the war away from the Russian people. Once a significant part of the Russian public starts to get the truth about the war, they may start serious protests against it. Their own sons are being killed, and getting killed in such an awful way because the Russian army can’t fight. Also, attacking Ukraine is like breaking into your neighbor’s house: They can identify easily with Ukrainians. Also, the sanctions are going to hit Russian living conditions pretty hard. Sooner or later they are going to realize that Putin is the one who brought this on.