WAR IN EUROPE OP-ED
Putin march of devastation in Ukraine echoes Stalin’s 1939 Finland ‘Winter War’ invasion
Stalin’s costly ‘Winter War’ on Finland in 1939 may provide pointers about where the Ukrainian conflict is going. There are remarkable parallels between the two invasions.
‘A” , a large militarised regime, demands that its small neighbour, “B”, surrender swathes of territory because of its security concerns. B, a proudly independent state, refuses. Branding its government “fascist”, A invades, thinking the operation will be over in days. Hostilities drag on for months, with A’s colossal army taking thousands upon thousands of casualties.
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine? In fact, it is Joseph Stalin’s 1939/40 war on Finland, which took a remarkably similar course and may be heading for a similar outcome.
Stalin, with at least a reasonable apprehension of a German attack via Finland, demanded an expanded territorial buffer for the northern city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg).
Putin’s professed fear of Nato and its potential use of Ukraine as a nuclear Trojan horse has been justified on similar grounds, but the pretext is far flimsier. It is from the Russians, not the alliance, that terror against civilians, military escalation and nuclear sabre-rattling has emanated.
Putin has put his nuclear arsenal on high alert, internationalised the fighting by importing Syrian mercenaries, and, after the failure of Russia’s lightning raid on Kyiv, turned to smashing Ukrainian cities and deliberately heightening the region’s humanitarian crisis.
Nato members (and non-members, including Sweden and Finland) have fed in armaments, but committed neither soldiers nor aircraft to Ukraine’s defence.
Like the Ukrainian forces, the Finns were hugely outnumbered and outgunned. With World War 1 rifles and ammunition and fuel for a few weeks, and no anti-tank weapons, they were forced to use petrol bombs against armour.
The Finnish Popular Army fielded 250,000 defenders, many of them private citizens, against a million Russian soldiers invading on several fronts, without a declaration of war and in breach of three non-aggression pacts.
As in Ukraine, the Western democracies sent equipment, but no troops.
Two other parallels stand out. In both conflicts, world censure was swatted away. The United Nations’ predecessor, the League of Nations, damned the rape of Finland and expelled the Soviet Union, to no avail.
On 3 March this year, the UN General Assembly deplored Russia’s invasion and vainly demanded, by a 141-5 majority, its immediate and unconditional withdrawal.
Then there are the lies used to mask brutal realities. Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, explained the bombing of Helsinki to Western critics as the dropping of humanitarian aid for the starving Finns — prompting the ironic Finnish term, “Molotov bread baskets”, for Soviet bombs.
In a similar fashion, Russian officials responded to the global horror over the shelling of a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol by claiming it was a neo-Nazi facility and actors had impersonated injured women.
As a prelude to invasion, Stalin’s loudhailer, Pravda, tarred the Finnish parliamentary democracy as “a vicious, reactionary, fascist clique”.
Ukraine is being laid waste on a similar pretext, including the claim — rejected by neutral observers like the International Association of Genocide Scholars — that ethnic Russians in the country have been targeted for genocide.
The Soviets publicly proclaimed that the “Winter War” on Finland would be over in two weeks; Putin reportedly thought he could bring Ukraine to its knees in two days.
Both sets of invaders grossly underestimated the obdurate strength of national defiance and imagined they would be greeted as liberators, in one case by Finnish workers and in the other by Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Stalin claimed to be protecting the Finnish proletariat from “White” (anti-communist) Finns, much as Putin claims to be “de-nazifying” a Ukrainian state (which has just four ultra-right MPs).
In reality, the Finns stood by their elected government throughout the conflict; approval of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has tripled among his countrymen to 90% since the tanks rolled in.
Bottled up on the Karelian Isthmus and struggling through the trackless wastes of Lapland in -40°C of frost, the Soviets were fought to a humiliating standstill in the 1939 conflict. One general remarked wryly that the captured territory was just enough to bury the Soviet dead.
A comparison of losses during the four-month “Winter War” drives home the point: the Finns suffered 70,000 killed and wounded; the Soviet casualties are variously estimated at between 245,000 and 390,000.
Comparative figures for Ukraine are clouded by Russia’s total news blackout, but Nato estimates that the invaders have suffered between 7,000 and 15,000 fatalities — perhaps double the Ukrainian death toll.
Some 1,600 Russian vehicles, including more than a hundred tanks, are thought to have been destroyed. At the time of writing, Kyiv and Mariupol were still holding out.
But we should not delude ourselves. Finland won a moral victory, as the later Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev would concede. Likewise, the Ukrainians. But on the military front, economic muscle and the sheer weight of numbers and weaponry — and especially command of the skies — must eventually tell.
Because Soviet arms had been shamed, Stalin was determined to overpower the Finns and extract punitive concessions. Finland lost 9% of her territory under the peace agreement — more than the Soviets had initially demanded.
But it retained its sovereignty and avoided the ignominious imposition of a Soviet puppet government, which some historians believe was Stalin’s initial plan.
Putin, it can be assumed, is driven by similar militaristic motives. With more than a million active troops and two million reservists, plus a defence budget of $60-billion (250,000 and $6-billion for Ukraine respectively), he would rather grind Ukraine to matchwood than appear not to win the war.
He is unlikely to resort to chemical or nuclear weapons, not so much because this might force Nato’s hand, but because he does not have to.
His current strategy of devastating Ukraine’s urban infrastructure and swelling the tidal wave of homeless, fugitive and economically desperate will squeeze the necessary concessions from Ukraine.
Zelensky has already climbed down on the question of Ukraine’s membership of Nato and, by implication, Russian demands for its neutrality.
He is likely to concede on such symbolic matters as the educational rights of ethnic Russians and the purging of neo-Nazis from the Ukrainian military (a great minority of its soldiers. It is not, as Putin likes to suggest, the Wehrmacht reborn).
More testing will be the issue of territorial concessions, but like Finland in 1940, Ukraine looks set to give ground on the status of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where it has been fighting Russian proxies for eight years. A federation of puppet states seems on the cards.
But like Stalin, Putin appears to have been wrong-footed by the resolute resistance of his opponents. He is a ruthless autocrat in the Stalin mould, and his circle of advisers may have told him what he wanted, not needed to hear.
The Economist reports that the original Russian plan envisaged the total takeover of Ukraine, including the seizure of private property and the banks. It is risky to make firm predictions about such a fluid situation, but regime change appears to be off the table.
As in Finland in 1939/40, Ukraine’s fightback may have brought home to Putin that he is dealing with a sovereign state, not a Western cat’s paw. DM