- Russia’s struggles in Ukraine have been compared to the USSR’s war in Finland during World War II.
- As one Russian critic of Moscow’s handling of the current war notes, the Soviets managed to secure a costly victory.
- Lyle Goldstein is the director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine transforms the global order and a new “iron curtain” descends across Europe, those of us watching Russian media are both repulsed and saddened by the anti-Western vitriol now consuming the Russian airwaves.
However, now and then, light shines through the bitter morass of propaganda.
A powerful reminder that some Russian journalists retain their sophisticated rationality and a knack for much-needed critical thinking was amply evident in a spicy article published by the Russian magazine Military Review on 18 April under the reasonably innocuous title “The Three Phases of the Winter War” [Три Этапы Зимний Войны].
At the surface level, the piece is simply a reminder of the costly war the USSR fought against Finland for three winter months in 1939-1940. But reading between the lines, the article amounts to a bold critique of the Kremlin and may also offer clues to the future direction of the terrible conflict in Ukraine.
The article’s introduction is hard-hitting, immediately demonstrating that some of the very same rationales for the Finnish War of 1939-1940 are evident in today’s Russian war against Ukraine.
The author asserts that “before the revolution, Finland was part of Russia. The Finns were their comrades …” Noting that the quantitative indices of military power strongly favored the USSR over Finland, the author underlines that the Soviet leaders thought an invasion of Finland would be a simple task for the Red Army.
In a phrase dripping with sardonic criticism, the Russian author notes, “Of course, no one was preparing aggression, the Finns simply threatened the second city of [our] country, which, given their long-standing ties with Germany, was dangerous.”
In another dramatic similarity with the present war in Ukraine, the author describes the Finnish nation in arms “was ready to stop the Russians [if] necessary with their bare hands. The country was seized by the frenzy of militarism and madness.” One suspects that this last phrase reaches an even higher level of irony, as it consciously echoes contemporary Russian rhetoric but also clearly explains the high military morale of both the Finnish and quite similarly the Ukrainian army too.
Indeed, a major factor for the Red Army’s early defeats in the Finnish war are put down to “mood,” or poor motivation.
As to the execution of the combat operations, this historical analysis provides a description from that time that could easily have come off a recent Twitter post describing an ambush in Ukraine: “At one of the turns in the road, we saw a terrible picture that led us all into deathly silence. Ahead of us lay on the snow, as I remember, about thirty or forty [slain] Red Army soldiers.”
Indeed, another echo between these two wars, as the author relates, was a planned lightning attack from multiple vectors that “looked beautiful on paper,” but quickly went off the rails after a horrible bloodletting.
Moreover, he describes similar logistical and preparation challenges confronting the Red Army at that time: “We took off gloves and overcoats from the dead. There were no field kitchens, they ate dry rations and lard.”
The Russian author of this piece states the obvious in noting that Moscow had engaged in an “overestimation of its own forces while underestimating the enemy,” which again provides a deafening echo of current circumstances.
Yet the author, perhaps seeking to shield his bold criticism, also notes the many improvements undertaken by the Red Army (e.g. sheepskin coats) during the war and the Red Army’s eventual success in breaking through the Mannerheim Line and penetrating close to the key city of Vyborg.
For a huge cost in blood and treasure, the USSR did succeed in forcing the Finns to retreat and readjust the border extensively. As the author observes concerning the final settlement: “The controversial question — why Stalin did not go to the end, has a simple answer — the occupation of Finland would have required enormous resources.”
In appraising the Winter War’s lessons for Russia, this author emphasizes the role of both morale and logistics but also explains: “The main feature of the Russian army is that we know how to learn, and do it in battle. And we can admit our mistakes.” Indeed, this article seems to present an example that the Russian military can, at least to some degree, discuss its errors in a relatively candid manner.
In the West, the Winter War between Finland and the USSR is rightly viewed as a mighty victory of David over Goliath, a similar story to what could be unfolding in Ukraine. Notably, the Finns were aided by more than 10,000 foreign volunteers, who rallied to their aid.
Yet, a deeper appraisal also notes that Russia did adapt its tactics and eventually succeeded in coercing the Finnish, short on men and ammunition, to sign a humiliating peace treaty in March 1940 that ceded almost 10% of Finnish territory.
Given Russia’s size, proximity, and stubborn resolve, not to mention Moscow’s possession of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, the West must steel itself for a similarly unsatisfying conclusion to this heinous war. However unpalatable, such a treaty would at least have the virtue of halting the slaughter and would also remove the non-negligible danger of a catastrophic Russia-NATO war.
Indeed, avoiding the latter outcome must remain the top priority for America’s leaders, despite all the bellicose rhetoric.
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