Reflections On The Winter War – OpEd


Today, historians actively participate in discussion of the military conflict in Ukraine and ways of its resolution on equal footing with military experts and political scientists. Through retrospective research and comparative analysis of the international crises and conflicts of past years, they model scenarios of the ongoing Eastern European conflict. The analogies with the Korean War, the Caribbean Crisis and even the World Wars repeatedly surfaced in the press.

A particularly interesting one is the Winter War. The conflict is especially similar to the Ukrainian events in its genesis and development. The conclusions that can be drawn from its study largely contradict the currently prevailing belief that the ongoing conflict can be resolved through military means. The lessons of the Winter War make it clear that the heroic struggle for the return of territories guarantees Ukraine enormous loss of life but does not guarantee the return of the territories themselves.

Eighty three years ago on November 30th, 1939, the Russian troops began the invasion of Finland. That was the start of the war which is known in the historiography as “The Winter War”.  The United States strongly condemned the USSR for the outbreak of the conflict.In recent years this conflict has rarely aroused interest among American and European historians. For a long time it was considered that the question was extensively studied. It seemed unlikely to introduce new sources on the issue into academic use. Besides, the war in Finland like a number of other events of 1939 was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War II.

But unexpectedly, in 2022 the relevance of research on “The Winter War” revived. The war in Ukraine revived scientific interest among Western historians to the war which Russia had waged against its neighbor in 1939. Paradoxically, comparing the two seemingly different conflicts we can draw quite a few interesting analogies in their genesis and development.
A striking coincidence is the fact that not long before the war Russia and Finland had been parts of one state as currently feuding Russia and Ukraine once were. It is noteworthy that initially centrifugal tendencies in Finland and in Ukraine did not lead to an immediate military conflict with Russia. In both cases conflicts were ripe some time later and had other roots.

The main aim that the Soviet government pursued in the war with Finland was to move the state border farther from Leningrad (nowadays Saint-Petersburg) in order to prepare and strengthen its defense in case of the German attack on the Soviet Union. Moscow was certain that Mannerheim would inevitably lean toward the side of Germany. Moscow, for its part, regarded the German threat as an existential one. This was due to the fact that the two states fascist Germany and the socialist Soviet Union represented the two antagonistic systems both by ideology and by politico-economic founding principles. The inevitability of war did not cause doubts in the Kremlin. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was just a smokescreen for war preparations of both sides. Under the circumstances, the preparation for defense of Leningrad was crucial for the Russians.

Rhetoric and logic of today’s Kremlin basically fit into the same paradigm. Approaching the NATO frontier Russia sees as an existential security threat that must be nipped even by means of a preventive military operation against a neighboring country. On that issue, a leading representative of the modern school of political realism John Mearsheimer already wrote. His alarmist predictions of nine years ago came to pass. Today, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago John Mearsheimer expresses serious concerns about possible global consequences of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. His concerns are shared by Professor Max Abrahms and by a number of other famous scholars.

Considering the background of the Russian-Finnish conflict, it is worth noting that Soviet Russia did not immediately resort to a military solution, initially intending to resolve the problem of the western border security through diplomacy. In particular, Russia proposed to Finland twice the ground in exchange for the Karelian Isthmus. From a historical perspective that fact did not fully allow to impute to the Soviet Union expansionist policy towards Finland. The border line laid in 12-20 miles from Leningrad which was the second most important city and major defense industrial center.

Anticipating aggression on the part of Germany, the military and political leadership of the USSR wanted to move the border beyond the reach of long-range artillery of the day. The Finnish government made no concessions and did not look for a compromise, following instructions from Great Britain, France and the United States. Following their own political interests, those countries in conjunction with their future enemy Germany financed the building of powerful fortifications and intensively supplied the Finnish army with the western weapons. They assured Mannerheim in all-round support and encouraged him to talk with Moscow only from a position of strength.

Such a position of the western countries on the dispute between Russia and Finland led to impossibility of a peaceful resolution of the issue. Russia attacked Finland.

The swift advance of the Russians soon stalled, having met with stubborn resistance and deeply layered defense. The attacking side suffered considerable losses in manpower. The aspirations for a lightning military operation dissipated soon. It made the Kremlin abandon some plans, in particular, setting up in Finland a political regime loyal to Moscow. The project to bring to power Otto Kuusinen was curtailed (in 2022, events developed analogously when Moscow decided to drop the plan of bringing to power in Kyiv a pro-Russian politician Victor Medvedchuk). Nevertheless, despite heavy losses and international isolation Moscow did not give up on its strategic military goal, Finland was defeated. In the end, the Finnish side lost the territory larger than the area, which the USSR had claimed before the military campaign. Instead of 12 miles, the border was moved up to 100 miles, which was enshrined in the Moscow Peace Treaty on 12 March 1940. Finland could have saved those territories and 25.000 human lives if it had not followed the confrontational course set by the Western countries.

Helsinki’s categorical rejection of the terms proposed by the opponent eventually resulted in its greater losses and concessions which had not been even demanded by Moscow in the initial negotiating position. A similar trend is clearly seen in the escalation of the current conflict between Kyiv and Moscow. Initially, the Kremlin issued a demand for Ukraine and NATO to renounce the 23rd article of the 2008 Bucharest Declaration. In August the same year, during the events in Georgia, Russia toughly demonstrated to Ukraine and NATO its resolve to violent confrontation over the Bucharest Summit decisions. However, Kyiv and Brussels ignored the signal of Moscow and went beyond the point of no return. The 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” inspired by the West led to centrifugal trends in the pro-Russian regions. In the South, using those trends Russia took control over Crimea. In the East, a civil war broke out. Contrary to logic of the causal relationship and without any analysis of events, the Ukrainian politicians further intensified their cooperation with NATO in pursuit of membership, which eventually led to Russia’s large scale invasion in 2022. As a result, Ukraine lost as much as 20 percent of the territory. 

Returning to the Winter War, it should be mentioned that Western governments imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Soviet Russia, which meant almost total commercial isolation. Nevertheless, the trade blockade did not impair the Russian economy substantially. What’s more, the Russian economy continued to develop steadily in this context, as the US ambassador Laurence Steinhardt wrote later. Comparing foreign economic conditions of 1939 and 2022, it is worth noting that in the current realities of the world economy Russia is more easily overcoming the effects of nonmarket methods of influence of the Western states. This is mainly due to trade and economic cooperation between Russia and China, the world’s second large economy. Increasing pressure on Russia will only strengthen cooperation between the two countries.

Besides economic sanctions, the political ones were imposed on the USSR as well. The apogee was the expulsion of the USSR from the League of Nations. The decision was a form of collective condemnation of the aggressor state. But it did not help to strengthen peace and security at all. In fact, that was another step on the road to dismantling the League of Nations and deinstitutionalization of the whole system of international relations, a setback of that system. In some way, it became possible because the United States neglected the League of Nations, a prototype of the United Nations. In spite of the fact that the universal international organization in Geneva was founded on the progressive principles articulated by the American president Woodrow Wilson, the US itself did not join the League. It became a precedent and from the very beginning limited the potential of the League for peaceful settlement of international security problems.

On the whole, the rhetoric and actions of the third party countries towards the Russian-Finnish war distinctly showed that all of them were guided by their own national interests and not by the desire to establish peace and save human lives.

Something similar can be traced in the attitude to the conflict in Ukraine. Incorporation of Ukraine into the pro-Western camp already triggered Russia’s aggression and erupted into the war carrying away tens of thousands of lives. Donbass came under control of Russia as well as Crimea over which Ukraine had lost territorial sovereignty a long time ago. To keep feeding Ukrainians’ hopes and most likely illusions about the return of territories in the war against a nuclear power, it means to condemn to death hundreds of thousands of them. Objectively assessing the conflict, it should be understood that it is not a zero-sum game and its dynamics only multiplies unexpected risks of global significance. 

This regional conflict, before it turns into a global one, can be resolved only through peaceful negotiations during which Ukraine will have to accept the territorial status quo.

Neil Karpenko

Neil Karpenko, PhD, Ukraine’s history and politics researcher residing in Toronto. Contributing author to Haaretz, The Hill Times and Morning Star

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