Russia vs. Ukraine: Lessons from the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland


As brave Ukrainians take up arms against the Russian colossus’ invasion, it’s hard to imagine Vladimir Putin losing.

With 900,000 troops, vastly superior air power and nuclear weapons, Russian military might seems overwhelming. Ukraine has just over 200,000 soldiers and more than 100,000 border guards and National Guard members – a fraction of what Russia can muster if it started calling up reservists.

Ukraine’s military spending in 2020 was only a tenth of Russia’s, according to Reuters. The International News Agency cited a report that Russia has more than three times as many battle tanks.

But more than 80 years ago there was another military conflict with one of Russia’s smaller neighbors, in which David managed to repel Goliath.

It was the Winter War, also known as the First Soviet-Finnish War. It was then that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered troops to invade after the Finns refused to accede to Moscow‘s demands.

“By the time war broke out on November 30, 1939, the details of this absurd mismatch were as follows,” Jared Diamond wrote in his 2019 bestseller. Upheavals: turning points for nations in crisis. “The Soviet Union had a population of 170 million, compared to Finland’s 3,700,000. The Soviet Union attacked Finland with “only” four of its armies, totaling 500,000 men, and guarding many more armies in reserve for other military purposes.”

Finland mounted a defense with its entire army of nine divisions and 120,000 men, wrote Diamond, a geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The Soviet Union supported its attacking infantry with thousands of tanks, modern warplanes and modern artillery; Finland was almost without tanks, modern warplanes, modern artillery, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft defences”, continued Diamond.

“Worst of all, however, although the Finnish army had good rifles and machine guns, it had very limited stocks of ammunition; the soldiers had to save ammunition by holding fire until the Soviet attackers were close. .”

Still, the Finns fought the Soviets for months. They blew up many enemy tanks using “Molotov cocktails”, so named after the Russian foreign minister at the time.

“Why did the Finnish army prevail so long in defending against the overwhelming advantages of the Soviet army in numbers and equipment?” asked the diamond. “One of the reasons was motivation: Finnish soldiers understood that they were fighting for their family, their country and their independence, and they were ready to die for these goals.”

Jared Diamond’s 2019 book Upheaval included a long chapter explaining how Finns retained their liberal democracy unlike so many of the Soviet Union’s post-World War II neighbors.

The courage of the Finns inspired 12,000 foreign volunteers, many of them from Sweden, to join the fight.

As Soviet losses mounted, Stalin abandoned his support for the puppet regime he had set up under a Finnish communist leader. The Soviet dictator then begins negotiations. The Finns ended up ceding about nine percent of their territory to remain a free country.

Most province of Karelia and another area to the north was ceded to Russia. The Karelians abandoned their homes and moved to other parts of Finland, where they were welcomed by the Finns.

“Why, in March 1940, didn’t Stalin order the Soviet army to keep advancing and occupy all of Finland?” Diamond requested in Upheaval. “One of the reasons was that the fierce Finnish resistance had made it clear that further progress would continue to be slow, painful and costly for the Soviet Union, which now had much bigger problems to deal with, namely the problems of reorganizing his army and reorganizing. – arming himself to prepare for a German attack.”

Ultimately, Diamond reported, eight Soviet soldiers died for every Finn killed in the Winter War.

This is something to keep in mind as we watch the much larger Ukrainian military and population take on the Russians. The odds are certainly against Ukraine, but as Vietnamese revolutionary and politician Ho Chi Minh once said: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill, but even at those odds you will lose and I will win.”

The Soviets started the war in 1939 because the Finnish border was only 32 kilometers from the major port city of Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg.

By expanding their footprint deeper into Finland – or taking over the whole country – they could better protect Leningrad from any ground invasion through Finland.

Coincidentally, this is the same city where Putin was born in 1952. That makes him 69 years old.

Here’s another coincidence: It was at the same age that murderers Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi died as reviled figures in world history.



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