SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — As Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unfolds, there are lessons to be learned from a former Moscow dictator’s invasion of a weak, harmless, and sovereign neighbor. Putin certainly remembers that story, now that his delusions of Ukrainian collapse have been shattered.
by Josef Stalin 1939 cynical deal with Adolf Hitler gave him the power to intimidate Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into ceding control to the Soviet Union and seizing eastern Poland. These successes emboldened him to try the same tactics on Finland that had worked on the three Baltic states. His designed-to-reject ultimatum demanded huge territories and military bases, which would have left Finland powerless and probably soon swallowed up. Putin’s demands on Ukraine now have the same flavor.
In November 1939, seemingly unstoppable Soviet armies attacked across the Finnish border, sparking what is known as the Winter War. What can we learn from this war?
First, Goliath can be stopped, at least for a time, as we saw in Ukraine. Stalin’s initial invasion failed miserably. Despite massively more infantry, warplanes, tanks and artillery than the Finns, the Red Army was stopped short not far from the border near Leningrad. Columns farther north were stopped, then torn apart, by Finnish ski troops.
Second, Goliath eventually wins out if he’s willing to pay a high enough price. New commanders and even larger Soviet forces attacked again… and shattered Finnish defenses, despite military supplies and equipment sent by sympathetic governments. A better organized offensive resulting in huge Soviet casualties pushed the Finns to breaking point. The Finnish government was forced to sue for peace in March 1940, agreeing to even harsher terms than those originally requested.
Third, a botched invasion doesn’t mean the invading army is as weak as it looks. Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 at least in part because he, and many others, believed the Winter War demonstrated both abysmal incompetence and deep demoralization in the Red Army. There was some truth to this belief, but Hitler learned the hard way that Soviet military resources and will were far greater and more robust than the Winter War seemed to show.
Fourth, strong initial resistance benefited Finland despite their eventual defeat. Stalin took territories and bases, but did not swallow the whole country in 1940. Nor did he insist that the Finns accept the new puppet government he had created in the territories captured at the beginning of the war.
Fifth, a crushed neighbor does not necessarily remain crushed. In 1941, the Finns attacked to retake territories lost the previous year, alongside the massive German invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa. The Finns called it the Continuation War. Despite German pressure, they stopped at the old border and refused to attack or bombard German-besieged Leningrad.
Finally, sometimes bloody dictators keep their word. Believing in Finland’s promises of strict post-war neutrality, at the end of World War II Stalin took back his Winter War gains (plus massive reparations), but never forced Finland in its collection of Eastern European satellite states.
Without NATO’s direct entry into this current Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the day may come when Ukraine, like Finland, will be forced to accept a negotiated peace – a horrible peace, debilitating and currently unacceptable. The alternative may be complete Russian occupation and bloody partisan warfare.
Would Putin keep his word if Ukraine and the West agreed to such a peace? Or would such an agreement repeat the “Peace for Our Time” of the Munich Accord, giving Putin breathing space to prepare for more aggression? Ukraine and NATO may have to make that judgment later. Stalin’s precedent offers some hope, but Putin’s record is poor.
Richard Elliott followed a successful career in business management, including as a partner at Ernst & Young and as chief financial officer of Park-Ohio Industries, with a master’s degree in history from Kent State University focusing on history twentieth-century Europe. He lives in Shaker Heights.
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