Copyright © 2024

The work of Euromaidan Press is supported by the International Renaissance Foundation

When referencing our materials, please include an active hyperlink to the Euromaidan Press material and a maximum 500-character extract of the story. To reprint anything longer, written permission must be acquired from [email protected].

Privacy and Cookie Policies.

75 Years On Russia Again Engaged in a Winter War

75 Years On Russia Again Engaged in a Winter War
Edited by: Russell White

Seventy-five years ago today, Moscow launched what became known as the Winter War against Finland. It used much the same propaganda and tactics it is using against Ukraine now. It faced far greater resistance than its vast disproportion of forces had led it to believe. And thanks to that resistance, it achieved far less than Moscow had expected.

Not surprisingly, many commentators in Ukraine and even in Russia and Finland are drawing parallels between the two Russian wars, parallels which carry with them lessons for all sides about the failures of international diplomacy, the continuities of Russian policies, and the relative importance of arms.

Ukrainian commentator Oleg Shama in an essay in “Novoye vremya” provides the basis for these and other observations conclusions for the present situation in Ukraine and the world as well (…/prinuditelno-osvoboditelnaya-75-let-nazad…).
In August 1939, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin came up with a grand bargain dividing Europe into spheres of influence, Shama recalls. On the basis of that, Moscow forced the three Baltic countries to capitulate to its demands and then illegally annexed them to the Soviet Union.

But the Finns refused to go along. They “wanted to retain their neutrality” in the looming war, and they recognized that the presence of Soviet forces on their territory would not only be an insult to their independence but would inevitably draw them into that conflict on one side or the other.

But the Soviet government had no intention of backing away from what it thought were its rights under the Molotov-Ribbentrop accord, Shama says, all the more so because Moscow believed that Finland should be part of the USSR as it had been part of the Russian Empire between 1809 and 1917.

The Kremlin tried diplomacy, demanding in talks with Helsinki that lasted more than a year that Finland rent Khanko Island and agree to a shift in the border 60 kilometers away from Leningrad. Such a concession, Soviet diplomats and generals said, was required to ensure the defense of the northern capital. But the Finns refused and in October 1939 broke off talks.
On November 3, Moscow mobilized the Leningrad military district, and on November 26, Russian special forces organized a provocation involving what Soviet propagandists asserted was an attack on USSR forces by Finnish ones. Helsinki denied involvement and said it would conduct a full-scale investigation. But Moscow wasn’t interested in talks, and on November 30, 1939, Stalin ordered his forces to attack Finland. On that date, Soviet planes dropped 600 bombs on Helsinki, killing 91 Finns.
“Despite Kremlin propaganda,” Shama continues, “the Finns were not prepared for war. Their army consisted of 30,000 soldiers and officers,” and they had been reducing their defense spending for two decades confident that the League of Nations would prevent any attack and guarantee their security.


The unprovoked Soviet attack so angered the Finns that thousands of them immediately took up arms and went to the front, often without uniforms as none were available. Vastly outnumbered in personnel and arms, they were inspired by Marshal Mannerheim who said “we are fighting for our home, faith and fatherland.”
Soviet forces were inspired by a quite different idea: they had been told that they were “freeing the Finnish people from the oppression of the capitalists,” but after a few days Soviet soldiers on Finnish land were asking themselves “Why are we liberating the Finns? They live so well.”

Moreover, the Soviet forces found they had no one to liberate because the Finns withdrew from the border regions, burning their homes and farms so that the Soviets would not get anything they might use against Finland.
On the first day of fighting, the Soviet media announced that in a “liberated” village near the border, a new Finnish government had been formed, headed by Otto Kuusinen, the communist whose revolt Mannerheim had himself put down in 1918. A day later, he signed a mutual assistance pact with the Soviet government to “legalize” the Kremlin’s aggression.
In preparation for this campaign, the Soviet military had created, beginning in October 1939, a “Finnish Peoples Army,” filling it with Finns and Karelians who lived on Soviet territory and then even with Belorussians That step led to a Soviet joke at the time, Shama says: “Minsk Finns will march onto Finnish mines.”

Finland had erected some defenses earlier, and the Soviet command was well aware of those and quite prepared to go around or over them. But, as the Ukrainian commentator points out, Moscow had not taken into account the Finnish will to fight and expected an easy and quick victory, one that was supposed to be complete by Stalin’s birthday on December 21.

The Soviet advance slowed as Finnish resistance grew, but the Finns, having suffered 25,000 combat dead in the course of 105 days of fighting, finally had to sue for peace, even though they had inflicted 126,000 dead on the invaders. And they had to yield a tenth of their territory to Moscow. However, that was less than Moscow had expected to gain, and so it could hardly justify the claims of victory it put out and that were accepted by some in the West. Moreover, the way in which Finland and the Soviet Union treated their combat losses spoke volumes about the differences between the two countries, differences which are in evidence in Ukraine and Russia now.

When the war began, Mannerheim ordered that “each soldier killed was to be buried with military honors” in specially designated cemeteries. In the Soviet Union, Andrey Zhdanov, head of the Leningrad CPSU obkom, “categorically forbid telling relatives of dead soldiers about the destruction of their near ones” and to take other steps to hide such losses as well.

On this anniversary of the Winter War, Ukrainians are thinking about that conflict perhaps more than any other people except for the Finns. Roman Bochkala, a Ukrainian military analyst, spoke for many in his country when he wrote of that distant conflict in terms every Ukrainian would recognize in relation to the current situation. (

Like Ukraine, the Finns faced an overwhelming adversary, “a horde [which] wanted to suppress its opponents by its size. David went into the ring against Goliath. And he won.” Of course, Bochkala writes, the Finns were frightened but they were not intimidated, and “they fought like lions.”

They understood something that Ukrainians can take to heart: “in war, the main thing is not quantity but motivation and intelligence.”

Vadim Shtepa, who lives in Karelia and who supports Ukrainian efforts to defend their nation against Vladimir Putin’s aggression, reflects on this anniversary? “What can one say? The only thing is to wish our Ukrainian friends [in this new Winter War] to be no weaker than the Finns!”

Edited by: Russell White
You could close this page. Or you could join our community and help us produce more materials like this.  We keep our reporting open and accessible to everyone because we believe in the power of free information. This is why our small, cost-effective team depends on the support of readers like you to bring deliver timely news, quality analysis, and on-the-ground reports about Russia's war against Ukraine and Ukraine's struggle to build a democratic society. A little bit goes a long way: for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you can help build bridges between Ukraine and the rest of the world, plus become a co-creator and vote for topics we should cover next. Become a patron or see other ways to support. Become a Patron!

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here

You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter

Please leave your suggestions or corrections here

    Will the West continue to support Ukraine?
    • Know what moves the world.
    • Premium journalism from across Europe.
    • Tailored to your needs, translated into English.
    Special discount
    for Euromaidan Press readers
    Euromaidan Press

    We are an independent media outlet that relies solely on advertising revenue to sustain itself. We do not endorse or promote any products or services for financial gain. Therefore, we kindly ask for your support by disabling your ad blocker. Your assistance helps us continue providing quality content. Thank you!

    Related Posts