Everyone has their favorite analogy for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Soviets in Afghanistan, the Americans in Afghanistan, the Americans in Iraq, Israel’s wars against the Palestinians – plus of course Vladimir Putin’s previous adventures in Georgia, Chechnya and Ukraine, and the long and bloody war in Ukraine that began with operation Barbarossa in 1941 – all of these have been drawn on for comparisons, and all have something to contribute.
But perhaps the most striking parallel of all is with the Winter War of 1939-40, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland and found it much heaver going than had been anticipated.
The Winter War was an odd sort of war. Although it happened while the Second World War was in progress, and is often treated as part of that wider conflict, it doesn’t fit in very well. Nazi Germany remained neutral, while Britain and France, later to be allies of the Soviets, supported Finland diplomatically and were well on the way to doing so militarily.
The war began with a demand from the Soviets that Finland should make key territorial concessions, for which they offered compensation, and agree to the lease of a military base. This came at a time when the Soviet Union had just annexed eastern Poland (now western Ukraine), following the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, and was about to absorb the Baltic states and parts of Romania. Finland – like them, formerly part of the Russian empire – looked as if it could go the same way.
The Finns did not reject the demand out of hand; they offered a counter-proposal and expressed a willingness to negotiate. But the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, instead broke off relations and launched an invasion, setting up at the same time a puppet Finnish government that was apparently primed to take over the country and turn it into a Soviet satellite.
But the war did not go as planned. Finnish resistance proved to be exceptionally stiff, and in the midst of a cold winter the Soviet advance was painfully slow. Instead of the rapid victory that Stalin expected, the Soviet army soon got bogged down. Only in February 1940, four months after the initial invasion, did it finally succeed in overwhelming the Finns and breaking their main defence lines.
By this time, Finland’s gallant defiance had aroused international sympathy, and assistance from the west was on the way. So Stalin decided to compromise: he backed away from the idea of complete conquest (even though it was now militarily possible) and returned to something more like the original plan. Finland was forced to cede territory – rather more than in the initial Soviet demands – but it retained its independence and its military capability.
The parallels with Ukraine are obvious, and it’s easy to see how Putin, having struck unexpected military difficulty, might now be attracted by a similar ending: he gives up his quest to destroy Ukrainian independence, and in return gains territorial concessions in Crimea and the Donbas. Perhaps even a symbolic renunciation of NATO membership might be on the table.
But there are two dissimilarities with the Finnish case that are worth noting. First, the territorial concessions that the Soviets demanded were never just a pretext – they were significant in their own right. The pre-war border put the Finnish army only 32km from St Petersburg (then called Leningrad): the key Soviet demand was to shift that border westward, providing greater defensive depth.
That might not have been the only cause of the war, but it was clearly a genuine element in Stalin’s thinking. Nor was it an obviously irrational one; you didn’t have to be paranoid (as Stalin was) to see it as a potential threat. There is nothing comparable in today’s Ukraine.
Sure enough, the extra distance on the Karellian isthmus made a crucial difference the following year, when Finland joined Germany in the attack on the Soviet Union in an attempt to recover the lost territory. The Finns fought their way back to the old border, but made only half-hearted attempts to move beyond there and complete the encirclement of St Petersburg. If they had been that far forward in the first place, it could have changed the outcome completely.
On the other hand, if the Soviets had never attacked Finland in the first place, there’s no reason it would not have stayed neutral in 1941. It had no particular sympathy for fascism otherwise, and quickly abandoned Germany when the war turned against it.* It seems that Stalin, rather than removing a threat, created a quite unnecessary enemy.
The second difference was that the Finns had no long history of being a subject people. There was nothing corresponding to Putin’s argument that Ukraine isn’t a real country. Apart from the general fact of it having been part of the Russian empire, no Russian policymakers had any emotional investment in control of Finland, so once the strategic objectives had been secured, its independence was not seen as an affront.
(That remained the case even in 1944, when the Finns, beaten again, were forced to make additional concessions but were not turned into a Soviet satellite: they retained their independence throughout the Cold War period. Finnish governments knew that they could not adopt an anti-Soviet foreign policy, but as long as they respected those lines they were free to be a capitalist democracy.)
Those circumstances made it possible for Stalin to back down when the fortunes of war failed to go his way. If Putin finds himself in the same situation, it’s not clear that he will display the same flexibility.
* Finland was also the only one of Germany’s allies that was never pressed to deport its Jews to the death camps: its small Jewish community remained unmolested throughout the war.