Russia’s Wars Against Finland. Conclusions and Lessons for Ukraine

Historical parallels between Russia’s actions on the Finnish and Ukrainian directions

 

Ivan Sichen

In one of our previous articles, we already raised the issue of the historical parallels of Putin’s war against Ukraine. In particular, it was about Russia’s permanent attempts to destroy Poland, starting from the Tsardom of Muscovy. This was the reason for Warsaw’s decision to join NATO.

We would like to continue this topic on the example of Finland, which has the same problems with Russia as Poland and Ukraine, which eventually also led to Finland’s decision to join NATO. As a result, Russia has not only been unable to contain NATO’s enlargement process, but has also faced the prospect of the North Atlantic Alliance reaching its northwestern border.

We hope that Moscow’s attack on Ukraine will also end in our country’s accession to NATO. And even during Putin’s lifetime, which will be a real “triumph” of his political career.

 

Given the considerable amount of information concerning Russia’s policy and interests towards Finland, we will begin with conclusions that will be confirmed by historical data. We will draw parallels between Russia’s absolutely similar actions on the Finnish and Ukrainian directions. In turn, this will provide an opportunity to make a forecast about Ukraine’s prospects. So:

  • Russia has always considered Finland and Ukraine as its “historical territories” and has tried to extend its exclusive influence on them. The same thing is happening today;
  • In order to achieve its goals in relation to Finland and Ukraine, the authorities of Muscovy/Russia have never stopped using special methods and military force, and have violated all agreements. This approach included the creation of puppet regimes, providing them with military support in the seizure of local and central government, followed by full-scale use of Russian troops;
  • Given Russia’s military superiority over Finland and Ukraine, the Russian ruling elite has generally overestimated its strengths and underestimated Finland’s and Ukraine’s defense capabilities. As a result, Russian blitzkriegs failed and escalated into protracted hostilities;
  • Russia’s wars have always been accompanied by mass atrocities and repression of prisoners of war and civilians in enemy countries. However, the Russian authorities did not spare their own people and ruthlessly punished commanders and fighters who did not live up to their expectations or did not follow orders;
  • Both Finland and Ukraine have received and continue to receive the support of allies in their confrontation with Russia. Unfortunately, such support has not always had sufficient amounts and forms, but now it is acquiring a fundamentally new meaning. Nevertheless, Moscow is trying to take advantage of the dubious experience of the Soviet Union’s war against Finland in 1939–1940, when Western countries forced Helsinki to make concessions in an attempt to stop another armed conflict in Europe;
  • “Russia’s’ successes” in implementing its plans for Finland and Ukraine tended to come at too high a price due to high military losses in the hostilities, economic losses due to sanctions and undermining the country’s reputation in the world. Moreover, such Russian “successes” were only temporary.

To date, Finland has renounced neutrality and applied to join NATO. And Ukraine has completely got rid of Russian influence and is heading for Europe. Together with our partners, we will definitely defeat Moscow.

 

To confirm these conclusions and lessons, let us turn to the historical aspects of Russia’s policy and actions towards Finland. They are well known, but we will remind them once again in the context of relevant analogies with Ukraine.

Territories of Finland lost by Sweden to Russia after wars of 1721 and 1743

Thus, the incorporation of certain parts of Finland into the Russian Empire began during the Russo-Swedish War of 1700–1721. At that time, Finland had the status of a Grand Duchy within the Kingdom of Sweden, which allowed it to have its own Parliament, flag and internal autonomy.

Under the 1721 Treaty of Nystad, Sweden, defeated in the war, was forced to cede a number of its territories to Russia. Thus, the eastern part of Finland from Vyborg, part of Swedish Karelia north of Lake Ladoga, and the Izhora land from Lake Ladoga to Narva, part of Estonia with Revel, part of Latvia with Riga and the islands of Ezel and Dago. This allowed Russia to gain a foothold in the Baltic Sea.

The next stage of the Russian Empire’s “absorption” of Finland was the Treaty of Abo, concluded as a result of another Russo-Swedish war in 1741––1743, which Sweden also lost. Under the treaty, Russia received the Kymmenegård province and part of the Savolax province. The Vyborg province was formed from these lands.

The full incorporation of Finland into the Russian Empire took place after Sweden’s defeat in the new Russo-Swedish War of 1808–1809. Immediately after that, the Russian Emperor Alexander I proclaimed himself Grand Duke of Finland. As a result, Finland became a grand duchy within the Russian Empire, and its monarchs — Russian emperors.

This status of Finland had been maintained for over a century. At this, in the initial period, Russia still allowed it to retain some autonomy, but then proceeded to the full assimilation of that country. In particular, under Alexander III and Nicholas II, autonomous Finnish troops were abolished, Finns were forced to serve in the Imperial Army, and education and government agencies were Russified. In addition, Emperor Nicholas II cancelled the Finnish Constitution, and then dissolved the Finnish Parliament.

The Grand Duchy of Finland as part of the Russian Empire in 1809–1917 “The Attack” (1899) — a painting by the Finnish artist Edvard Isto, that represents the Russian double-headed eagle attacking the Finnish Maiden

After the overthrow of the tsarist regime in the Russian Empire in February 1917, Finland started to build an independent state. Such intentions provoked resistance from the Provisional Government of Russia, which tried to keep Finland under its control with the help of Russian troops on its territory.

Soviet propaganda poster “For Red Petrograd! For Red Finland!”

However, the Bolshevik coup in Russia in October 1917 put an end to those attempts. The new Finnish Parliament took full power and announced the creation of the Kingdom of Finland, later — the Republic of Finland. To the surprise of modern historians, the Soviet government recognized the independence of Finland. According to some estimates, in this way the ruling elite of the Bolsheviks tried to secure asylum in the event of their fall. However, in 1918 an attempt was made to organize a Bolshevik coup in Finland.

In fact, the coup method was similar to Russia’s actions against Ukraine in 1918 and 2014. In particular, it included providing local support to left and pro-Russian forces, creating illegal armed groups and using them to seize power in the country with the support of Russian troops. However, the Finnish armed forces were not only able to quell the uprising, but also established control over the historic Finnish territories that remained part of Russia, including the city of Vyborg. The war between Russia and Finland lasted until 1921 and ended with the latter’s territorial possessions. At this, in the first stage of the war, significant assistance to Finland was provided by opponents of the Bolsheviks, who withdrew to its territory.

In the 1920s and 1930s, relations between the Soviet Union (in fact, Russia) and Finland remained complicated. Moscow did not give up trying to seize Finland and pursued an aggressive policy towards it. However, due to lack of forces until the end of the 1930s, the USSR refrained from attacking Finland. In particular, a non-aggression treaty between the two countries was signed in 1932 and extended in 1934.

Moreover, Moscow tried to impose a form of military-political alliance on Helsinki to jointly counter a possible attack by Hitler’s Germany. For example, the USSR offered Finland to bring Soviet troops into its territory, which in practice would mean the occupation and deprivation of the country’s sovereignty. Besides, Moscow demanded that Helsinki withdraw the Finnish-Soviet border from Leningrad, and transfer a number of Finnish islands in the Baltic Sea to the USSR. The Finnish leadership rejected this and intensified measures to strengthen the country’s armed forces and build fortifications on the border with the USSR — the so-called Mannerheim Line.

In view of this, the USSR, in its usual “divide and rule” manner, agreed with Hitler’s Germany to include Finland in its sphere of influence. The agreement was reached under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. And in November 1939, the Soviet Union launched a new war against Finland.

According to most unbiased historians, the aim of such actions by the USSR was a complete occupation of Finland and bringing to power in the country a puppet communist regime. For example, even before the war, a “Finnish” division was created in the Soviet Union, which was to pretend to be “rebel troops”. And to provide them with “assistance”, near the border with Finland, the North-Western Front was deployed consisting of the 7th and 9th Armies of the Leningrad Military District, as well as aviation and naval units. The total number of the Red Army was about 500 thousand soldiers and officers (ratio with the Finnish army — 1.6:1), 2.9 thousand guns and mortars (5.4:1), 2.3 thousand tanks (88:1), 2.4 thousand aircrafts (9.1:1). At the same time, the formation of a pro-Kremlin “Finnish government” began.

The pretext for the war was created by Moscow through provocative shelling by Russian special services of its Russia’s own border post on the Finnish border, which killed several servicemen. Justified by this provocation, the USSR severed diplomatic relations with Finland and began hostilities. According to the Soviet leadership, the Red Army’s total superiority over the Finnish troops created favorable conditions for a quick victory within two weeks, as had happened during the Soviet attack on Poland a few months earlier. Accordingly, war plans were built, which even provided for parades in the occupied Finnish cities.

Map on the history of the Russo-Finnish war of 1939–1940

The 7th Army advanced on the Karelian Isthmus, where it was planned to make a direct breakthrough of the Mannerheim Line in the direction of Vyborg and north of Lake Ladoga. The 9th Army attacked from central Karelia with the task of dividing Finland into two parts and reaching the Gulf of Bothnia. Besides, in order to prevent counterattacks and possible amphibious landings of Finland’s western allies from the Barents Sea, it was planned to conduct hostilities in Lapland. At this, mass bombings of Finnish cities and other settlements began.

However, from the first days everything went wrong. The 7th Army was stopped by Finnish troops and partially defeated. Moreover, two of its divisions were surrounded, and the others suffered significant losses. The 9th Army, which did not meet a strong defense, achieved greater success. But it was also stopped with significant losses.

The reason for this, as always, was the Russian/Soviet ruling elite’s overestimation of its own capabilities and underestimation of the enemy. Despite its superior strength and resources, the Red Army immediately faced completely unexpected problems.

As it turned out, neither the commanders nor the Red Army fighters were actually prepared for war with a strong enemy. This was primarily due to shortcomings in the coordination of different forces and troops; the inability of commanders to make effective decisions and of fighters — to carry them out; low level of training of specialists (tankers, artillerymen, pilots and signalmen); poor quality of the equipment and poor logistics of troops. The critical issue was the Red Army’s being unprepared to act in cold and snowy winter and difficult terrain. The almost impregnable Mannerheim Line also played an important role.

Completely different qualities were demonstrated by the Finnish troops, which successfully combined tough defenses in fortified positions and maneuvering actions on other sections of the front line. Together with the population, a large-scale sabotage, guerrilla and sniper war was organized on the flanks, in the rear and on the lines of communication of the Red Army. The success of such actions was facilitated by the mass patriotism of the Finnish military and the country’s population.

The Red Army was actually unprepared for war with a strong enemy

The support of Finland’s foreign partners was also important. Thus, the USSR was expelled from the League of Nations, and the United States imposed economic sanctions against it. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden began providing weapons for the Finnish troops. In addition, a significant number of volunteers from other countries came to Finland.

Despite the failures of the Red Army at the front, on December 1, 1939, Moscow officially announced the establishment of the so-called Finnish Democratic Republic in the USSR in the town of Terijoki. The government of the “state” was formed from representatives of the Communist Party of Finland, which was based in Moscow. However, this did not help the USSR in implementing its plans.

In early January 1940, the Red Army on the Finnish front lost its offensive potential and ceased active hostilities. Of course, the Finnish army also suffered losses. Therefore, both sides proceeded to restore and replenish their troops.

After the redeployment of units and forces from other regions of the USSR, the total number of the North-Western Front was increased to 760,000 soldiers and officers. Additional tanks and artillery were sent to the front.

The restoration of the Red Army’s combat capability was accompanied by repression against the military command, which thwarted the Kremlin’s plans. Demonstrative executions of senior commanders who did not fulfill their tasks took place in the Red Army. Commander of the Leningrad Military District, Komandarm 2nd rank K. Meretskov, was removed from office. His place was taken by the Komandarm 1st rank S. Tymoshenko. The general leadership of the North-Western Front was entrusted to the People’s Commissar for Defense K. Voroshilov.

In February 1940, Soviet troops eventually broke through the Finnish defenses on the Karelian Isthmus, but were stopped at the second frontier. However, Finland had already exhausted its forces, and agreed to negotiations and concessions to the Soviet Union. An additional factor that prompted Helsinki to make such a decision was the pressure of Western countries, which were interested in putting an end to another armed conflict in Europe and tried to prevent it from escalating into a major war.

Map of the areas ceded by Finland to the Soviet Union after the Winter War

Under the Moscow Peace Treaty, signed in March 1940, Finland lost about a tenth of its territory (including Vyborg and the surrounding area) and the same share of its economic potential. The Soviet-Finnish border was significantly pushed away from Leningrad and the strategically important railway between Moscow and Murmansk.

In addition, the Soviet Union was able to deploy its military bases on the former Finnish islands, which, together with similar bases in the occupied Baltic states, allowed to block the entrance to the Gulf of Finland.

It would seem that Moscow did win. But at what price? Of course, the communist leaders of the USSR were not at all worried about the loss of the North-Western Front, which accounted for 40 % of its personnel, namely — more than 100 thousand dead and 300–600 thousand wounded (exact data are still unknown). But their comparison with the losses of the Finnish troops (23,000 killed and about 50,000 wounded) clearly demonstrated the unpreparedness of the Red Army. In turn, this convinced Hitler’s Germany of the possibility of easy victory over the USSR and was an additional impetus to attack it.

Later, as expected, Finland supported Germany in its war against the Soviet Union and took a direct part in it. In particular, it was Finland that liberated the Soviet-occupied Finnish territories that ensured a complete blockade of Leningrad and posed a constant threat to the Moscow-Murmansk railway, which was the main point of delivery to the USSR for all kinds of supplies from Western allies. And whatever is said about Finland, but Moscow itself pushed it to such a step.

Due to Germany’s defeat in the war, Finland lost part of its territory again, which was enshrined in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, which summed up the results of World War II. But under pressure from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, the Soviet Union was forced to abandon its occupation of Finland.

In the post-war period, Finland voluntarily declared its neutrality, but maintained close cooperation with NATO due to the persistence of military threats from the USSR/Russia. And in May 2022, when the expansion of the Russian war against Ukraine witnessed Moscow’s transition to an openly aggressive foreign policy course, Finland applied to join the Alliance.

Russia destroyed the entire security system on its northwestern border with its own hands

As a result, as we have written in previous publications, Russia has destroyed the entire security system on its northwestern border with its own hands. And this is just the beginning. Following the collapse of Russia as a result of the approaching internal crisis with each passing day of its war against Ukraine, Finland will definitely regain control of its territories.

 

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