“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Attributed to George Santayana, this famous observation has special resonance today, as Russia struggles to subdue Ukraine, having apparently forgotten its past, lamentable efforts to subdue another, even smaller neighbor: Finland.
There are some remarkably convergent parallels between the 1939-1940 Russo-Finnish War (also known as the “Winter War”) and the current war in Ukraine. Little remembered these days outside Finland, it offers a cautionary tale that Putin doubtless already knows—but has ignored—as well as a possibly optimistic foreshadowing of what might yet happen.
Stalin claimed that Finland could be used as a staging ground for an attack on his country. (Sounds familiar?) After all, the Russo-Finnish border was only about 20 miles from Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. He ordered his military to attack tiny Finland, assuming that it would be a walk-over, completed in at most a few days. (Sounds familiar?) The rest of the world agreed, with essentially nobody giving the Finns a chance. (Sounds familiar?) “The Finns are putting on a good show,” noted the renowned English historian and diplomat Harold Nicholson, as the Winter War was barely 48 hours old, “but they will collapse in a day or two.” This was also the overwhelming worldwide consensus, but the Finns evidently hadn’t been told of their imminent demise.
From here on, I’ll stop italicizing the many convergences between Stalin's Winter War and Putin's Ukraine War, trusting that you, dear readers, will have no difficulty recognizing how the two historical shoes fit.
In 1939, the USSR’s population was about 175 million; Finland’s, fewer than 4 million. The Finns had essentially no heavy weapons: no tanks, not even anti-tank weapons, no anti-aircraft guns, no large-bore artillery, and hardly any combat aircraft. Stalin attacked with “just” four of his armies—about 500,000 men—keeping the rest in reserve. The Finns fought back with all they had: Lightly armed military manpower of about 120,000.
Ukraine currently has a bit more than 200,000 soldiers, Russia 900,000. Russia has huge manpower reserves, Ukraine much less. Russia has more than three times Ukraine’s battle tanks, and ten times its military budget. Like today's Ukrainians, the Finns had a fierce love of their country, and the courage and skill to defend themselves. They were fighting for their homes and their families, on terrain that they knew well. The invading Soviet troops were almost entirely unwilling conscripts, with little motivation or knowledge of why they were supposed to fight.