What Putin Can Learn from Stalin's Winter War
As the crisis escalates over Ukraine, it has become increasingly clear that not only the rebel leaders but also most of their 15,000 fighters are Russian citizens. The Ukrainian troops are far more numerous with 40,000 to 60,000 men and demonstrate much better morale. They have recaptured three-quarters of the territory formerly controlled by the Russian insurgents. The Russian-held area has now shrunk to an area where 2 million people used to live. Even so, the West continues to favor a political solution to avert an outright Russian invasion, presuming it would end in a Russian occupation of the country's east.
Yet an outright Russian offensive is far from certain to succeed. To understand why, it is worth reviewing an obscure episode of history, the Soviet-Finnish Winter War in 1939–40, which lasted just over 100 days. The Finns amazed everybody and prevailed over Stalin. The Ukrainians can do even better with President Vladimir Putin.
The origins of the crisis are eerily similar to the events of Ukraine. Initially, Stalin demanded parts of Finland's territory. Then the Soviets organized a border incident. Their forces bombed their own border guard post, killing four Soviet soldiers, while blaming the Finns. The Russians are doing the same all the time around the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Stalin used this incident as an excuse to withdraw from a non-aggression pact with Finland, just as Putin has cancelled Russia's 1997 Friendship Treaty with Ukraine.
On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, claiming its aggression was a legitimate response to domestic dissent in Finland. The next day the Soviet Union formed a puppet government intended to rule Finland after the Red Army had conquered it. It was called the Finnish Democratic Republic and headed by Otto Wille Kuusinen, a Finnish member of Stalin's Politburo. It served the same function as the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic do today, though Stalin went further in recognizing the Finnish Democratic Republic.
Given that Finland only had a population of 4 million at the time, Stalin did not want to consider the Winter War a real war, only a limited support operation. Therefore, Stalin delegated this task to the Leningrad Military District, but the Finnish soldiers wiped out his first round of soldiers in the extreme cold. In a similar fashion, the Russian military uses irregular mercenaries as gun fodder for their war in Ukraine, and they are dying in unknown masses.
The Finns had to take on the Soviet attack without any hope of significant international support. The international community condemned the Soviet Union. The League of Nations deemed the attack illegal and expelled the Soviet Union swiftly on December 14, 1939. But the Finns had to fight on their own just like the Ukrainians. It was a very bloody war. In the course of three months, the Finnish soldiers killed 127,000 Soviet soldiers while losing 23,000 of their own.
Despite deploying 800,000 troops in the end, Stalin failed to conquer Finland. Rather than sacrifice more Russians and aggravate his embarrassment, he yielded to the brave Finns and settled. Rather liberally, he claimed only 11 percent of Finland's territory in the Moscow Peace Treaty on March 13, 1940. No mediator was needed and hardly any international leader bothered to talk to Stalin. The peace treaty was bitter for Finland, which lost 11 percent of its territory, but it maintained independence. Goliath does not always win.
Ukraine is in a far stronger position than Finland was in 1939. However terrible Putin is, Stalin was incomparably worse. The clownish Moscow PR man Alexander Borodai, who postures as self-appointed "prime minister" in eastern Ukraine, is no Stalinist like Kuusinen. Unlike Putin, Stalin enjoyed some important international support because Nazi Germany recognized Finland as in the Soviet sphere of interest in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. Stalin had a clear plan to conquer Finland, while Putin does not seem to know what he wants in Ukraine but is improvising. Ukraine is ten times larger than Finland and Stalin was prepared to sacrifice far larger military resources than Putin is. The Ukrainian troops have already liberated three-quarters of the territory held by the rebels in Donbas and we are waiting for the battle for Donetsk.
Right now, Putin is facing a pivotal choice. Either Russia invades Ukraine with regular military forces on a massive scale, or the Ukrainian military will oust the Russian terrorists. He should take his cue from Stalin in this case. Sometimes it is better to lose face.