I have been reading about the Winter War in past few months as part of my work on a book about Finnish small arms, and I have been really struck by the similarity in images of that fighting and the current war in Ukraine. I’d like to take a few minutes today to talk about the similarities – and differences – between Ukraine and Finland’s fighting against Russian and Soviet invasion.
Both invasions were launched over Russian/Soviet concern over border security, and both with attempts at false flag attacks as justification. In both cases the Russian/Soviet forces were vastly overconfident in their ability to quickly defeat their opponents, and in both cases they expected to be met with significant Finnish.Ukrainian domestic support. In both cases, those assumptions were completely mistaken, and the invasions instead solidly unified the defenders instead of dividing them. In both cases the defending forces has significantly less air and armor strength that the invading forces.
In the end of the Winter War, Finland’s military managed to hold on just barely long enough to conclude an armistice – although they were days or weeks away from complete collapse on the Karelian Isthmus at the end. The treaty cost them about 10% of Finland’s sovereign territory, but they retained their independence. A similar outcome is a definite possibility in Ukraine, although Ukraine today has a few major advantages the Finns did not have.
First, international opinion has been massively unified behind Ukraine, and huge amounts of military aid have been send to Ukraine very quickly. In 1939/1940, European assistance was essentially limited to a few thousand volunteer troops from Sweden. France and Britain both talked about sending expeditionary forces to assist Finland, but these were really attempts to block German access to Swedish iron ore and not genuine attempts to assist Finland. In any case, they did not actually happen. Finland spent the entire war desperately short of antitank weapons, and depended on land mines and Molotov cocktails. Ukraine, on the other hand, has been supplied with thousands of modern antitank and antiaircraft missile systems and used them to great effect.
Second, Ukraine is a much larger country than Finland. With the retreat of Russian forces from Kyiv, Ukraine has strategic options that Finland did not. Finland was forced to defend the fixed defences of the Mannerheim Line in a type of warfare that allowed the Soviet forces to concentrate and exploit their advantages in artillery and armor. If the Mannerheim Line fell, Helsinki because essentially defenceless and the war would quickly be lost. Finland had much better military success in the north, where they could retreat and trade territory for time and ambush opportunities. Ukraine does not have an equivalent to the Mannerheim Line, and can be more flexible in its defense. This does not guarantee victory, of course, but it gives them options Finland did not have.