Argument

What Ukraine Can Learn From Finland

In December 1939, a small country with a small military held off the vastly superior Soviet Red Army and avoided occupation by its larger neighbor.

Finnish troops wear gas masks in 1939.
Finnish troops wear gas masks in 1939.
Finnish troops wear gas masks during the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939. Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Just over 82 years ago, Finnish soldiers defending their country against the vastly superior Soviet Red Army achieved a spectacular breakthrough: They defeated the Soviet invaders in the battle for the town of Tolvajarvi in then-Ladoga Karelia. The Finnish Army’s stunning victory signaled to the Finnish population and the rest of the world that all was not lost—and for 10 more weeks, the Finns miraculously managed to keep the Soviets at bay. Today, another small country faces a similar winter war. Ukraine would do well to learn from Finland.

Red Army commanders assumed Tolvajarvi would be a cakewalk, just like former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin assumed the entire invasion of Finland would be easy. Finland was, after all, a young country with a precarious economy. Worse still, its 1917 independence from Russia was followed by a civil war between bourgeois forces known as “Whites” and socialist, in many cases Bolshevik, “Reds.” After several months of intense fighting, the Whites emerged victorious.

In 1939, the Soviets assumed they could capitalize on this. Soon after launching their invasion, they confidently attacked the border town of Tolvajarvi with a division of 20,000 men—along with tanks, cannons, and armored vehicles. The Finns had some 4,000 rudimentarily equipped men from various units at their disposal. But for 10 days, the Finns fought back—and they outsmarted the Soviets.

Just over 82 years ago, Finnish soldiers defending their country against the vastly superior Soviet Red Army achieved a spectacular breakthrough: They defeated the Soviet invaders in the battle for the town of Tolvajarvi in then-Ladoga Karelia. The Finnish Army’s stunning victory signaled to the Finnish population and the rest of the world that all was not lost—and for 10 more weeks, the Finns miraculously managed to keep the Soviets at bay. Today, another small country faces a similar winter war. Ukraine would do well to learn from Finland.

Red Army commanders assumed Tolvajarvi would be a cakewalk, just like former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin assumed the entire invasion of Finland would be easy. Finland was, after all, a young country with a precarious economy. Worse still, its 1917 independence from Russia was followed by a civil war between bourgeois forces known as “Whites” and socialist, in many cases Bolshevik, “Reds.” After several months of intense fighting, the Whites emerged victorious.

In 1939, the Soviets assumed they could capitalize on this. Soon after launching their invasion, they confidently attacked the border town of Tolvajarvi with a division of 20,000 men—along with tanks, cannons, and armored vehicles. The Finns had some 4,000 rudimentarily equipped men from various units at their disposal. But for 10 days, the Finns fought back—and they outsmarted the Soviets.

On Dec. 22, 1939, the attackers were forced to retreat. According to a former high ranking Finnish military official, they’d lost more than 3,000 men, and hundreds of others had been injured. The Finns, in turn, had lost 274 men, with another 445 injured and 29 lost. News of the Finns’ heroism even reached university students in the American heartland. “Destruction of an entire battalion of Russians in the bitter cold of the lake country was reported after a day in which the soviet unleashed the fury of its air armada in a series of bombing attacks on Helsinki and a score of nearby towns,” the Daily Illini—published by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign—reported on Dec. 22.

Finnish soldiers’ and civilians’ commitment to their country startled the Soviets, who were so certain the young and civil war-torn nation would collapse that the Red Army didn’t even bring winter clothes.

Tolvajarvi was a Christmas miracle and a turning point in Finland’s so-called Winter War. Even though the country had to agree to a cease-fire some three months later, it never capitulated. The Soviets lost five times more soldiers than the Finns, and the Finns inflicted on the Soviet Union a humiliation so great that to this day, the Winter War is barely mentioned in Russian schools.

To be sure, throughout the Cold War, Finland was forced to maintain a delicate balance in its relations with the Soviet Union, one known to most of the world as Finlandization. Unlike its likewise neutral neighbor Sweden, Finland was not allowed to maintain auxiliary defense organizations, and its foreign policy was forced to pay more attention to Moscow’s will than Sweden or other Western European countries did.

But crucially for the Finns, they remained a free country, and despite the Soviets’ might, Finns were willing to respond with armed force should the Soviets invade again. Even at the height of the Cold War, in the early 1980s, 67 percent of Finns supported armed defense against a prospective invader. That support has remained extremely high; currently, 68 percent of Finns support armed defense.

Indeed, in the Winter War, the Finns demonstrated to the rest of the world that a small and militarily inferior country can thwart the ambitions of a large and militarily superior one. That demonstration should give Ukrainians courage as they, too, face the prospect of a winter war.


Finnish soldiers, wearing white to blend with the snow, during the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939.
Finnish soldiers, wearing white to blend with the snow, during the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939.

Finnish soldiers wear white to blend in with the snow during the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939. Fox Photos/Getty Images

The Finns turned the momentum in their favor at Tolvajarvi because their soldiers believed in their local commander, Col. Paavo Talvela. The whole Finnish Army was, in turn, superbly led by then-commander in chief Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. What’s more, the Finns—in uniform and without—believed in their country. “The sacrifices the troops endured would not have been possible without the support of the home front,” said retired Maj. Gen. Pekka Toveri, who was Finland’s head of military intelligence until recently.

“Soldiers knew how valued they were by society, and they knew that they were fighting for the country’s survival.” Indeed, almost all the Winter War soldiers were reservists. Countless civilians, meanwhile, provided logistical assistance.

The country’s all-female voluntary corps, the Lottas—named after their founder, Lotta Svard—provided canteen services, medical care, signal service, air surveillance service, and munitions production as other civilians kept society’s normal functions running.

This freed soldiers up for combat duty. “All the national resources were used to defend the country,” Toveri noted. “All trained and able reservists were called to service, and all the possible civilian resources were taken into use to support the defense.” Thus was born Finland’s policy of total defense, where everyone has a role to play in keeping the country safe.

Finnish soldiers’ and civilians’ commitment to their country startled the Soviets, who were so certain the young and civil war-torn nation would collapse that the Red Army didn’t even bring winter clothes. Ukrainians can learn from that unity.

Even though the Finns held diametrically opposing views on how their country should be run, even the most ardent communists among them firmly supported the Finnish armed forces and rejected the puppet regime the Soviets set up. “What most surprised Stalin was that the Reds, who had lost the civil war, didn’t receive the Red Army with open arms,” said Stefan Forss, a veteran Finnish security analyst. “Instead, they did the opposite and fought the Red Army at least as heroically as the Whites.”

Young Lottas during the Winter War in 1939.
Young Lottas during the Winter War in 1939.

Young Lottas are seen during the Winter War in 1939.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Of course, the Finns believed in their government because they knew it to be principled and incorruptible. Creating similar national unity would certainly be difficult for Ukraine, given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was recently implicated in the Pandora Papers. The self-declared man of the people was found to own offshore companies, which his business partners had used to buy luxury properties in London.

Achieving national unity also won’t be aided by the fact that Ukrainian civil servants have somehow managed to accumulate $2.6 billion in Bitcoin, according to figures released earlier this year. Even so, Ukraine could draw inspiration from the Finns’ commitment to unity when it matters most, and Ukraine’s recent efforts to finally get a grip on corruption are bound to create at least a bit more national unity.

Everyone, including the vast part of the population not part of the armed forces, can play a role in defending their country during a conflict. They could, for example, support the armed forces by taking over responsibilities for logistics, thus freeing soldiers up for combat. To be sure, in the few weeks or even days that may remain before a prospective Russian attack on Ukraine, Zelensky’s government won’t have time to make itself as incorruptible and principled in governance as Finland was in 1939—but it had better start because this won’t be Ukraine’s last Russian scare.

Ukraine’s armed forces should regularly visit Finland to see for themselves how the Finns trained and took advantage of their terrain.

And Ukraine’s armed forces can also learn a few military lessons from Mannerheim’s men. “Small Finnish groups came skiing in our troops’ rear and cut our supply chains,” a Soviet soldier later recounted. “In the middle of December, our tanks were without fuel, the horses that pulled the artillery were without oat, and the soldiers were without food.” Many of the tanks were, at any rate, rendered useless by other white-clad Finnish soldiers on skis throwing Molotov cocktails into the tanks’ turrets.

“Readiness is extremely important,” Toveri said. “The whole Finnish Field Army [Finland’s combined armed forces] was mobilized several months before the Soviet offensive.” Such mobilization can, of course, be portrayed by the prospective invader as an escalation, but early mobilization also yields enormous benefits. Thanks to that, Finnish soldiers had time for extensive training and could build fortifications. Equally importantly, they got to know one another and their commanders, which created a spirit that would prove decisive as soldiers swarmed the invader in insurgent-like groups.

In truth, Ukraine’s armed forces should regularly visit Finland to see for themselves how the Finns trained and took advantage of their terrain, not to mention how the civilian population was given roles and willingly performed them. In the meantime, they can study how the Finns developed tactics and equipment to capitalize on their own terrain.

As Toveri notes, though, “this took almost two decades to create, so the Ukrainians are in a worse situation, especially since their terrain is much less defendable. It’s also terrain where the Russians are used to operating.” But Ukraine’s armed forces can develop at least some tools and tactics that suit their skills and terrain and turn Russia’s traditional formations into a disadvantage. The Finns’ ability to unsettle the invader by using skis and glass bottles with homemade concoctions, in fact, bodes well for Ukraine today—if it gives latitude to innovative commanders.

On March 13, 1940, the Winter War ended. Finland lost 11 percent of its territory—but it remained independent. The following day, Finland’s national radio broadcast an address by Mannerheim:

“You did not want the war. You loved peace and work, but the battle was forced upon you, and in it, you have achieved great things. More than 15,000 of you who went to battle will not see your homes again. And how many of you are there who have forever lost your ability to work? But you have also delivered heavy hits, and if a couple of hundred thousand of your enemies now lie under the frozen snow …, it is not your fault. You did not hate them; you wished no ill upon them. You only followed war’s harsh law to kill or die.”

Mannerheim would go on to become his country’s president and remains a national hero.

Today’s Ukraine has no Mannerheim, but Ukrainians surely love peace and work as much as Finns did in 1939. That, and clever planning based on Finland’s similarly dire starting point, should give them a glimmer of hope this winter.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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