[ “The Winter War was a military conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939–1940. It began with the Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939 (three months after the outbreak of World War II), and ended with the Moscow Peace Treaty on 13 March 1940. The League of Nations deemed the attack illegal and expelled the Soviet Union from the League on 14 December 1939” – wikipedia. This piece reflects the views of its author ]
We don’t want to browse for wise quotations about the importance of history as a determinant of the future. Let me quote only Nietzsche: ‘The future belongs to those who have the longest memory.’ It is important to see history without rose-coloured glasses. It influences today’s and tomorrow’s decisions. And we should leave nothing out, burying inconvenient parts of the narrative in the memory hole.
Let us begin with a shocking statement: Finland was wrong in the Winter War. We have no doubt about that whatsoever. The Soviet Union was right. There is no ‘everybody’s own truth.’ There is no “on the one hand” but “on the other hand.”
We accept that the “provocation” on the border was a false flag or never happened at all and did not amount to a casus belli in any case. It’s a tree; this is the forest: Finland, for reasons unstated, over-ruling a figure of the stature of Mannerheim to do it, made it impossible for the Soviet Union to defend its borders without invading and seizing land from Finland.
Defense is built on capacity. There was an interesting incident during Soviet-American talks on nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. The US negotiator told his Soviet counterpart that he shouldn’t trust words or agreements, that defense is based on capacity. (Funny that the US negotiator needed to educate his credulous Soviet colleague.) What did he mean by this? If you want a stable peace, you think about mechanisms. If you create an advantage for yourself, you don’t make peace more secure. If you develop too strong a shield, you are as responsible for the arms race to follow as if you’d developed too sharp a sword.
Egypt and Israel
There are rarely perfect analogies between historic events. But the Egypt-Israeli conflict and peace process has many echoes of the Winter War, and one big difference. In the end the Egyptians and Israelis got it right. If we consider our history in the light of their history, maybe this time we too can get it right. The Sinai Peninsula is a wedge of rocky hills and sand, inhabited by Bedouin, that separates Africa and Asia. It is bordered on the east by the Suez Canal and on the west by a long border with Israel ending at the Gulf of Aden. Its strategic value is such that both Egypt and Israel, at different times, referred to it as the front line of their defenses. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel seized the peninsula and other Arab land. Seized, and held, and built settlements. In 1977, peace negotiations were begun between Israel and Egypt, who had been technically at war since the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. When the talks stalled, they resumed at Camp David mediated by President Jimmy Carter, and the parties agreed to the Camp David Accords. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat shared a Nobel Peace prize. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt on condition that it become a demilitarized zone. Her settlements there were dismantled and the settlers repatriated. Israel retained possession of the Golan Heights but agreed they would be part of a future Palestine State. Egypt recognized Israel, the first Arab state to do so. Israeli access to the Suez Canal and other shipping routes was guaranteed. Barriers to trade, including oil to Israel, were removed.
See how this was constructed. Israel’s possession of the Sinai Peninsula was purely by conquest, with no other basis for a claim. Its only benefit to Israel was military, in the event of hostilities with Egypt. So, could not this security be accomplished some better way? Demilitarization, policed by an international force, would create a buffer zone and make it possible for Israel to relinquish its occupation without risk. Egypt regained its undisputed sovereignty and control of the Sinai, and with a guaranteed demilitarized zone between her main territory and Israel, actually acquired a buffer zone also. Each side lost a threat, an arch enemy, and gained, if not a friend, at least a neighbour with whom they engaged in normal trade and diplomatic relations, again enhancing the security of both by creating the buffer of diplomacy.
It seems simple, but it took courage. Egypt paid politically at once, when it was expelled from the Arab League of which it was a founding member. And in 1981, Anwar Sadat paid with his life when he was assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad. This peace was their grievance.
Finland and Russia
Other great events happened in the 1930s, but the decade was about one overarching question: the First World War allies, while demanding every penny of cash owed them in war reparations by Germany, were waiving the prohibitions against Germany restarting her heavy industry and rearming. It was no secret why. Britain was honing Germany as a knife aimed at the USSR. Stalin was trying to persuade Germany to turn the blade in any other direction. Britain seemed quite confident; she did little to rearm. Stalin was conducting a “stealth rearmament.” The lightning relocation of Soviet industry to the Urals, the early deployment of new and far superior tank designs demonstrates long and painstaking planning on the drawing board, but the Soviet Union was way behind in actual manufacture and deployment and discreet in what was visible. Stalin had offered Britain and her allies to place a million-man containment force on the German border if they could negotiate passage through Poland for that army. Britain sent a negotiating team to discuss this, travelling to Russia . . . by sea! Moreover, they announced after talks that they had no signing powers but would report back. Stalin knew when someone had spit in his eye and moved swiftly to Plan B, the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact.
This has been widely described as an agreement between Stalin and Hitler to divide up Europe between them. It doesn’t say that and there is no evidence for that being a fair description. There is no doubt that Hitler intended to conquer Europe. He had said it for years, published it in Mein Kampf, campaigned on it.
But where is there any evidence that Stalin, the author of “Socialism in One Country,” had the mirror ambition? The Pact recognizes a Soviet “sphere of influence.” That meant, specifically, an area that Hitler undertook not to invade, not an area that Stalin would invade. Defense against Germany was a good and sufficient reason for the military build-up of the Soviet Union, such as it was. It was the opinion of the German general staff that the Soviet Union was not ready for war, not even a static defense, let alone offense. (Finns, those you fought in 1940 — did they feel like an army readied for an offense?)
Red Army planners were particularly anxious about one area of the map. The Soviet Union was wide open to attack along much of its border with Finland. A field gun could fire from inside Finland and shell downtown Leningrad. Stalin said “Well, we can’t move Leningrad. We’ll have to move the border.”
The Atlantic tide comes through the Baltic Sea, divides at the tip of Finland into two arms and wraps around the southern part of Finland as the Gulf of Bothnia towards Sweden and the the Gulf of Finland on the Russian side. A military strategist’s eye is drawn like a laser to the large island of Hanko which sits just off the tip of Finland, overlooking the entrances to both the gulfs.
The Soviet Union didn’t have time for minuets. It asked Finland for talks which began in early October. It asked to lease Hanko, and offered a land swap of twice as much non-strategic land on the Russian side of the border for the land in Finland they needed to fortify to defend Leningrad and Murmansk. This looks like a generous offer — they probably thought they’d put together a package that Finland would gladly accept. They were wrong. Finland refused. Another round of negotiations resulted in a ‘counter-offer’ from Finland that was trivial, almost laughable. The Finnish negotiators have said that they didn’t believe that would be the end of negotiations, but the USSR was racing against time. If Finland wouldn’t trade, wouldn’t lease, wouldn’t make a counter-offer — the Soviet Union would seize what she must have.
If we look back to Israel/Egypt, what is the great difference? We do not have a blow-by-blow of the negotiating sessions, or what part Jimmy Carter played, but clearly the parties found it in themselves to put themselves in the other’s shoes, to acknowledge the other side had the same right to security concerns as they did, the same right and resolve to preserve their sovereignty. Eventually they were able not only to marshal their objections, but to adopt the problem and say “Let’s see if there’s another way to do it.”
Did Finland return to the table and say “We’ll lease you Hanko for half the time and twice the money”? No. Did they say “The land you offer in trade has less industrial development”? No. Did they make any suggestion at all that showed respect for the Soviet Union’s fears? No.
What was accomplished for Finland’s own security and sovereignty? Finland positioned itself between the Wehrmacht and Hitler’s preferred first target, Leningrad, almost baiting the German advance onto Finnish soil. And while the German army came to you as allies, were they good guests? Do you think there was ever a possibility that Finland could have had Sweden’s war? Might a better fortified territory and Finnish neutrality not have diverted the invasion route from Finland altogether?
Does one really need hindsight to know that Finland could not back the Soviet Union off over an existential issue? The loss of land, greater than in the Soviet Union’s first offer, was inevitable once Finland opted for intransigence. Do we need hindsight to see that the Soviet Union’s need to fortify the lands she wanted was quite real, as great as she said it was? Do we need it to know what might happen to Leningrad? Did you intend that horror? During the 900-day siege of Leningrad more people starved to death than died in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Finnish resistance was fierce and successful beyond any rational expectation, but doomed. The Winter War ended on March 14, 1940 with the Soviet Union acquiring by force what she had been willing to trade for, still just leasing Hanko but taking what other land she needed, and somewhat more, without compensation. The Red Army withdrew behind new borders and began to build their defenses, having lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and six months.
Travelling in Finland as a tourist, admittedly not the best way to acquire a comprehensive or deep understanding, one is presented with the Finnish myth of themselves in World War II. David versus Goliath, refusal of German orders to intern their Jewish population, spotless honour.
You may be surprised that Russians, though we have not forgotten the rest of the story, generally support this. We don’t dwell on the Finns’ military contribution to the encirclement of Leningrad, we remember that Mannerheim refused Nazi orders to close the encirclement. We know that there was strong Finnish opposition to the policies that were based on Russophobia. How then can we have a grievance against all of Finland or the Finnish people?
We will grant you David and Goliath, but not St. George and the dragon. We know you believed you were fighting for your Motherland, its people, their freedom and independence, and admire how tough you were and how brave. We think you simply misread the situation — a tragedy but not a sin.
Is it going to happen again? We think the appeal for you to join NATO evokes the same old fears, and they are still wrong. We don’t know the personalities behind your pro-NATO campaign. You know them better. They whisper “The enemy of your enemy is your friend.” We are not your enemy. They are mercenaries. They’re nobody’s friend.
Can you step into our shoes for a moment and see the view from here?
Given that Hitler was present at military parade in Finland, Finland’s allegiance left no questions.
So Stalinist Soviet Union was right, and Finland and the League of Nations – entire world – were wrong. One more example that ad populum/bandwagoning is, indeed, a fallacy.
Don’t be mistaken. I don’t belittle the valour of Finnish soldiers. They fought well and all Russians respect them for it. They sincerely believed they were defending their Motherland. But were they? No, they were not. They were sacrificing their lives and killing even more Soviet soldiers – yesterday’s farmers – for nothing. They lost anyway. They didn’t stand a chance. When Finland ran out of all kinds of munition, including rifle cartridges, Soviet troops could move as far as they wanted, unopposed. How far they wanted turned out to be the minimum necessary to make Leningrad safe, defendable. They didn’t take advantage of the same opportunity in 1944 either. The Soviet Union’s intentions were not conquest. The Soviet Union’s cause was just. Discussing whether the border incident used as a pretext by the Soviet Union was a false flag or never happened at all is not useful. Debating it means displacing attention from a forest to a tree. I’ll yield to the Finns who argue that there never was such a provocation.
I realize that this article won’t be easy for Finns to accept. It is painful to discover and to admit that one’s country has been wrong. But it can be done. Russians have proved that. It is important to draw correct lessons from the past, step over past differences and move on. There is Russian proverb ‘He who mentions the past should lose an eye, and he who forgets should lose both.’ Wouldn’t it dismay you if the Germans refused to acknowledge the horrible crimes of Nazism? Fortunately the Germans face their past as it was, and there is little anti-German sentiment as a result. They are not viewed as a threat. Russia too faces the past as it was. Russia is not a threat either, despite a relentless propaganda campaign. Ukraine, by contrast, glorifies Nazi collaborators and discusses ethnic cleansing as a normal policy option. Ukraine is a threat to her own population, and possibly to neighbours in the future. I don’t mind being called by Ukrainians ‘Slavo-Finnish subhuman’ though. We have been good neighbours for many centuries. We have similar saunas (I prefer wet Russian one), similar furnaces. We even share a national beverage – kvas. There are many Finnish ethnicities in Russia. Hopefully they will thrive, keeping their unique identity.
I don’t know the personalities behind your pro-NATO campaign. You know them better. They are evil, dishonest people. You can guess by whom they are coordinated. They try to make the region less safe for personal gain, because whether you talk about Monroe’ doctrine, Yalta agreement (discarded by the USA) or anything else – you talk about capacity to attack. Neocons, or more correct NeoLoons, who have hi-jacked US foreign policy, are creating dangerous capacity. ‘If you don’t hear the drums of war you must be deaf’.’ [Kissinger] Do you want to be on the wrong side of history only because of bias? It is up to you to decide.