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The Finnish effect of the war in Ukraine

The similarities between Ukraine’s war with Russia today and that experienced by Finland some eighty years ago are hard to ignore. While Moscow continues its attempts to stop Kyiv joining NATO, its aggression has only encouraged Helsinki to join the Alliance.

March 29, 2023 - Alex Gordon - Articles and Commentary

National memorial to the Winter War at the Kasarmitori square in Helsinki. Photo: Lev Karavanov / Shutterstock

On February 24th 2022, Russia unexpectedly attacked Ukraine. But this war, contrary to the aggressor’s expectations, did not become a Blitzkrieg, a “lightning” victorious war, but turned into a war of attrition. The lack of a quick victory had to be explained. One Russian leader, the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev, said, “The events in Ukraine are not a clash between Moscow and Kyiv, they are a military confrontation between NATO – and above all the United States and Britain – and Russia.” The Russian Federation’s attack on Ukraine was unprovoked by either Ukraine or NATO, but Ukraine’s fierce resistance, backed by western nations, led to Russian myth making regarding its alleged war with NATO. Although Russia’s attack on Ukraine was unexpected, its imperial ambitions are obvious. The lie of war with NATO has long been nurtured, as the Putin regime has long cherished plans to reclaim territories lost by the USSR. Retaking Ukraine was meant to be the most important part in restoring the greatness of the Soviet empire, whose collapse the president of the Russian Federation called “a tragedy” and “the disintegration of historical Russia”. On December 12th 2021, in a speech marking the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR, he noted: “We have become a completely different country. And what had been built up over a thousand years has largely been lost. […] It is a great humanitarian tragedy, without any exaggeration […] the Russian people turned out to be the biggest divided nation in the world.” In an interview for the film Russia he stated: “What is the collapse of the Soviet Union? It is the collapse of historical Russia called the Soviet Union.” Such ideology meant that plans were ultimately being prepared to restore “historical Russia” and unite “the largest divided nation in the world”. The main enemy preventing the Russian Federation from restoring “historical Russia” is NATO, or as it is otherwise called by Russian propaganda, the “collective West”. Overall, it appears that the atmosphere in the Russian Federation before the attack on Ukraine was reminiscent of the atmosphere that prevailed in the USSR on the eve of its attack on Finland in 1939.

Underhanded aggression

After the October Revolution of 1917, Finland separated from tsarist Russia and became an independent state. From the moment Finland’s independence was declared, the country became a target of the USSR, which sought to return it to “historical Russia”. The Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-40, known by Finns as the “Winter War”, was prepared for a long time. The head of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs Maksim Litvinov, in his talk with the Finnish envoy to the USSR on February 27th 1935, said: “The press is not conducting such a systematically hostile campaign against us in any country as it is in Finland. In no neighbouring country is there such open propaganda for an attack on the USSR and seizure of its territory as in Finland.” However, everything was quite the reverse: the USSR was preparing to attack Finland and claim its territory. This propaganda reminds us of today’s Russian propaganda, which claims that the Russian war was a pre-emptive strike to prevent an attack on Ukraine. The declared aim of the Soviet aggression against Finland was to secure Leningrad, that is to seize the Finnish territories adjacent to Leningrad. However, the USSR’s plans went further than pushing the Soviet-Finnish border away from Leningrad. The Sovietisation of Finland, that is the transformation of this country into a “socialist country”, a satellite of the USSR, was the main goal. An important argument in favour of the Sovietisation of Finland as the goal of the war is the fact that on the second day of the war, a puppet “Terijoki government” was set up in Soviet territory, headed by the Finnish communist Otto Kuusinen. On December 2nd, the Soviet government signed a treaty of mutual assistance with Kuusinen’s government and refused any contact with the legitimate government of Finland. Soviet propaganda and later historiography blamed Finland and the western countries for the outbreak of the war: “The imperialists succeeded in attaining some temporary success in Finland. At the end of the year 1939 they succeeded in provoking the Finnish reactionaries to a war against the USSR.” The Soviet propaganda and historiography of that time did not refer to the conflict as the “Soviet-Finnish War” or the “war” at all. Instead, they used euphemistic expressions such as “the Red Army’s Finnish campaign”, “the liberation campaign to Finland”, “the struggle against the White Finns 1939-1940”, and “the repulsion of Finnish aggression”. The Soviet occupation army was five times larger than the Finnish army. However, the number of casualties on the Soviet side was five times greater than on the Finnish side. On January 20th 1940, Winston Churchill said of the Finns, “Only Finland – magnificent, nay, majestic … demonstrates what free men can do.”

Consequences today

It is clear that the propaganda used by the USSR in the war against Finland is similar to that used by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and the West today. The enemies then were “imperialists”, “the West” and “White Finns”, while the war was not called a war but a “liberation march to Finland”. Interestingly, the Finns, unlike Ukrainians today, were not called Nazis, as the USSR and Nazi Germany had a Non-Aggression Pact, a secret part of which contained a protocol that defined Soviet and German spheres of influence in Europe. Like the USSR in Finland, the Russian Federation started the war in Ukraine without declaring war. Like the USSR in Finland, the Russian Federation wanted to overthrow the legitimate government of Ukraine and organise a pro-Russian puppet government. The Russian Federation annexed Ukrainian territory, just as the USSR annexed part of Finland’s territory. The USSR annexed about 11 per cent of Finland’s territory. The Russian Federation, following Crimea, annexed about 15 per cent of Ukraine’s territory. The area of the four Ukrainian regions recently declared Russian territory exceeds that of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg combined.

For Finns today, the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation undoubtedly reminds them of the Soviet attack on their country in 1939, which was the result of Moscow’s refusal to recognise Finland as an independent state in order to return the territory to “historical Russia”. Finland’s modern desire to join NATO is dictated by this circumstance. For the Russian Federation, the accession of a Finland frightened by Russian aggression to NATO represents a failure in their imperial policy. Instead of improving its strategic position, the Russian Federation has significantly worsened it. The current border between NATO and Russia is 1,233 kilometres long. The border between Finland and Russia is 1,340 kilometres long, which means that Helsinki’s accession to NATO will more than double Russia’s border with the North Atlantic Alliance. The Finnish-Russian border is a wooded and sparsely populated area stretching from Murmansk to St. Petersburg. Strategically, the coast near Murmansk, where Russia keeps its nuclear strike forces, still plays a major role. Defending the important nuclear base of Murmansk, which has been left vulnerable by the transfer of some troops to Ukraine, will become much more difficult after NATO’s expansion into the Russian-Finnish border area.

A valued addition

The presence of such a dangerous neighbour as Russia has forced the Finns to constantly work on strengthening their defence capabilities. As a result, Finland has one of the strongest armed forces in Europe. The country has a system of obligatory universal conscription. Finns can mobilise up to 280,000 soldiers. The Finnish army’s artillery units are among the largest in Europe: Helsinki has more artillery than France and Germany combined. Since the time of the war with the USSR, Finnish military engineers have become first class experts in equipping fortifications, obstacles, traps and mines. The Finnish air force should soon receive F-35 fighters to replace the F-18s currently in service. It is also currently equipped with the British BAE Systems Hawk attack aircraft. The Finnish military possesses 200 German Leopard Tanks, as well as various missile weapons. These include the Israeli JASSM air-to-ground guided cruise missile, and the Gabriel V extremely low-altitude anti-ship missile. The Finnish military’s use of the GMLRS guided multiple launch rocket system is also better adapted to the peculiarities of the Finnish landscape than the wheeled HIMARS system. Twenty eight of the thirty NATO member states have already ratified Finland’s membership in the North Atlantic Alliance. The war in Ukraine has not strengthened the security of the Russian Federation, but rather has created a significant new threat from the northwest. Putin’s regime, which unleashed a war in Ukraine to prevent it from joining NATO, has only brought NATO closer to its borders and worsened its strategic position.

Alex Gordon is a native of Kyiv and graduate of Kyiv State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Science). He emigrated to Israel in 1979 and served in IDF reserve infantry units for 13 years. He is a full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. He is also the chair of the committee for the appointment of professors on behalf of the Council for Higher Education of the State of Israel. He has written ten books and about 700 articles in print and online, and has been published in 83 journals in 14 countries in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, English, French and German.

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