Ukraine and the Winter War, 1939-1940

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

In early World War II, on November 30, 1939, a Soviet-Russian army invaded Finland in a surprise massive attack. The Finns were eventually outnumbered nearly 3 to 1. The population of the Soviet Union in 1940 was 50 times larger than that of Finland’s.

Finland’s former anti-Soviet ally, Nazi Germany, had sold it out under the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which made Germany and Russia de facto allies.

Finland’s other allies, particularly France and Britain, were slow in giving aid. Both were unsure whether Finland had any chance of survival. And they were further confused as to whether their archenemy Germany was friendly or hostile to Finland.

Yet for nearly the next four months, the Finns fought ferociously. They were led brilliantly by their iconic general and commander-in-chief, Carl Mannerheim.

By March 1940, however, the brave but exhausted Finns were being slowly ground down. Soon they were facing abject defeat—even after courageously inflicting nearly 500,000 Russian causalities, ten times the number of their own dead, wounded, and missing.

Finnish ferocity shocked Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Eventually, he was willing to abandon his original objective of controlling, if not annexing, Finland—in exchange for stealing 9 percent of Finland’s territory.

Mannerheim reluctantly took the deal, stopped the war, and saved an autonomous Finland.

The fallout from the Winter War directly influenced World War II.

After the Soviet humiliation in Finland, Hitler mistakenly perceived Stalin’s Red Army as a paper tiger. Accordingly, he would miscalculate disastrously by invading the Soviet Union little more than a year later.

Later in World War II, the Finns eventually fought alongside Hitler but were careful not to invade Russia or fight on Russian ground—just in case Germany failed to win the war and they were left to again confront an ascendant Red Army.

Yet after World War II, Stalin was still careful not to attack Finland, given the debacle of 1939-40.

In 1945, General Mannerheim was able to negotiate for a neutral, independent Finland nation. Yet, given his huge, paranoid, and inimical Soviet neighbor, he was careful not to openly side with the West.

Is any lesson from the Winter War applicable to the current Ukrainian conflict?

One, drawn-out heroic resistance to the Russian juggernaut wins a nation global praise, but not necessarily enough weapons or manpower to overcome the huge disparity of forces.

The European elation at Finland’s initial success mirrors the global admiration for the Ukrainian efforts to save Kyiv in 2022.

Two, the Russian Army has a long history of starting poorly in its wars. But after months of mismanagement, incompetence, and massive losses, its brutal command eventually readjusts. It then marshals the vast manpower and territorial power of Russia to slowly grind down a smaller enemy.

Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon, and Hitler all learned that fighting in or near Russia starts out well but usually ends badly. The Ukrainian winter ebullition of March 2022 has now descended into a bitter Verdun-like 2024 summer stalemate.

Three, smaller border nations facing Russian aggression cannot count on allied pledges of massive aid. In 1939, Finland was not helped much by France, Britain, or America. And Ukraine is learning that current foreign aid has a definite shelf life.

Four, both the media and Western democracies may lionize brave countries fighting against Russian aggression, as seen in 1939 and again in 2022, but they also sometimes fool themselves into thinking that brilliant tactical successes will always translate into ultimate strategic victories.

Five, smart leaders use their surprising initial successful resistance to leverage a peace with Russia—despite the reality that required concessions often result in the loss of some currently Russian-occupied territory. Mannerheim lost 9% of Finland but saved his nation.

In late March 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was purported to be considering negotiations with a reeling Russia—reportedly by conceding that it would be impossible to recover by force the Donbass and Crimea lost to Russia in 2014.

Six, a fully armed Finland, under capable leadership, established lasting deterrence, even against Stalin’s brutal Red Army. Ukraine’s heroic defense has stunned Putin. Most of Russia’s population considers the 2022 surprise invasion a terrible mistake—and apparently Ukraine too tough a neighbor to repeat such a blunder.

Carl Mannerheim is still considered Finland’s greatest leader—indominable in war and yet enough of a realist to end a war and to survive next to an aggressive and dangerous Russia.

Zelensky might do well by studying the career of Mannerheim and how, with dignity, he saved Finland from the Russian meatgrinder.

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32 thoughts on “Ukraine and the Winter War, 1939-1940”

  1. Craig Jenkins

    Excellent article. Use to work for Finland and understand the history & mentality of the people. Zelensky & allies need to realistically assess the situation and negotiate an end to the carnage which involves concessions on both sides for the sake of everyone involved.
    Finland’s President Stubb has said the war could end with one phone call to Xi, and I agree. U.S. & Europe should threaten to eliminate trade with China, if it doesn’t stop purhasing Russian oil & providing dual-purpose electronic components with military application. China’s export-oriented economy would collapse, leading to a potential revolution.

  2. Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it —in the paraphrase of Santayana’s quote. Much to learn.

  3. Brilliant analysis Victor! This is exactly the way forward. One post script – Finland is now a part of NATO, something even Putin must know was his doing. He is bound to insist that Ukraine not follow this path as part of a peace agreement. Putin pretends that this is the main reason he went to war, besides supporting Russian minorities, the dictator’s favorite ploy. Throw him that bone (and keep Crimea and the Donbass, unfortunately), evacuate Ukrainian territory, stop the war. Ukraine can then later begin a gradual path to NATO membership ala Finland. Putin would not dare violate that agreement and risk removal from power, just as he would not dare tackle the Finns again.

  4. Harold J. Baer, M.D.

    If Zelensky appeases Russia by ceding eastern Ukraine to the Russians, why wouldn’t that maneuver end up like Chamberlain’s appeasement debacle with Hitler and the Sudetenland in 1938? Putin already has said he wants to reform the USSR? Mannerheim’s 9% appeasement worked, but I think it would take a Trumpian threat to Russia and Putin to prevent Putin from further Russian invasions if eastern Ukraine were abandoned. The Biden Administration is incapable of such a threat.

  5. Russia re-adjusting to modern warfare and then improving its battlefield success might mean the loss of all Ukraine as you warn. But Victor, if Ukraine chooses to engage in that fight, what’s the downside of the West taking advantage of the situation by providing arms and intelligence? By providing Support, do we not take advantage of the historic opportunity to profoundly degrade the Russian economy/military and thus their ability to foment violence and instability elsewhere in the world?

  6. Russia re-adjusting to modern warfare and then improving its battlefield success might mean the loss of all Ukraine as you warn. But Victor, if Ukraine chooses to engage in that fight, what’s the downside of the West taking advantage of the situation by providing arms and intelligence? By providing Support, do we not take advantage of the historic opportunity to profoundly degrade the Russian economy/military and thus their ability to foment violence and instability elsewhere in the world?

  7. How certain are ‘we’ that someone told Z not to go for a deal?
    He’s an actor who may be playing the role from someone else’s script.
    Since my musings have no effect, or even less, I like to consider the positive before accepting the negative.

  8. Your brilliance, once again, shines as usual. Perhaps that is why so much of the liberal establishment are always poo-pooing your astute wisdom & extremely well written articles. I knew about Finland & Mannerheim, but even though I’m an author of 6 books, I could not state it nearly as well as you have done in this concise essay.
    I have listened to all of your podcasts & read as many of your articles as possible, so I know quite a bit about you & your opinions. You were somewhat neutral about Trump about a year ago but adjusted your views as time went along. From what you wrote in this essay, I firmly believe that Trump would have handled Russia as Mannerheim had done; through negotiation.
    FJB has had one thing going for him; a media biased in his favor. As you predicted, now the jig is up. His dementia, again, as you said, is progressing at a geometrical rate, & they know he will be a basket case come next November.
    This war has gone on far too long, & it looks like there’s no end to it in sight; i.e., as long as the $$ continues pouring in. I’ve read Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” and know that he’s a shrewd bargainer. However, the fact that he was able to effectively handle Xi, Putin, & the little rocket-man during his term is one of the many things democRATs deny & keep making excuses for. Had it not been for Covid, I believe he would have been re-elected in a landslide–but that’s a topic not relevant to the one at hand.

  9. I would be interested in your opinion Victor, Mr Hanson, about my challenge to you to look back on all this….like the globalists and satanists have already won. I think the Chinese are hateful managers. They are managing the new history. They are going kinetic by facilitating the activity of other hateful groups etc…

  10. Richard J Kelley

    As usual – – brilliant. Many thanks for the historical perspective. Not one I nor, I suspect many Westerners, would have considered without your instruction.

    I can only hope Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, and whoever is orchestrating the current administration, will give your views the attention the deserve.

  11. Maybe(?), after Orban’s recent visit will reason, logic, and/or common sense begin to germinate? Most likely “not.” However, I’m confident that our very own … “Club-51” (reference the membership list below) are working feverishly to bring about a peaceful resolution so as to mitigate the dust-up (most likely “not!”).

    Mike Hayden, former CIA director, now analyst for CNN.
    Jim Clapper, former director of national intelligence, now CNN pundit.
    Leon Panetta, former CIA director and defense secretary, now runs a public policy institute at Cal State University.
    John Brennan, former CIA director, now analyst for NBC and MSNBC.
    Thomas Fingar, former National Intelligence Council chair, now teaches at Stanford University.
    Rick Ledgett, former National Security Agency deputy director, now a director at M&T Bank.
    John McLaughlin, former CIA acting director, now teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
    Michael Morell, former CIA acting director, now at George Mason University.
    Mike Vickers, former defense undersecretary for intelligence, now on board of BAE Systems.
     Doug Wise, former Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director, teaches at Univ of NM.
    Nick Rasmussen, former National Counterterrorism Center director, now executive director, Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.
    Russ Travers, former National Counterterrorism Center acting director.
    Andy Liepman, former National Counterterrorism Center deputy director.
    John Moseman, former CIA chief of staff.
     Larry Pfeiffer, former CI

    1. Thomas O’Brien

      I am not seeking revenge against the persons listed above, mind you, only meaningful accountability. They knew, or should have know, that the authenticity of Hunter’s laptop was established by the FBI a full year before they lent their names to that sham letter claiming it was a tool of Russian disinformation.

      Without them facing such accountability, why should such scams be discontinued?

      We need serious deterents against such treasonous (I did not choose this adjective lightly) behavior, or it will continue.

  12.  Larry Pfeiffer, former CIA chief of staff, now senior advisor to The Chertoff Group.
    Jeremy Bash, former CIA chief of staff, now analyst for NBC and MSNBC.
    Rodney Snyder, former CIA chief of staff.
    Glenn Gerstell, former National Security Agency general counsel.
    David Priess, former CIA analyst and manager.
    Pam Purcilly, former CIA deputy director of analysis.
    Marc Polymeropoulos, former CIA senior operations officer.
    Chris Savos, former CIA senior operations officer.
    John Tullius, former CIA senior intelligence officer.
    David A. Vanell, former CIA senior operations officer.
    Kristin Wood, former CIA senior intelligence officer, now non-resident fellow, Harvard.
    David Buckley, former CIA inspector general.
    Nada Bakos, former CIA analyst and targeting officer, now senior fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute.
    Patty Brandmaier, former CIA senior intelligence officer.
    James B. Bruce, former CIA senior intelligence office.
    David Cariens, former CIA intelligence analyst.
    Janice Cariens, former CIA operational support officer.
    Paul Kolbe, former CIA senior operations officer.
    Peter Corsell, former CIA analyst.
    Brett Davis, former CIA senior intelligence officer.
    Roger Zane George, former national intelligence officer.
    Steven L. Hall, former CIA senior intelligence officer.
    Kent Harrington, former national intelligence officer.
     Don Hepburn, former national security executive, now president of Boanerges Solutions LLC.
    Timothy D. Kilbourn, former dean of CIA’s Kent School of Inte

  13. Today I read that Putin is looking for peace! I hope this is genuine and Zelensky and Biden don’t mess it up. Maybe Putin realizes that Trump is going to win and thinks that he’ll get a better deal now!

  14. Today I read that Putin is looking for peace! I hope this is genuine and Zelensky and Biden don’t mess it up. Maybe Putin realizes that Trump is going to win and thinks that he’ll get a better deal now!

  15. Educational as always. I was unaware of this Finnish history. The connection to Ukraine seems self evident

  16. Mike in Helsinki

    Why not seventh …

    … since defeat is ‘inevitable’ of ‘smaller border nations facing Russian aggression’, why not reverse the memberships of Finland, Estonia and Latvia from the NATO alliance?

    Did not their peoples and democratically-elected representatives overwhelmingly and historically approve their membership in the alliance, and in turn were unanimously approved by all NATO members?

    Is it not true that ‘an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all NATO members’? Or, are those words some kind of joke?

    And are you suggesting that despite these pledges of mutual support, Finland, if threatened or attacked, will yet again be figuratively left out in the cold as they were in 1939 despite NATO assurances because they “cannot count on allied pledges of massive aid”.

    One cannot have it both ways. So which is it?

    I, as an American living in Finland for 35 years, speak the language, know the culture, raised a family, and had a career here can positively tell you that the view is that Russia is a dangerous aggressor in a way that Taiwanese view mainland communist China as a dangerous aggressor to them. This is an undisputed fact.

    Both nations are now under the impression that they have ironclad defense agreements with the United States if attacked by their non-democratic, aggressive neighbors.

    Do they?

    Finland is not Ukraine. Mannerheim is not Zelensky. NATO is not the Mootov-Ribbentrop pact.

    But Putin is another Stalin.

  17. Zelensky has to pondering that a Trump administration will slowly shut off the spigot of support.

    1. My father was only 16 when he began keeping scrapbooks of hundreds of pages of L.A. newspaper clippings of WW2, including the Russian invasion of Finland. I still have those today.
      Excellent article again, VDH.
      Just one correction which you are probably already aware of… ‘causalities’?

  18. What you presented as an end to the Ukrainian war is what I consider a possibility from and of history. I believe, to truly arrive at the end game, one has to sit back and clearly look back at what really happened. Ukraine was illegally and brutally attacked by Russia. Provoking a major war that could end up in a world conflict. God only knows how many innocent civilians were so sadly killed and for what? It seems to me there should be bitter consequences for Russia and their war mongering leaders, not lasting benefits! President Harry Truman once said, “the buck stops here!”. What are we going to say?

  19. Considering his history, background, and especially his previous employment, it’s doubtful Zelensky has sufficient quality to create much dignity. Shame on the cia.

  20. i do not know about Finland in the sense of their level of patriotism back in 1940, but the current war between Ukraine and Russia is very unpopular in Ukraine. P:eople of Ukraine fleeing this war by any available means. I doubt very much that Ukraine could reach any significant success.

  21. Love the parallels in history, now Trump will have historic Reaganistic meeting with Putin. Ukraine concedes their Russian districts to Russia…Russia buys all Ukrainian oil with added Trump war reparation tax to help rebuild Ukraine.

  22. Just a brief mention as to one of the tactics that the Finns used to battle the Soviets, to great effect. My dad was telling me that, one “trick” they did was to attack a Soviet military position. The Soviets would then pursue the then-retreating Finnish troops, who would retreat across a frozen lake (of which there are legion, in a Finland winter) which had been previously prepared with implanted dynamite. When the bulk/all of the Soviet troops were out in the middle of the lake, the Finns would detonate the dynamite, which heavily fractured the ice, and almost instantaneously, the Soviet unit would disappear below the ice, along with all of its equipment.

  23. Martin Doktar

    It is ironic however that Finland today is in the forefront of cheerleaders for the West’s backing of Ukraine.

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