Comparing Finland's Winter War with the current Ukraine war

by Jeff Jacobsen, 2/1/23

Russia's recent unexpected invasion of Ukraine took many politicians and diplomats around the world by surprise. But a historical review of previous wars that Russia has started reveals many similarities to the current war. The short “Winter War” in 1939-40 where Russia attempted to take over neighboring Finland provides a good comparison. 

Walter Citrine, a British trade union official, went to Finland during the Winter War and wrote about what he saw. In the introduction to his book My Finnish Diary, he states his surprise that Russia invaded Finland:

“On Thursday, 30th November, 1939, to the dismay and horror of the civilized world, Soviet Russia brutally attacked her little neighbour of Finland. Socialists and democrats were stupefied at the outburst of savagery. Was not Russia the great advocate of collective security? Had not its spokesman repeatedly affirmed their single desire to live at peace with the world?” [p. 5]

Russia had the largest land mass of any country, so it didn't really need more land. They did have concern that Leningrad was in a vulnerable position since World War II had only recently begun. Leningrad was on the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland and thus approachable by the enemy by sea or through Finland's Karelia or Estonia in the south. Russia demanded concessions of land from Finland to act as a buffer for any attack, but Finland rebuffed the idea.

Another possible consideration was that “conditions were unbelievably bad” [p. 27] for the average Russian in that time, whereas in Finland “there is no doubt that their housing and general conditions are far in advance of their big and aggressive Russian neighbor.” [p. 77] Why not take over a nicer place?

Russia also considered that their tiny neighbor would be a pushover, with a newly formed army and small population. William R. Trotter in his great book Frozen Hell says that Russian general Meretsov “took the politically correct stance that the Finnish effort would be little more than a glorified police action, requiring two weeks at the most.” [p. 34] Another commander “then ordered [Commander] Voronov to base all his ammo-consumption and fire-support estimates on the assumption that the entire Finnish operation would last twelve days, no more.” [p. 35]

Russians also had the notion that Finns would happily accept them as liberators from the evil capitalist Finnish government. “Most of the Russians... went into battle believing that Finland (or at least Finland's bourgeois government) had started the war and that the Finnish masses would welcome them as liberators.” [p. 148] Russian propagandists promised Finns things during the war that they already had, like the 8 hour work day. So there was quite a disconnect between Russian assumptions and Finnish reality.

From the very beginning it was obvious to all that there was no legal basis for Russia to invade Finland. Nikita Krushchev, Russian leader in the 1950s, wrote that “There's some question whether we had any legal or moral right for our actions against Finland. Of course, we didn't have any legal right. As far as morality is concerned, our desire to protect ourselves was ample justification in our own eyes.” [p. 17] Finland had only become an independent nation in 1918, and even then quickly devolved into a civil war that lasted several months. This meant that the fledgling Finnish army was slow to develop. By 1939 there was not much of an army, navy, nor air force. It would be difficult for Finland to find outside help as well, since World War II had just begun, and other potential allies had military and political quagmires of their own.

When the war began, it was somewhat chaotic for the Russian side, partially because they had outdated maps of Finland [p. 37] and poor intelligence of either Finnish attitudes toward Russia or their willingness to defend their motherland. Their goal to quickly overwhelm the Finns did not work out as expected. “Almost from the opening minute of the war, traffic began to back up on the Russian side. Mechanized columns were jammed bumper to bumper...” [p. 69] Days later in the north assault point “the division as a whole lay stretched out in a vulnerable road-bound column almost twenty-five miles long...” [p. 155] Such traffic jams made for easy hunting for the Finns.

Russia was willing, however, to accept heavy losses in equipment and manpower. They consistently showed “willingness to take needless, hideous losses and still keep coming.” [p. 78] They would consistently lose dozens of tanks per day. Yet, with a seemingly endless supply of man and machine, they continued relentlessly. While the machinery was well-built, it was not maintained well. Russian troops had sub-par clothing, especially for the historically cold winter fighting for the entirety of the war. All this was helpful to the Finns, but so long as the Russians were willing to pour their resources forward, the war continued.

From the very beginning of the war when Russian planes attacked Helsinki, civilians were deliberate and consistent targets. Walter Citrine spent quite a bit of his time in Finland during the war collecting evidence that Russia was bombing and strafing non-military targets without care for the rules of war:

“It was certainly singular that in almost every case of bombing we came across, the principal damage had been done to the humble homes of workers.” [Citrine, p. 140]

“This hospital had been bombed, like so many others, and we were assured by the matron in the most matter of fact manner possible, that they had ceased to fly the Red Cross flag, as that was thought to be merely an incitement to the Soviet airmen, who have not the least respect for it.” [p. 152]

“It seemed so utterly diabolical that Russian Communist fighters had deliberately shot at helpless women and children who were rushing to seek shelter from the bombing.” [p. 156]

Trotter also explains that “The Russians used incendiaries against the villages... which went up like torches.” [Trotter, p. 188]

Russia's general method of war was to pummel a town or area with artillery and bombs, move in with armor to handle any remaining resistance, and then move troops in to hold the location. The Finns, meanwhile, used their knowledge of the terrain, cunning and resourcefulness to fight back. They had little outside aid or equipment, but some foreigners did volunteer for fighting. Much of the donated equipment arrived too late for the short war, and what did come was problematic as “the polyglot flow of weaponry arrived in a hundred different models and two dozen different calibers, multiplying the problems of training and maintenance almost beyond the Finns' capacity to deal with them.” [Trotter, p. 198]

The Finns, however, fought much more tenaciously than anyone expected, including the Russians. Carl Mannerheim, supreme commander of the Finnish army, remarked that after first hearing reports from the battlefields that “I did not think that my own men were so good or that the Russians could be so bad.” [Citrine, p. 105] The propensity for Russia to throw their bodies at the front and the accuracy of Finnish soldiers led to problems for the Finns; “In a number of cases Finnish machine gunners had to be evacuated due to stress. They had become emotionally unstable from having to perform such mindless slaughter, day after day.” [Trotter, p. 79]

These particulars have their counterparts in the current Russia-Ukraine war that began in February 2022. Russia once again believed that their “special military operation” would only take a short time to take control of Ukraine. Once again, they used outdated maps and either outdated or just purely lacking intelligence of what was happening in Ukraine. Russian soldiers were certain that Ukraine had caused the war, and that the Ukrainian citizens would be happy to be freed from their “Nazi” overlords.

Many countries around the world did not believe that Russia would actually attack Ukraine. Then when they did, many believed that Ukraine would crumble quickly. The US seemed to be the main country trying to warn that Russia would indeed start a war with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin made a speech not long after starting the war where he attempted to justify the action, speaking of “ensuring the security of Russia:”

“Focused on their own goals, the leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine, those who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia.  They will undoubtedly try to bring war to Crimea just as they have done in Donbass, to kill innocent people just as members of the punitive units of Ukrainian nationalists and Hitler’s accomplices did during the Great Patriotic War. They have also openly laid claim to several other Russian regions.”

As in the Winter War, the moral justification was security for Russia. The legal justification was non-existant.

Similar to the Winter War, just 3 days after Russia began its attack, there was a miles-long logjam of troops and equipment heading south from Belarus to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. "The main body of the large Russian column advancing on Kyiv remains over 30km from the centre of the city having been delayed by staunch Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdown and congestion."

Not only did Ukraine stop the initial attacks by Russian forces, but in August they launched a counteroffensive that returned some land to Ukrainian control. Ukraine has utilized inventive methods such as using small drones (3d-printing fins to make grenades into bombs for the drones) and reviving old Russian military gear for current use. Through their knowledge of their own lands, they managed to flood certain sections in the first days, making it impossible for Russian troops to advance.

Unlike the Finns in the Winter War, however, the Ukrainians have been generously helped by many nations including the US, France, Poland, and even far-flung Australia. Recently NATO has decided to furnish main battle tanks for Ukraine. But similar to the Winter War, Russia seems content in throwing their soldiers into the meat grinder in huge numbers, and bringing a seemingly endless stream of tanks and artillery to the battlefield. If this becomes a war of attrition, it is difficult to see which side will use up its resources first.

There have been many anecdotal reports of Russian troops swarming toward the enemy in headlong fashion. Andrei Medvedev, of Russia's Wagner mercenary group who recently defected, said he started off with 10 men under his command, a number that grew once prisoners were recruited. “There were more dead bodies, and more, and more, people coming in. In the end I had a lot of people under my command,” he said. “I couldn’t count how many. They were in constant circulation. Dead bodies, more prisoners, more dead bodies, more prisoners.

Perhaps the most frightening similarity between these wars is Russia's propensity to deliberately attack civilian targets. They have struck hospitals, apartments, electrical infrastructure, water supplies, and many population centers far from any military target. "We assess that Russia has deliberately struck civilian infrastructure and non-military targets, with the purpose of needlessly harming civilians and attempting to instill terror among [the] Ukrainian population," said a Pentagon official.

Attacking civilians is a war crime, as is torture, rape, deportation of children, and other atrocities attributed to Russian soldiers. American news media have compiled a database of such actions, and “the resulting database details 10 months of attacks that appear to violate the laws of war, including 93 attacks on schools, 36 where children were killed, and more than 200 direct attacks on civilians, including torture, the kidnapping and killing of civilians, and the desecration of dead bodies. Among Russia’s targets: churches, cultural centers, hospitals, food facilities and electrical infrastructure.”

Other wars started or pushed by Russia, such as in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria, and others, show similar patterns of behavior to the Winter War and in Ukraine. World leaders must understand this pattern and continue to help Ukraine protect its sovereignty and even its existence as Russia will most likely continue to send its troops and tanks to achieve their phantom goals while destroying everything in their path.


Sir Walter Citrine (1940), My Finnish Diary, Penguin Books

William R. Trotter (2000), Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, Algonuin Books of Chapel Hill

Vesa Nenye, Finland At War: The Continuation and Lapland Wars of 1941-45 (2016), Osprey Publishing

"Ukraine war: A month-by-month timeline of the conflict 2022-23" by Joshua Askew

Russia expected a quick victory

Russia commits crimes against humanity

Russian convoy blocked in Ukraine

Russia's "meat wave" tactics