Ukraine and the Winter War, 1939-1940

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.

Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.

About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.

Photo: Protesters wave Ukrainian flags during a 'Support Ukraine' demonstration at the statue of former Finnish President, Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim in Central Helsinki on February 5, 2022. - Finland OUT (Photo by Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva / AFP) / Finland OUT (Photo by HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for task task says:

    The Ukraine never had to be where it is now and where it is now was proceeded by a massive loss of lives and property associated with incredulous genocide. But since the Ukraine is where it is awaiting for even more horrors it would be nice to stop the hemorrhage, now, even if it involves the loss of one or more limbs.

    With a competent American leader Russia could be hurt without firing a shot and brought to the negotiating table in a far more willing mood. The USSR was bankrupted once before. Putin can be similarly damaged. Wars need to be financed. Every country that wishes to do business with America should be denied that opportunity if they purchase oil from Russia or any of its allies and friends. Making America Great Again is about making America the place where investors from other countries will make money. If they wish to do that there has to be terms. Those terms have to be associated with making Russia weak.

  2. Professor Hanson is much too kind to President Zelensky to make the obvious conclusion that Zelensky is no Carl Mannerheim. The Finnish general was a patriot and dedicated to defending and ultimately protecting his nation. Whatever is motivating Zelensky, it can be reasonably asserted that its not in the genuine defense of the Ukrainian homeland, or the long-term well-being of his nation.

    But if I had to speculate, I’d guess that some nefarious influence (bribery, blackmail, physical threats or some combination of them) channeled through the CIA or State Dept. is what animates Zelensky’s refusal to accept reality make a grudging peace with Russia.

  3. Avatar for task task says:

    Zelensky has already gotten the money and whether it was gotten with patriotic intentions or selfish intentions they are no longer applicable. It is now, probably, about pride and prejudice. What else is left? More wealth? It has to be something else. And the something else I allude to below.

    These are the same suppositions I see leveled at Donald Trump by Democrats who ignore today’s reality and the 4 years of the Trump Presidency. I dealt with one earlier who is a toady for his wife who is an incurable Hispanic NYC well indoctrinated teacher who votes based on race, gender and affiliation with her union. Her husband knows better. I suspect Zelensky, who once demanded that Biden do his bidding, is now being told to keep the war effort alive. He is now, like my friend, whose wife insists he accept her views or else be domestically persecuted. He reads the tea leaves and so do the Democrats. How much worse can they do when it comes to the upcoming election? There are dead bodies everywhere. Was the war worth it. Had Trump been President lots of people would, probably, still be alive. With this awareness they have no intention of giving Republicans any additional talking points. This reality is a devastating 5 alarm wake-up bell. How was this allowed to happen? We know how!

  4. Why do we have to insist on Russia being weak? Throughout the Cold War, I thought the US aim was to turn Russia into a trading partner, not a political competitor. Well, Russia was doing well economicallly and establishing economic ties with western countries. Isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that argue for continued peace and stability? But it is the US that has insisted in encircling Russia with NATO members, something Putin has repeatedly made clear is unacceptable. Yeah, we didn’t like Russian missiles in Cuba, as I recall. So, remind me again why we’re pursuing Russia. Isn’t China our real political opponent at this point in time? Ever since I read Christopher Caldwell’s article “Why Are We In Ukraine?”, published in the Claremont Review of Books, I’ve been suspicious of US forays into the internal matters of other countries. We appear to be drunk on power. There is going to be a bill due for our arrogance. Christopher Caldwell thinks it will be a high one, and I think VDH agrees.

  5. Avatar for task task says:

    Why do we have to insist? Because Putin is a dangerous megalomaniac. He will kill who he opposes when he can. He is a danger only when he is strong. When he sees weakness, as was obvious with the Afgan debacle withdrawal, he did the unthinkable. He invaded a sovereign country. There was no justification for him doing something so uncivilized. He is first KGB, second a proud Russian National and, thirdly, he is merciless.

    Now if Trump had been in office Putin would have behaved because he had an intelligent leader that would have kept him polite, while running America, and we could have had a decent relationship economically. Now we know what he is capable of. As long as Putin and the CCP fear us both economically and militarily peace will prevail. Putin controls a powerful war chest. Those weapons are not aimed at China. They are designed to defeat Europe and America which is NATO.

    Let me emphasize how the USSR was defeated. We never fired a shot. We weakened them using free market capitalism. About a thousand wealthy oligarchs approved by Putin now run Russia. Obama is all about making America weak and that is what Biden, his proxy, did. A lot of people are now dead using that strategy. Ask anyone in Sweden and Finland how they feel about a powerful Russia.

    Biden managed to create an axis between Russia and China. There was once a similar axis between Russia and Germany. We are back at the starting point with a new player as a substitute for Germany. Oh, add Iran in the equation as well.

Continue the discussion at community.amgreatness.com

5 more replies


Avatar for CincyJan Avatar for Maximus-Cassius Avatar for system Avatar for task