Finland has applied to join NATO, and Sweden also decided to apply to join simultaneously. Usually, Finland follows Sweden, but this time it was vice versa. Finland applied to join NATO today because it doesn’t want to be left alone as it sees Russia going back to the Stalin era.
For decades Finns have thought that we can maintain good neighbourly relations with Russia while ensuring our ability to defend the country without needing to join NATO and thus irritate Russia. Many European countries felt that the end of the Cold War provided them with an opportunity to reduce their military spending and sell their arms. However, Finland saw an opportunity to strengthen its military even more and bought plenty of used tanks, artillery and other armaments for a discount.
Mandatory military service is a long tradition and a very popular one, and civilian defence has always been high on the agenda. Every city has had plenty of shelters built during the past 80 years and every large new building still needs to have one. Almost all underground parking halls act as shelters, and even the underground Santa Claus Park in Rovaniemi is a major shelter. The National Emergency Supply Agency ensures that Finland has enough food, medicine, gas, oil etc to keep the society running and the population safe under any circumstances.
The Finnish logic has been to maintain a strong enough defence capability to ensure that the price of attacking Finland would far exceed the potential gains. Finns had for decades thought that Russia would follow this same logic; however, Russia has proven that it thinks differently and that it is ready to occupy its neighbours, using extreme violence against civilians (even if they are fellow Slavs), and is ready to accept huge losses while doing so.
The Russian war in Ukraine so resembles the Winter War that Finns have realised very little has changed in Russian politics since the time of Stalin. Some similarities:
- Stalin thought Lenin had made a mistake by granting Finland independence in 1917. Finland had been part of Russia and so had to be returned to the Soviet Union.
- Annexing Finland would also be useful for preventing Nazi Germany from using Finnish territory for attacking the Soviet Union.
- In November 1939, the Soviet media started to publish strong propaganda against Finland, aiming to change public opinion in the Soviet Union against Finland. Among other things, Finns were accused of a massacre of atheists (the Soviet ideology was based on atheism) and the UK was said to be provoking Finland to get into conflict with the Soviet Union.
- 30 November 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland out of the blue. Its military crossed the Finnish border in multiple locations. The Soviet air force started to bomb Finnish cities and civilian sites, eventually bombing hundreds of cities and towns in Finland during the war. My father, who was four years old, survived just by a lucky chance, while my great-aunt was one of the victims on the first day of the bombing.
- Tens of thousands of Finnish children were evacuated to safety in Sweden and Denmark.
- Internationally, the Soviet Union claimed it was not at war with Finland.
- The Soviet propaganda claimed that the Finnish government were all fascists (remember that the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was still valid and it wouldn’t have been politically appropriate to claim Finns were Nazis).
- The Soviet Union was certain of a very quick victory as they expected the Finnish working class to welcome the Soviets as liberators. The Soviet Union indeed claimed that they had come to liberate the Finnish working class.
- In 1939, Finland was quite a divided country, still recovering from a bloody independence/civil war in 1918, which had been fought between the Reds (the working class) and the Whites (the middle and upper classes) and which had left deep scars on society. The country was unified instantly when the Soviet Union attacked and former Whites and Reds were now fighting side-by-side in the same trenches against the Soviets.
- The whole of society was mobilised, and 300,000 men from the reserves were quickly sent to the front, having initially very little equipment from the army save for a rifle.
- Despite the Soviet army being very mobile and having a large number of tanks, it was forced to advance along roads and through open areas, which were few as Finland is covered with forest. That provided the Finns with an advantage as they were able to move swiftly off-road.
- Initially, Finland lacked arms and ammunition, and Molotov cocktails – an improvised antitank weapon – were successfully used against Soviet tanks.
- The Soviet army was very hierarchical and operated according to a formal plan, whereas the Finns were able and permitted to improvise depending on the tactical situation.
- The Soviet army had problems with unsuitable clothing, equipment, supplies and logistics.
- The Finnish army was able to take large numbers of weapons, including artillery and tanks, from the Soviet army.
- The first phase lasted for about six weeks, during which the initial Soviet offensive was defeated. After that, the Soviet army changed its strategy.
- The international community condemned the Soviet Union’s aggression, expelling it from the League of Nations; the sympathy of the world was with the Finns.
- The USA, the UK, France and Sweden, as well as other governments and various private charitable organisations, started to send money and arms to Finland, and thousands of foreign volunteers joined the Finnish Army once they saw that Finland was able to withstand the offensive. Unfortunately, the support was not enough.
- The UK and France considered for a long time whether they should also send their regular troops to support Finland or not, and whether sending such troops would escalate the war (eventually no foreign troops arrived).
- Armistice negotiations between the Soviet Union and Finland started after eight weeks of fighting as Stalin grew wary of the international pressure and the potential for the UK and France getting involved. The Soviet demands, however, were too harsh for Finland and the Finns continued to fight.
The Winter War lasted 105 days. Despite losing 300,000 thousand or more men (dead and wounded), the Soviets were able to continue sending troops into battle. Towards the end, the defence lines started to break and the Finnish army was so exhausted that it had to accept the conditions of the Soviets, which included giving away 10% of Finnish territory, but left the country independent and free from occupation.
There are also some similarities between Estonia’s role in the Winter War and Belarus’s role in the Ukraine War. A few months before the Winter War, the Estonian government was forced to let Soviet troops into bases in Estonia. Soviet aircraft attacked Finland from Estonian airbases. While formally Estonia was forced to remain neutral, the general population was on the side of Finland and many Estonian volunteers joined the Finnish army. Today Estonia and Finland are best friends.
After the Winter War Finns learned a lesson: never again did they want to face the Russian army alone. During the decades that followed World War II, Finland tried to build good and mutually beneficial relations with Russia, hoping that Russia would never again be a threat to Finland. 24 February 2022 finally changed this perception and our wishful thinking.