Russia has Forgotten the Hard Lessons it Learned Invading Finland

Russia learned some hard lessons when it invaded Finland in November 1939.  Today in Ukraine, it’s become clear that those lessons didn’t “stick,” at least not among Russia’s decision-makers.

In the winter of 1939, Russia – having just conquered half of Poland after Germany had already knocked that country out of the war – decided that war was good business. So they invaded Finland.  In Poland, the Soviets re-took land that had been under the control of Czarist Russia for two centuries before it was divided away from Russia at the treaty of Versailles.  Repeating that strategy, on November 30, 1939, Russia attacked Finland, intending to recover land that had also been part of Czarist Russia before Versailles. 

Like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, Finland was a Baltic state that had existed for centuries, before becoming a Czarist vassal state.  But unlike Poland, Finland had a strong army that had not been defeated in battle.  In the Kremlin, the Soviets decided the time was right to take that territory back, thinking it would be another piece of cake as Poland had been two months earlier.

Indeed, this invasion should have been a cakewalk for the Soviets.  After all, the Soviets had more soldiers in their army – 1.8 million – than Finland had males of all ages – 1.75 million – in its entire country in 1939.  However, after two serious but little-known border wars earlier in 1939 with Japan along the Manchurian-Mongolian border, many of the Red Army’s best troops were still stationed along that battle line.  On November 30th, the Soviet force – 450,000 men in 21 army divisions – crossed the border. Known as the Winter War, this invasion focused on the Karelian Isthmus, a strip of land that separated the Baltic Sea from Lake Ladoga. Karelia seemed to offer a “highway” between Leningrad and the Finnish capital, Helsinki.  Most of the invading army – 250,000 Soviet troops – attacked along that narrow strip of land.  Facing them on all fronts were just 130,000 Finnish soldiers.

However, the Red Army committed two cardinal sins – both of which they are now repeating in Ukraine.  They sent in an army largely made up of newly conscripted men, virtually just out of training and ill-equipped for a long war along the Arctic Circle.  Then they divided their forces, sending nearly half their army – around 200,000 men – to invade central and northern Finland, territory with no strategic value to the Soviet Union.  Their divided forces were then defeated in detail.

While some of these Red Army troops had invaded Poland in September, there was a decided – and decisive – difference between Poland and the attack on Finland.  First, the Polish Army had already been defeated by the German Army, which invaded 17 days earlier. What the Russians did was less of an armed invasion and more of a peaceful occupation of undefended territory.  While they experienced the invasion, none of those soldiers had experienced real combat.

Against Finland, most of the Soviet soldiers – even veterans of the Polish occupation – were relatively recent conscripts, drafted into the Soviet Army and given little training before being thrust into combat. Worse, they were not prepared for the winter weather in Finland, where daytime temperatures could reach 45 degrees below zero.

Finnish machine gun nest (public domain photo)

However, Finnish soldiers were primarily long-service veterans, well-trained for winter warfare, outfitted with camouflaged white snowsuits, many equipped with skis.  Perhaps as important, they were fighting for their home, their families, and their country.  Against them, the rank-and-file Red Army had no clue why they were fighting.

As in Finland in 1939, the Russian army is today invading a country during the winter, using recently conscripted troops who are ill-prepared for an all-out invasion of a well-defended enemy’s homeland.  The failure to invade Finland using experienced troops properly dressed and equipped for a winter war cost the Russians thousands of unnecessary casualties, and dragged the war on for more than three months – a war the Soviets planned to win in less than three weeks.  Now it seems to be happening again.  Oops.

Fast forward eighty-three years.  Reports from Ukraine suggest that the Russian army’s advance had stalled out. Again. Why?  In yet another winter invasion – it’s still very much winter in Ukraine – an army of mostly recent conscripts, given brief training before being thrust into combat has under-performed in ways not anticipated by Kremlin leaders.  The lesson in Ukraine should have been learned in Finland in 1939.  On average, Ukrainian soldiers are more experienced, better prepared for the weather – and they’re fighting for their homes, their families, and their nation.  Those factors are strong force multipliers.

The other main lesson from history that the Red Army is ignoring in Ukraine at their own cost involves the division of force.  Two thousand years ago, the legendary Chinese master of war, Sun Tzu, wrote:  We can form a single united body, while the enemy must split up into fractions. Hence there will be a whole pitted against separate parts of a whole …

This is another lesson that the Russians should have learned in Finland, in 1939. There, they divided their forces between the main invasion and the sideshow invasion of Central and Northern Finland. Outnumbering the Finns, they remained too weak to win anywhere. It took a second invasion of the Karelian Isthmus – on top of the first, failing invasion – a new assault with a fresh army that drove Finland to the negotiating tables more than three months after the invasion.

In addition to Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz, since Czarist days, Imperial, Soviet and Russian military academies taught the precepts of military strategist American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan.  It was Mahan who warned against the folly of dividing the battle-fleet … and by extension, any army assault force.  Mahan’s books remain required reading for Russian officer candidates, yet in its desire to quickly overwhelm Ukraine, Russia divided its invasion force into four separate attack forces.  One force is attacking from the Northwest, out of Russian puppet state Belarus. Another is attacking from the Northeast, from along the Russian/Belorussian border. A third force is attacking due West from the heartland of Russia, and the final force is attacking from the South, from Crimea, which Russia took from Ukraine in 2014. 

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a sound strategy – everywhere Ukraine looks, its borders are under attack.  However, by mounting four attacks, the Russian army must also have four air forces to clear their paths, as well as four logistic trains to keep the troops supplied with fuel, bullets and bombs, food and water, repair teams, and medical units.   All the while Ukraine has the long-known benefit of “interior lines.”  It is far easier for them to move troops and support forces from one attack front to another, using roads and railways under their control.

Bottom line: the Russian Army should know better – and perhaps it does. But the shots are being called by the Kremlin, by leaders who have little practical experience with war at the strategic level.  Eventually, if Russia is willing to absorb the casualties, they can keep pouring in ill-trained, ill-equipped troops in penny-packet formations and eventually wear down the Ukrainians, just as they did with Finland in 1939.  But what could have been a lightning campaign has turned into a slogging match.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it?”  Obviously, he wasn’t a Russian.

Ned Barnett is a widely-published author, a student of American military history, and a frequent on-camera historian for the History Channel, back when they actually covered history.  He is the founder of Barnett Marketing Communications, where he helps authors get their thoughts together and their books successfully published, offering editing, ghostwriting and book marketing and promotion services from his base in Las Vegas, Nevada.  He can be reached at or 702-561-1167.

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