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How Finland held off the Russians and won a moral victory — with lessons for Ukraine

War between Finland and Soviet Russia started on Nov. 30, 1939. Trenches were dug at the beginning of the Finnish-Russian tension in Helsinki on Dec. 1, 1939. (AP)
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It was seven days into the Russian invasion.

“The army has that sound and comforting gaiety of good troops,” wrote an American correspondent after visiting troops defending the former Russian territory.

“It has confidence in its leaders,” the reporter continued. “And it has the determination of those who fight on their own soil. … One pilot spoke for them all when he said, ‘They will not get us as a present.’ ”

The year was 1939. The reporter was Martha Gellhorn, a trailblazing female war correspondent. The pilot Gellhorn had interviewed, who had already shot down several Russian planes, was Finnish.

A week earlier, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had invaded Finland with a massive land, air and sea assault — much like the shock assault Russian President Vladimir Putin recently launched against Ukraine, sans thermobaric cannons.

Assured by his overwhelming military strength, Stalin was confident that the “liberation operation” against the outnumbered, pesky Finns would be a walkover, much like Putin at the outset of his campaign against the recalcitrant Ukrainians.

So were most foreign observers. “The Finns are putting on a good show,” Harold Nicholson, a British diplomat and historian, wrote on Dec. 2, the third day of the Winter War, as the David-and-Goliath conflict between the USSR and the former Russian grand duchy came to be called.

“However,” he continued, “they will collapse in a day or two.”

Like today, the Western world was outraged. “The Soviet Union has invaded Finland!” CBS Radio Berlin chief William Shirer confided to his journal after listening to the first reports of the bombing of Helsinki by the Red Air Force. “The great champion of the working class, the mighty preacher against Fascist aggression, has fallen upon the most decent and workable little democracy in Europe.”

“I have raged for thirty hours,” scribbled the livid correspondent, best known as the author of the “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich,” but “could not sleep.”

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But what could be done? The Finns were done for. Already on the second day of the invasion, the New York Times wondered how quickly the voracious Soviets dictator would reannex Finland.

However, as became clear as the war continued into its second week and the Russian assault stalled — just like the Russian attack against Ukraine — the Finns did not collapse.

“SOVIET FAILURE,” trumpeted a front-page headline in the Times on Dec. 7, the eighth day of the conflict, as the newspaper admitted its mistake. “Soviet Russia’s plan for a lightning war with the obvious aim of causing a subsequent collapse of the Finnish government must be considered hopelessly stranded.”

Indeed, as the Soviets — and the world — were about to discover, the Finns had just begun to fight. And they kept on giving the Russians as good as they got for 100 days, infuriating Stalin.

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Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, the exhausted, outnumbered Finns had to sue for peace, but not before creating a legend for the ages. By putting up a better fight than anyone expected, they managed to retain their independence and democratic system — holding up an example and a ray of hope for Ukraine, should it eventually succumb to the Russian onslaught.

To be sure, the two conflicts aren’t exactly the same. Putin is not Stalin, and Russia is not the USSR, although it seems he would very much like it to be.

And Ukraine is not Finland. For one thing, today’s Ukraine, with its 43 million people, is considerably larger and more populous than Finland in 1939, with its 3 million. On the other hand, Finland had a much larger army than Ukraine had when the Russians stormed across its borders.

Still, there are many important similarities — particularly in the battle for global sympathy. After the first week of fighting, with the Russians stymied on virtually all fronts, the world knew, and Stalin knew, that in a certain sense, the Finns had won.

The first month of the 1939-40 Finnish-Soviet Winter War was such a disaster for the Soviets, as the Finnish Air Force blasted dozens of Russian planes from the skies while ghostlike Finnish ski troops wrought havoc among the poorly trained Red Army troops, that some Americans thought the Finns were winning.

One of them was Gellhorn. “I really think the Finns are going to win,” she wrote Ernest Hemingway, her romantic partner and future husband, in late December.

In the United States, Finland’s struggle was the cause celebre of the winter. Former president Herbert Hoover came out of mothballs to head Finnish relief. John F. Kennedy, then an undergraduate at Harvard, headed the Cambridge chapter.

“Finland is America’s sweetheart,” Christopher Isherwood, the British writer then living in Los Angeles, gushed in his diary.

The Finns thought they were winning, too, especially after their widely publicized victory at Suomussalmi in central Finland, where a Finnish force of 6,000 ski troops annihilated a Soviet one four times as large. One of the first on the scene was Gellhorn’s best friend and fellow correspondent, Virginia Cowles, who had taken her place as the most glamorous member of the large foreign press corps covering the conflict, as well as its most moving writer.

“Perhaps it was the beauty of the morning that made the terrible Russian debacle all the more ghastly,” Cowles cabled. “The rising sun had drenched the snow-covered forest and the trees like lace Valentines. Then we turned a bend in the road and came upon the full horror of the scene. For four miles the roads and forests were strewn with the bodies of men and horses.” (The widely circulated photo of a fallen Russian soldier lying in the snow in Ukraine is eerily reminiscent of the horrific ones that emerged from the 1939 massacre.)

Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish commander in chief, wasn’t fooled. Stalin may have underestimated him and his men. But he didn’t underestimate Stalin.

The Red Army’s initial offensive may have stumbled, but he knew that Stalin would be back. He appreciated America’s goodwill, as well as its financial support. What he really wanted was American troops.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who happened to be a passionate Fennophile, would have liked to send them. “This dreadful rape of Finland,” he wrote to his friend Thomas McVeagh. “People are asking why anyone should have anything to do with the present Soviet leaders.”

FDR was able to send the Finns a dozen outmoded Buffalo Brewster fighter aircraft, but America’s isolationist mood constrained him from doing more.

Meanwhile, as Mannerheim expected, Stalin had gotten organized, bringing in a fiery new commander, Semyon Timoshenko, to lead a renewed Soviet assault and giving him even more troops — ultimately more than half a million, plus 4,000 tanks and 3,000 aircraft — to finish the job.

In mid-February, Timoshenko launched his “crescendo offensive” on the main Finnish defense line, the Mannerheim Line, with a massive artillery barrage, firing 300,000 shells in 24 hours.

Predictably, the offensive succeeded in breaching Finnish defenses and drove Mannerheim’s white-clad troops back along a broad front.

Remarkably, the exhausted Finns held out for another month. In the meantime, unbeknown to the army or the Finnish people, their government, recognizing the inevitable, had begun secret negotiations with Stalin and his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov.

On March 13, 1940, 106 days after the Soviet invasion, Finnish Foreign Minister Vaino Tanner announced the heartbreaking terms the Russians had forced on the Finns. Finland had to give up 10 percent of its territory, leading to an internal evacuation of more than 400,000 people.

But the terms could have been harsher. The bulk of Finland was not occupied, or “liberated,” as the Soviets initially described their “special operation” (just as their latter-day Kremlin heirs have called their Ukrainian “special operation”).

Stalin knew he would never be able to subjugate the Finns — 25,000 of whom were killed in the war, against the Soviets’ estimated quarter-million — after the fight they had put up.

In a true sense, the Finns had won. They had notched one of the great defensive stands of military history, alongside Thermopylae, Masada and the Alamo. And the Finns were allowed to keep their army. They would live to fight another day.

Unfortunately, in their desire to avenge themselves against the Soviets and regain their lost territory, they wound up joining the Germans when Adolf Hitler invaded Russia the following year, disappointing their friends and erasing the moral capital they had won. The Finns lost their next, much longer war with Moscow, the 1941-1944 Continuation War, too.

The Winter War is relatively forgotten in the United States, but certainly not in Finland. Eight decades later, it remains one of Finland’s finest hours. Legenda elaa, Finns like to say of the Winter War: “The legend lives.”

How long the Ukrainians hold out against Russia remains to be seen. So do the terms of an eventual armistice.

But the Ukrainians — and the world — know that they, too, have won their war in a sense. Putin is not getting Ukraine as a present.

Hannes Tuovinen, 98, one of the few remaining veterans of the Winter War, posted this message for the defenders of Kyiv to the Facebook page of his veterans’ organization:

“Greetings to Ukraine. Once upon a time Finland too fought the Russian Army with everything we had and was able to hold on to our freedom and independence. That’s what we wish for you as well. The whole Europe stands with you.”

Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian based in Riga, Latvia. He is the author of several works of Nordic and military history, including “The Hundred Day Winter War” and “The Finnish Factor: Kekkonen, Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cold War.”

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