Winter war: A Soviet tragedy

Winter war. The war between tiny Finland and the mighty Soviet Union. A war fought in the winter of 1940 on the Karelian Isthmus and along the Northern Finnish-Soviet border. A war that ended with a peace treaty in Moscow and subsequent ceding of small pieces of Finnish territory to the Soviets. Though the main goal of Stalin was the absorption of Finland into the Soviet Union[1]. Why did the Soviet Union then not succeed in conquering Finland? First we need to know why Stalin decided to attack Finland: The conflict arose when the Soviet Union tried to increase its sphere of influence in Finland and thereby demanded the cession of parts of the Karelian Isthmus and the placement of military bases around that area. Finland would receive Soviet territory further up north in return[2]. The Fins declined though. The Soviets then organized a casus belli by shelling their own border troops and blaming the Fins. On November 30th the Soviet Union launched their attack and thereby started a conflict without an official declaration of war. A war that lasted until the peace treaty on the 13th of March. In this time span of roughly 3 months a total of 534,083[3] Soviet service men were killed, lost or wounded, as opposed to the roughly 70,000 casualties of the Fins. This makes this war one of the most lethal wars for the Soviet Union of the second world war[4].

The many casualties of the Red army can be partially explained by the state of the army at that moment. Stalin had ravaged the officer corps of the red army in the Great Purge in 1937. This way many units were led by unexperienced and inadequately trained officers , leading to devastating results in the war. However, the Red army was superior in numbers and materiel. It had 3 times the soldiers, 30 times the airplanes and 100 times the tanks compared to Finland. The problem was the harsh terrain and weather and inexperience of the troops.

The Fins made a great use of the harsh terrain. They were used to the cold climate and the harsh conditions and were prepared well for those conditions. Whereas their counterpart was not well enough equipped for warfare in the winters of Finland. The terrain was most of the time not suitable for the blitzkrieg style warfare that the Soviet Union wanted to use either, because there were little to no roads[5]. Thus the Red Army could not make use of their advantage in tanks. However, the Soviets kept on attacking. In February, after suffering huge casualties the Soviets managed to break through a defensive line on the Karelian Isthmus. The war exhaustion on the Fins at that point is apparent. Knowing that the Soviet Union had an almost infinite amount of manpower to its disposal Finland kept trying to re-open negotiations during the war.

At this point in the war Stalin is getting more nervous about an intervention of France and Great Britain. These two countries where suspecting the Soviet Union as an ally of Nazi Germany after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and they were therefore making plans to attack the Soviet oil fields in Baku[6].

With the huge casualties and the threat of British and French interference, Stalin decides to open negotiations. The terms for Finland are substantial. It needs to cede 11% of its territory and 30% of its economic assets to the Soviet Union.[7] But Finland still stands as a country and thus Stalin failed his main goal: incorporating Finland in the Soviet Union.



-Tjalling de Jong, 11020822


[1] Reese, R. R., (2008)Lessons of the Winter War: A Study in the Military Effectiveness of the Red Army, 1939–1940

[2] Jowett, Philip; Snodgrass, Brent (2006). Finland at War 1939–45. United

[3]  Reese, R. R., (2008)Lessons of the Winter War: A Study in the Military Effectiveness of the Red Army, 1939–1940


[4] Reese, R. R., (2008)Lessons of the Winter War: A Study in the Military Effectiveness of the Red Army, 1939–1940

[5] Trotter, W. R. (2002) [1991]. The Winter War: The Russo–Finnish War of 1939–40 (5th ed.). New York (Great Britain: London): Workman

[6] Kimmo Rentola (2013) Intelligence and Stalin’s Two Crucial Decisions

in the Winter War, 1939–40, The International History Review, 35:5, 1089-1112, DOI:


[7] Edwards, R., (2006). White Death: Russia’s War on Finland 1939–40


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