Memo to Putin: Don’t mess with Finland!

Finnish machine gun unit in the winter war

Word has arrived that, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland– determinedly neutral through the Cold War that followed World War Two–has decided to become a part of NATO.

This is great news for everyone but the Russians, and the reason is embedded in World War Two history.

The Finns were squeezed between Germany and Russia, and Stalin saw an opportunity in 1939 that would protect the Soviet border and give it a chance to grab some Finnish territory. The Germans saw Finland as an avenue to Leningrad and the Soviet world beyond. So the Nazis wanted a relationship.

Keep in mind that even the Russians had signed a treaty with Nazi Germany that was designed to protect their own borders as war threatened in Europe. Climbing in bed with this particular enemy didn’t work for either side. The Russians played a central role in beating the Germans from the East even as the Allies were beating them from the south and west. A German invasion hit a strong reaction from the Red Army and the other big factor in that part of the world, brutally cold temperatures.

But the Finns were a different matter.

Stalin unleashed an army of 400,000 soldiers and hundreds upon hundreds of tanks in an invasion of Finland in 1939. What happened bears such a striking resemblance to what has happened in Ukraine it raises questions about whether the Russians ever learned lessons from their bitter experiences at war.

The Finns were vastly outnumbered as the Russians began their 1939 assault. The assumption was the Russians, with 400,000 troops on the move backed by hundreds of tanks, would make short work of their Finnish neighbors. That’s not what happened.

The Finns put an army of men with rifles on skis, well-covered in white jumpers to hide in the snow. They also discovered an important weakness in the design of Soviet tanks. The exhaust system created vulnerabilities the Finns could exploit if they could get close to the tanks. Disable the first tanks in the column and the rest were frozen in place and easy targets for the Finns.

That sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it?

As it turned out, the Finns attacked, at great expense to the Russian armored units. But it wasn’t a classic tank on tank assault. It was a soldier on tank assault. They also used Molotov cocktails on the tanks, which proved as explosive as the Russian tanks crippled in the Ukrainian assault.

Ultimately, the Finns did not win this war because Stalin eventually sent an army so huge, some 700,000 troops, that the Finns could not kill them all.

Exhausted and out of ammunition, they were forced into negotiations with the Kremlin. They severed ties with Germany and gave up about 9 percent of their territory, not much of a concession when you realize that Stalin wanted it all. That came at huge cost for the Russians. The old quip in Moscow was that you don’t invade a country where a couple of thousand Finns on skis could kill more than 200,000 Russian soldiers.

The Finnish death toll in those conflicts was around 50,000.

There was another conflict with the Russians later, also over territory. Ultimately, a peace was negotiated.

But now, putting Finland on the front edge of NATO on the Russian border might be the smartest thing the west has done in years. They still have their rifles. They still have their skis. They have a strong Air Force and strong armor on the ground.

They also have big brains, the courage of wolves, and would be defending the homeland they love.

And God knows they still have their snow and brutally cold weather all through the winter.

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