Winter War

Winter War
Part of World War II
A group of Finnish soldiers in snowsuits manning a heavy machine gun in a foxhole.
A Finnish machine gun crew during the Winter War
Date30 November 1939 – 13 March 1940
(3 months, 1 week and 6 days)
Eastern Finland
ResultMoscow Peace Treaty
(See Aftermath)
Cession of the Gulf of Finland islands, Karelian Isthmus, Ladoga Karelia, Salla, and Rybachy Peninsula, and lease of Hanko to the Soviet Union


 Soviet Union

Commanders and leaders
Finland Kyösti Kallio
Finland Risto Ryti
Finland Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim
Soviet Union Joseph Stalin
Soviet Union Kirill Meretskov
Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov
Soviet Union Semyon Timoshenko[F 1]
300,000–340,000 soldiers[F 2]
32 tanks[F 3]
114 aircraft[F 4]
425,000–760,000 soldiers[F 5]
2,514–6,541 tanks[F 6]
3,880 aircraft[14]
Casualties and losses
25,904 dead or missing[15]
43,557 wounded[16]
800–1,100 captured[17]
20–30 tanks
62 aircraft[18]

70,000 total casualties
126,875–167,976 dead or missing[19][20][21]
188,671–207,538 wounded or sick[19][20] (including at least 61,506 sick or frostbitten[22])
5,572 captured[23]
1,200–3,543 tanks[24][25][26]
261–515 aircraft[26][27]

321,000–381,000 total casualties

The Winter War[F 7] was a military conflict between the Soviet Union (USSR) and Finland. It began with a Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II, and ended three and a half months later with the Moscow Peace Treaty on 13 March 1940. The League of Nations deemed the attack illegal and expelled the Soviet Union from the organisation.

The conflict began after the Soviets sought to obtain some Finnish territory, demanding among other concessions that Finland cede substantial border territories in exchange for land elsewhere, claiming security reasons—primarily the protection of Leningrad, 32 km (20 mi) from the Finnish border. Finland refused, and the USSR invaded the country. Many sources conclude that the Soviet Union had intended to conquer all Finland, and use the establishment of the puppet Finnish Communist government and the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact's secret protocols as evidence of this,[F 8] while other sources argue against the idea of the full Soviet conquest.[F 9] Finland repelled Soviet attacks for more than two months and inflicted substantial losses on the invaders while temperatures ranged as low as −43 °C (−45 °F). After the Soviet military reorganised and adopted different tactics, they renewed their offensive in February and overcame Finnish defences.

Hostilities ceased in March 1940 with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland ceded 11 percent of its territory representing 30 percent of its economy to the Soviet Union. Soviet losses were heavy, and the country's international reputation suffered. Soviet gains exceeded their pre-war demands and the USSR received substantial territory along Lake Ladoga and in Northern Finland. Finland retained its sovereignty and enhanced its international reputation. The poor performance of the Red Army encouraged Adolf Hitler to think that an attack on the Soviet Union would be successful and confirmed negative Western opinions of the Soviet military. After 15 months of Interim Peace, in June 1941, Nazi Germany commenced Operation Barbarossa and the Continuation War between Finland and the USSR began.


Soviet–Finnish relations and politics

A geopolitical map of Northern Europe where Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are tagged as neutral nations and the Soviet Union is shown having military bases in the nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Geopolitical status in Northern Europe in November 1939[40]
  Neutral countries
  Germany and annexed countries
  Soviet Union and annexed countries
  Neutral countries with Soviet military bases

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Finland constituted the eastern part of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1809, to protect its imperial capital, Saint Petersburg, the Russian Empire conquered Finland and converted it into an autonomous buffer state.[41] The resulting Grand Duchy of Finland enjoyed wide autonomy within the Empire until the end of the 19th century, when Russia began attempts to assimilate Finland as part of a general policy to strengthen the central government and unify the Empire through russification. These attempts were aborted because of Russia's internal strife, but they ruined Russia's relations with the Finns and increased support for Finnish self-determination movements.[42]

World War I led to the collapse of the Russian Empire during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War of 1917–1920, giving Finland a window of opportunity; on 6 December 1917, the Senate of Finland declared the nation's independence. The new Bolshevik Russian Government was fragile, and civil war had broken out in Russia in November 1917; the Bolsheviks determined they could not hold onto peripheral parts of the old empire. Thus, Soviet Russia (later the USSR) recognised the new Finnish Government just three weeks after the declaration.[42] Finland achieved full sovereignty in May 1918 after a 4-month civil war, with the conservative Whites winning over the socialist Reds, and the expulsion of Bolshevik troops.[43]

Finland joined the League of Nations in 1920, from which it sought security guarantees, but Finland's primary goal was co-operation with the Scandinavian countries. The Finnish and Swedish militaries engaged in wide-ranging co-operation, but focused on the exchange of information and on defence planning for the Åland Islands rather than on military exercises or on stockpiling and deployment of materiel. Nevertheless, the Government of Sweden carefully avoided committing itself to Finnish foreign policy.[44] Finland's military policy included clandestine defence co-operation with Estonia.[45]

The period after the Finnish Civil War till the early 1930s proved a politically unstable time in Finland due to the continued rivalry between the conservative and socialist parties. The Communist Party of Finland was declared illegal in 1931, and the nationalist Lapua Movement organised anti-communist violence, which culminated in a failed coup attempt in 1932. The successor of the Lapua Movement, the Patriotic People's Movement, only had a minor presence in national politics with at most 14 seats out of 200 in the Finnish parliament.[46] By the late 1930s, the export-oriented Finnish economy was growing and the nation's extreme political movements had diminished.[47]

A Soviet propaganda postcard from 1940 featuring a small dog with a military uniform and a winter hat looking intensively over a shore and pulling on a leash. The collars on the hands holding the leash bear a swastika. The other hand is pointing assertively over the shore. The postcard says in Russian Cyrillic "the fascist dog growls" referring to the Finnish White Guard.
A Soviet propaganda postcard from 1940 saying "the fascist dog growls" and referring to the Finnish White Guard (Шюцкор), the paramilitary forces that had a role in defeating the socialist Reds in Finland during the Civil War of 1918

After Soviet involvement in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, no formal peace treaty was signed. In 1918 and 1919, Finnish volunteers conducted two unsuccessful military incursions across the Soviet border, the Viena and Aunus expeditions, to annex Karelian areas according to the Greater Finland ideology of combining all Finnic peoples into a single state. In 1920, Finnish communists based in the USSR attempted to assassinate the former Finnish White Guard Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. On 14 October 1920, Finland and Soviet Russia signed the Treaty of Tartu, confirming the old border between the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland and Imperial Russia proper as the new Finnish–Soviet border. Finland also received Petsamo, with its ice-free harbour on the Arctic Ocean.[48][49] Despite the signing of the treaty, relations between the two countries remained strained. The Finnish Government allowed volunteers to cross the border to support the East Karelian uprising in Russia in 1921, and Finnish communists in the Soviet Union continued to prepare for a revanche and staged a cross-border raid into Finland, called the Pork mutiny, in 1922.[50] In 1932, the USSR and Finland signed a non-aggression pact, which was reaffirmed for a ten-year period in 1934.[50] While foreign trade in Finland was booming, less than one percent of Finnish trade was with the Soviet Union.[51] In 1934, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations.[50]

Joseph Stalin regarded it a disappointment that the Soviet Union could not halt the Finnish revolution.[52] He thought that the pro-Finland movement in Karelia posed a direct threat to Leningrad and that the area and defences of Finland could be used to invade the Soviet Union or restrict fleet movements.[53] During Stalin's rule, Soviet propaganda painted Finland's leadership as a "vicious and reactionary fascist clique". Field Marshal Mannerheim and Väinö Tanner, the leader of the Finnish Social Democratic Party, were targeted for particular scorn.[54] When Stalin gained absolute power through the Great Purge of 1938, the USSR changed its foreign policy toward Finland and began pursuing the reconquest of the provinces of Tsarist Russia lost during the chaos of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War almost two decades earlier. The Soviet leadership believed that the old empire possessed the ideal amount of territorial security, and wanted the newly christened city of Leningrad, only 32 km (20 mi) from the Finnish border, to enjoy a similar level of security against the rising power of Nazi Germany.[55][56] In essence, the border between the Grand Duchy of Finland and Russia proper was never supposed to become international.[57][58]


A picture of Rybachy Peninsula on a partly cloudy July day. The Soviet Union demanded that Finland cede the peninsula, its northernmost point at the time, along with other areas. The sun is either rising or setting and shines on the long grass at an angle. A body of water, the Barents Sea, fills a quarter of the picture. A gravel road leads to a lone house in the distance.
Rybachy Peninsula in 2008. The Soviet Union demanded that the peninsula, the northernmost point of Finland at the time, be ceded along with other areas to protect Soviet assets.

In April 1938, NKVD agent Boris Yartsev contacted the Finnish Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti and Prime Minister Aimo Cajander, stating that the Soviet Union did not trust Germany and that war was considered possible between the two countries. The Red Army would not wait passively behind the border but would rather "advance to meet the enemy". Finnish representatives assured Yartsev that Finland was committed to a policy of neutrality and that the country would resist any armed incursion. Yartsev suggested that Finland cede or lease some islands in the Gulf of Finland along the seaward approaches to Leningrad; Finland refused.[59][60]

Negotiations continued throughout 1938 without results. Finnish reception of Soviet entreaties was decidedly cool, as the violent collectivisation and purges in Stalin's Soviet Union resulted in a poor opinion of the country. Most of the Finnish communist elite in the Soviet Union had been executed during the Great Purge, further tarnishing the USSR's image in Finland. At the same time, Finland was attempting to negotiate a military co-operation plan with Sweden and hoping to jointly defend the Åland Islands.[61]

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. The pact was nominally a non-aggression treaty, but it included a secret protocol in which Eastern European countries were divided into spheres of interest. Finland fell into the Soviet sphere. On 1 September 1939, Germany began its invasion of Poland and two days later Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. On 17 September, the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland. The Baltic states were soon forced to accept treaties allowing the USSR to establish military bases and to station troops on their soil.[62] The Government of Estonia accepted the ultimatum, signing the agreement in September. Latvia and Lithuania followed in October. Unlike the Baltic states, Finland started a gradual mobilisation under the guise of "additional refresher training."[63] The Soviets had already started intensive mobilisation near the Finnish border in 1938–39. Assault troops thought necessary for the invasion did not begin deployment until October 1939. Operational plans made in September called for the invasion to start in November.[64][65]

During additional refresher training, a Finnish soldier is having his breakfast served into a mess kit by another soldier from a steaming field kitchen in the forests of the Karelian Isthmus. More soldiers, two of them visible, are waiting in line for their turn behind him. It is early October and the snow has not set in yet.
Finnish soldiers gathering breakfast from a field kitchen during "additional refresher training" at the Karelian Isthmus on 10 October 1939

On 5 October 1939, the Soviet Union invited a Finnish delegation to Moscow for negotiations. J.K. Paasikivi, the Finnish envoy to Sweden, was sent to Moscow to represent the Finnish Government.[63] The Soviet delegation demanded that the border between the USSR and Finland on the Karelian Isthmus be moved westward to a point only 30 km (19 mi) east of Vyborg (Finnish: Viipuri) and that Finland destroy all existing fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus. Likewise, the delegation demanded the cession of islands in the Gulf of Finland as well as Rybachy Peninsula (Finnish: Kalastajasaarento). The Finns would have to lease the Hanko Peninsula for thirty years and permit the Soviets to establish a military base there. In exchange, the Soviet Union would cede Repola and Porajärvi municipalities from Eastern Karelia, an area twice the size of the territory demanded from Finland.[63][66]

The Soviet offer divided the Finnish Government, but was eventually rejected with respect to the opinion of the public and Parliament. On 31 October, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov announced Soviet demands in public in the Supreme Soviet. The Finns made two counteroffers whereby Finland would cede the Terijoki area to the Soviet Union, which would double the distance between Leningrad and the Finnish border, far less than the Soviets had demanded,[67] as well as the islands in the Gulf of Finland.[68]

Shelling of Mainila and Soviet intentions

On 26 November 1939, an incident was reported near the Soviet village of Mainila, close to the border with Finland. A Soviet border guard post had been shelled by an unknown party resulting, according to Soviet reports, in the deaths of four and injuries of nine border guards. Research conducted by several Finnish and Russian historians later concluded that the shelling was a false flag operation carried out from the Soviet side of the border by an NKVD unit with the purpose of providing the Soviet Union with a casus belli and a pretext to withdraw from the non-aggression pact.[69][F 10]

A group of foreign journalists observing something during snowfall in Mainila, where a border incident between Finland and the Soviet Union escalated into the Winter War.
29 November 1939, foreign press at Mainila, where a border incident between Finland and the Soviet Union escalated into the Winter War

Molotov claimed that the incident was a Finnish artillery attack and demanded that Finland apologise for the incident and move its forces beyond a line 20–25 km (12–16 mi) away from the border.[72] Finland denied responsibility for the attack, rejected the demands and called for a joint Finnish–Soviet commission to examine the incident. In turn, the Soviet Union claimed that the Finnish response was hostile, renounced the non-aggression pact and severed diplomatic relations with Finland on 28 November. In the following years, Soviet historiography described the incident as Finnish provocation. Doubt on the official Soviet version was cast only in the late 1980s, during the policy of glasnost. The issue continued to divide Russian historiography even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.[73][74]

In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated at a meeting with military historians that the USSR launched the Winter War to "correct mistakes" made in determining the border with Finland after 1917.[75] Opinion on the scale of the initial Soviet invasion decision is divided: some sources conclude that the Soviet Union had intended to conquer Finland in full, and cite the establishment of the puppet Finnish Communist government and the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact's secret protocols as proof of their conclusions.[F 11] Hungarian historian István Ravasz wrote that the Central Committee had set out in 1939 that the former borders of the Tsarist Empire were to be restored—including Finland.[33] American political scientist Dan Reiter stated that the USSR "sought to impose a regime change" and thus "achieve absolute victory". He quotes Molotov, who commented in November 1939 on the regime-change plan to a Soviet ambassador that the new government "will not be Soviet, but one of a democratic republic. Nobody is going to set up Soviets over there, but we hope it will be a government we can come to terms with as to ensure the security of Leningrad."[36]

Others argue against the idea of a complete Soviet conquest. American historian William R. Trotter asserted that Stalin's objective was to secure Leningrad's flank from a possible German invasion through Finland. He stated that "the strongest argument" against a Soviet intention of full conquest is that it did not happen in either 1939 or during the Continuation War in 1944—even though Stalin "could have done so with comparative ease."[38] Bradley Lightbody wrote that the "entire Soviet aim had been to make the Soviet border more secure."[39] According to Russian historian A. Chubaryan in 2002, no documents had been found in Russian archives that support a Soviet plan to annex Finland. Rather, the objective was to gain Finnish territory and reinforce Soviet influence in the region.[37]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Winteroorlog
العربية: حرب الشتاء
asturianu: Guerra d'Iviernu
bosanski: Zimski rat
brezhoneg: Talvisota
čeština: Zimní válka
Deutsch: Winterkrieg
eesti: Talvesõda
Esperanto: Vintra milito
euskara: Neguko Gerra
français: Guerre d'Hiver
한국어: 겨울 전쟁
हिन्दी: विंटर वार
hrvatski: Zimski rat
Bahasa Indonesia: Perang Musim Dingin
íslenska: Vetrarstríðið
latviešu: Ziemas karš
Lëtzebuergesch: Wanterkrich
lietuvių: Žiemos karas
македонски: Зимска војна
Bahasa Melayu: Perang Musim Sejuk
монгол: Өвлийн дайн
Nederlands: Winteroorlog
日本語: 冬戦争
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਵਿੰਟਰ ਵਾਰ
polski: Wojna zimowa
português: Guerra de Inverno
Scots: Winter War
Simple English: Winter War
slovenčina: Zimná vojna
slovenščina: Zimska vojna
српски / srpski: Зимски рат
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Zimski rat
suomi: Talvisota
svenska: Vinterkriget
Türkçe: Kış Savaşı
žemaitėška: Žėimuos vaina
中文: 冬季战争