This week in history: USSR began Winter War by invading Finland

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

On Nov. 30, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded its neighbor Finland. Stalin ordered the attack, what would come to be called the Winter War, in the hopes of gaining better geographic security for the USSR. Not up to the task, the Red Army took tremendous losses in a humiliating campaign.

In August of that year, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler had entered into a nonaggression pact in which the two dictators agreed to divide up Poland between them. Additionally, Hitler recognized Stalin's right to expand his borders throughout Eastern Europe. Both men secretly believed that war between their two states would eventually come, and Stalin sought to prepare the USSR for the coming showdown.

Engulfed by paranoia and believing his military leaders were plotting against him, Stalin had purged the Red Army only two years earlier, in 1937. Three of his five marshals were executed, along with hosts of division and corps commanders. One of the marshals, the brilliant Mikhail Tukhachevsky, had anticipated the coming “blitzkrieg” tactics of the Germans, and his loss seriously hurt the Red Army's ability to prepare for war.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. A few weeks later, on Sept. 17, the Soviets invaded eastern Poland, and Red Army officers shook hands with their Wehrmacht counterparts along the new border. By the time of the Soviet involvement, Poland was already smashed, its army defeated under the weight of Hitler's panzer divisions. Germany's swift victory over Poland gave Stalin cause to worry, and the Soviet dictator believed it imperative to expand the USSR's western borders as soon as possible.

In his book “Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945,” historian Richard Overy wrote: “Having absorbed half of Poland and temporarily averted the German threat, Stalin was eager to press on with fulfillment of the terms set out in the German-Soviet protocols. The Baltic States were asked to sign treaties of mutual assistance in the two weeks following the Polish defeat. … A few weeks later, on Oct. 5, similar demands were made of Finland: a naval and air base at the mouth of the Baltic at Hanko and cession of the Karelian isthmus north of Leningrad to provide a better defense of that vital city.”

Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg) was roughly 130 miles from the Finnish border. Stalin feared that in the event of war with Germany, the Finns would side with Hitler and provide the Wehrmacht with a perfect jumping-off point to take the USSR's second-most important city. He desperately wanted a larger buffer zone between Leningrad and his potential enemies.

In exchange for their ceding that buffer zone, the Soviets offered the Finns large areas in Karelia to the north, though the Finns had no interest in the region. On Nov. 13 the Finnish government of Aimo Cajander rejected the Soviet offer and the Soviets ended the negotiations. Though he no doubt favored achieving his ends peacefully in this case, Stalin nevertheless concluded that tiny Finland could not be seen to stand up to the powerful Soviet Union. Stalin, with the full support of his favorite military officer, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, decided Finland would be invaded and incorporated into the USSR.

The Red Army at this time existed in several military districts, geographic regions with their own command structures responsible for regional defense. In theory, once war had begun, each military district would be coordinated through Stavka, the Red Army high command. Stalin, however, saw no need to mobilize the entirety of the Red Army.

In his book “Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War,” historian Chris Bellamy wrote: “The invasion of Finland was to be conducted by the Leningrad military district, on its own. The general staff was 'not to have a hand in this; it is to concern itself with other matters.'”

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