- The conduct of the Russian army in Ukraine has cast doubt on its capabilities.
- The war has also drawn comparisons to the Winter War, when the Soviets attacked Finland in 1939.
- There’s reason to be wary of those comparisons, says a Russian military expert.
Russia’s heavy losses and slow progress in Ukraine have cast doubt on the strength and capability of the Russian military.
US officials estimate that several thousand Russian troops have been killed in the invasion, now in its third week, and videos of Russian tanks and other vehicles being destroyed in Ukrainian attacks or being taken away by Ukrainians make the losses hard to hide. Reports that several senior Russian officers have been killed on the front lines add to the disorder.
Russia’s poor performance and Ukraine’s surprisingly strong resistance have led to some comparisons to the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland between 1939 and 1940.
During that icy 105-day war, the Finnish army inflicted heavy casualties on the massive Red Army.
There is reason to be wary of such comparisons, said Michael Kofman, research program director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a think tank.
The Winter War, Kofman told War on the Rocks on March 6, “led to the belief that maybe the Soviet military is just terrible in some ways,” with lots of troops and equipment but “fairly low” combat efficiency.
Finland ultimately lost that war, and Germany’s perception of the Soviet Union’s military weakness turned out to be disastrously wrong.
The winter war
Launched by the Soviets early on November 30, 1939, the Winter War was prompted by Moscow’s failure to get the Finns to give up their border area at Leningrad and allow Soviet troops to be stationed in Finland.
On paper, it shouldn’t have been a competition. Before the war, the entire army of Finland numbered about 280,000 men, with only 400 artillery pieces, 32 tanks and 75 fighters.
By comparison, the Soviet Leningrad military district alone had 500,000 men, 5,700 field guns, 6,500 tanks, and 3,800 aircraft.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin was so confident that he rejected a tentative plan presented by Boris Shaposhnikov, the then chief of staff of the Red Army, calling for massive, concentrated thrust through Finland’s main defense line.
Stalin instead chose a plan that called for a blitz across almost the entire 800-mile Soviet-Finnish border — similar to the German blitzkrieg in Poland.
Soviet planners thought the entire operation would take about two weeks and outfitted their soldiers accordingly. But the Finns more than held out during the first six weeks of the war.
The Red Army consistently failed to breach the Finnish Mannerheim Line in the Karelian Isthmus, a stretch of land west of Leningrad, while Soviet offensives in central Finland were suppressed by Finnish soldiers using guerrilla tactics.
Long columns of the Red Army confined themselves to the few existing roads and its advance through dense forests exposed it in a way that negates its numerical advantage.
Constant snow and icy weather favored the Finns, who used ski troops and winter camouflage. Soviet commanders, convinced of a quick victory, initially did not equip their troops with similar equipment.
The Finns would cut off and encircle the Red Army’s columns, a tactic they called “motti,” then destroy the Soviets piecemeal with devastating efficiency.
At the Battle of Tolvajärvi, 5,000 Soviets were killed, compared to about 630 Finns. There were similar results at the battles of Suomussalmi and Raate Road, with one Soviet division being effectively destroyed at each.
In February, Stalin made changes. Shaposhnikov was given command of troops in Finland, the Red Army was reorganized and the Soviet plan was restructured to focus on a concentrated drive through the Mannerheim Line.
In February 1940 a large-scale offensive finally broke through† The Finns, with fewer troops and resources, were completely defeated and had no choice but to agree to negotiations.
‘A paper tiger’
In the Moscow Peace Treaty, signed on March 12, 1940, Finland ceded about 10% of its territory to the Soviets, including the entire Karelian Isthmus and the northern region of Petsamo, cutting Finland off from the Barents Sea.
It cost the Soviets a terrible price. In 105 days, as many as 140,000 Red Army soldiers were killed and more than 3,500 tanks and 1,000 aircraft were destroyed. About 26,000 Finns were killed, while Finland lost 30 tanks and 62 aircraft.
The Winter War had consequences outside Finland.
The poor performance of the Red Army, coupled with the disastrous results of Stalin’s military purges and a similarly poor performance in the Polish-Soviet war years earlier, cemented Hitler’s belief that the Red Army was incapable of controlling the power of the Red Army. to fight the Wehrmacht.
Before launching his attack on the Soviets in June 1941, Hitler is said to have told his generals that “all we have to do is kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will collapse”.
Hitler’s confidence was misplaced. The Nazis killed over a million Soviets in the early stages of their invasion of the USSR, but the Red Army, with massive help from its allies, gathered and reorganized and fought as far as Berlin.
Western aid and the lessons of the Winter War made the Red Army a more powerful and capable army than in 1939, as both the Germans and the Finns saw firsthand.
Judging the capabilities of the Russian military based on its performance in Ukraine can also be misleading, Kofman said this month, warning that “you definitely don’t want to end up where Germany has.”
“I am afraid that we will walk away with a decent assessment of all the problems in the Russian military, but also with the mistaken idea that it is a paper tiger or that the Russian army would fight in a regional context in a high-end contingency against NATO in exactly the same way that they tried to carry out this failed kind of regime change operation,” Kofman said.