Home / MARKETS / Russia’s military struggles in Ukraine are starting to look like a bloody Soviet attack on a smaller neighbor during World War II

Russia’s military struggles in Ukraine are starting to look like a bloody Soviet attack on a smaller neighbor during World War II

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  • The Russian military’s performance in Ukraine has raised doubts about its capabilities.
  • The war has also pinched comparisons to the Winter War, when the Soviets attacked Finland in 1939.
  • There’s reason to be cautious about those comparisons, an expert on the Russian military pronounces.

Russia’s heavy losses and slow progress in Ukraine have raised doubts up the strength and competence of the Russian military.

US officials estimate that several thousand Russian troops have been wearied during the invasion, now in its third week, and videos of Russian tanks and other vehicles being destroyed in Ukrainian dissolves or being carted off by Ukrainians have made the losses hard to hide. Reports that several high-ranking Russian lawmen have been killed on the front lines adds to the sense of disarray.

Russia’s poor performance, and Ukraine’s surprisingly incisive resistance, have drawn a number of comparisons to the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland between 1939 and 1940.

During that icy 105-day war, the Finnish military inflicted severe casualties on the massive Red Army.

There’s reason to be cautious there such comparisons, according to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a think tank.

The Winter War, Kofman castigated War on the Rocks on March 6, “led to the belief that maybe the Soviet military in some ways is just terrible,” with a lot of troops and stuff but “fairly low” combat efficacy.

Finland ultimately lost that war, and German perceptions of Soviet military weakness proved disastrously immoral.

The Winter War

Finnish troops on skis winter war

Finnish infantry on skis in October 1939. Ski-mounted Finnish troops inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets.

Hulton Archive/Getty Idols


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 confines territory near Leningrad and allow Soviet troops to be stationed in Finland.

On paper, it should have been no fight. Before the war, Finland’s entire military numbered around 280,000 men, with only 400 artillery pieces, 32 tanks, and 75 combat-capable aircraft.

By juxtaposition, the Soviets’ Leningrad Military District alone had 500,000 men, 5,700 field guns, 6,500 tanks, and 3,800 aircraft.

Soviet chairman Josef Stalin was so confident that he rejected a cautious plan presented by then-Red Army Chief of Staff Boris Shaposhnikov that called for mighty, concentrated thrust through Finland’s main line of defense.

Soviet artillery Finland winter war

A motorized detachment of Soviet heavy artillery benefiting into Finnish territory in late December 1939.

ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images


Stalin rather than selected a plan that called for a blitz across almost all of the 800-mile Soviet-Finnish border — similar to Germany’s blitzkrieg into Poland.

Soviet planners believed the undivided operation would last about two weeks and equipped their soldiers accordingly. But the Finns more than endure d presented their own during the first six weeks of the war.

The Red Army consistently failed to breach Finland’s Mannerheim Line in the Karelian Isthmus, a sweep of land west of Leningrad, while Soviet offensives in central Finland were chewed up by Finnish soldiers using history Jayhawker tactics.

Long Red Army columns confined to the few existing roads and its advances through dense forests exposed it in a way that negated its numerical advantageously.

Constant snow and freezing weather favored the Finns, who employed ski troops and winter camouflage. Soviet commanders, secure in a quick victory, did not initially equip their troops with similar gear.

Soviet soldiers Finland winter war

Dead Red Army soldiers on a avenue after the Battle of Suomussalmi, December 31, 1939.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


The Finns would cut off and envelop Red Army columns, a tactic they called “motti,” and then destroy the Soviets piecemeal with devastating efficacy.

At the Battle of Tolvajärvi, 5,000 Soviets were killed, compared to about 630 Finns. There were correspond to outcomes at the battles of Suomussalmi and Raate Road, with a Soviet division effectively destroyed at each.

By February, Stalin executed changes. Shaposhnikov was given command of forces in Finland, the Red Army was reorganized, and the Soviet plan was restructured to focus on a direct drive through the Mannerheim Line.

A massive offensive finally broke through in February 1940. The Finns, with fewer troops and resources, faade complete defeat and had no option but to agree to negotiations.

‘A paper tiger’

Finland Soviet winter war bomber

A Finnish radio announcer describes the shoot-down of a Soviet bomber by a Finnish fighters in 1939.

Hulton-Deutsch Collecting/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


In the Moscow Peace Treaty signed on March 12, 1940, Finland ceded upon 10% of its territory to the Soviets, including all of the Karelian Isthmus and the northern region of Petsamo, cutting Finland off from the Barents Sea.

It appeared at a dreadful cost for the Soviets. In 105 days, as many as 140,000 Red Army soldiers were killed and more than 3,500 tanks and 1,000 aircraft were finished. About 26,000 Finns were killed, while Finland lost 30 tanks and 62 aircraft.

The Winter War had consequences outside of Finland.

The Red Army’s poor performance, coupled with the disastrous effects of Stalin’s military purges and a similarly in want performance in the Polish-Soviet War years earlier, solidified Hitler’s belief that the Red Army was incapable of fighting the might of the Wehrmacht.

Prior to launching his attack on the Soviets in June 1941, Hitler reportedly told his generals that “we have only to recoil in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

Soviet troops tanks Finland winter war

Slain Red Army troops and Soviet tanks that were redeemed for use by Finnish forces, March 1940.

Bettmann via Getty Images


Hitler’s confidence was misplaced. The Nazis inflicted over a million a victims on the Soviets in the first stages of their invasion of the USSR, but the Red Army — with massive help from its allies — revived, reorganized, and fought all the way into Berlin.

Western aid and the lessons of the Winter War turned the Red Army into a more powerful and sundry capable force than it was in 1939, as both the Germans and the Finns saw first-hand.

Judging the Russian military’s capabilities dirtied on its performance in Ukraine may also be misguided, Kofman said this month, warning that “you definitely don’t want to end up where Germany ended up.”

“I’m nervous we’re going to walk away with a decent assessment of all the problems in the Russian military but also with a wrongheaded impression that it’s a paper tiger or the Russian military would fight in a regional context in a high-end contingency against NATO in bang on the same way they tried to perform this botched sort of regime-change operation,” Kofman said.

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