• 20 June, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

How Russia-Ukraine Copied Finland War Without Lessons

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Fri, 29 Apr 2022   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

Finland is a unique country with a distinct language and culture. However, its possession was always contested between Sweden and Russia. Though Finland mainly remained under Swedish control in 1809, it was annexed by Russia. Using the end of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in late 1917, Finland declared its independence from the Soviet empire.

Finland fought two significant wars with the USSR. Russo-Finnish War or the Winter War from 1939 to 1940 and the Continuation War or the Second Soviet-Finnish War from 1941 to 1944. Why should we talk about these wars today?

Finland and Ukraine have nothing in common other than a powerful neighbour called Russia. However, the present Russia-Ukraine war is uncanny to the Finnish wars. Unfortunately, both Russia and Ukraine have entirely disregarded the lessons learned from those wars and the diplomatic acumen of Finnish leaders during and after the war.

Fear And Suspicion

Hitler came to power in 1933. He was increasingly aggressive towards Soviet Union (hereafter referred to as Russia). Finland didn’t want to participate in great power competitions and was trying to maintain neutrality. On the other hand, Russia was fearfully watching Germany take over Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia in 1939. The USSR approached Britain, France, and Poland, to cooperate against the growing German threat, but they rejected the appeal.

When Russia got no response, it did the unthinkable. In October 1939, the Soviet Union shook hands with Germany. Germany acknowledged that Finland belonged to the Russian sphere. By 1940, Russia had annexed the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Courtesy: transnational.live

Fast forward to 2022, just like in 1939, due to the western apathy, today Russia has joined hands with China. Russia has been watching North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expand eastwards. This is even though, in a discussion on the status of a reunited Germany, on 9 February 1990, US Secretary of State James A. Baker promised to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not extend past the territory of East Germany. NATO’s Secretary-General repeated this promise in a speech on 17 May 1990.

A major instigation came during NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit, where the alliance promised that Ukraine and Georgia would be future NATO members. For Russia, which was already perturbed with the independence of Kosovo, this was crossing the red line. The result was the August 2008 Russo-Georgia war. The five-day Russian military operations were disjointed, but still, it was able to bait Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Courtesy: BBC

The war achieved the strategic goals of the creation of buffer zones. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were created out of Georgia, just like breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk of Ukraine have been created. Georgian and Ukrainian situation was the same as what Finland experienced in 1940. Russia had demanded moving the Russo/Finnish border northwards away from Leningrad due to the fear of German forces. Today Russia is redrawing the Ukrainian boundaries, keeping in mind NATO’s expansion.

Going back to the ‘Winter War,’ Finnish General Mannerheim knew the weakness of his Army. In February 1940, when the Russians were trying to cut Finland at the waist, he refused to pull back further despite heavy casualties, because he knew it was crucial for Finland to keep as much of its territory occupied as possible. This is the only bargaining chip Finland will have during the inevitable peace negotiations.

The same thing could be said about Valeriy  Zaluzhnyy, the Commander in Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He orchestrated and led a fight that has stood up to the mighty Russian forces till now. He knows that some time or the other, leaders of both nations would sit across the table to negotiate. Russia will have the upper hand if they control the larger Ukrainian territory.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Finnish Diplomacy Extraordinaire

In 1941 and 1944, Finnish resistance achieved the realistic goal of making further Russian victories prohibitively costly, slow, and painful. However, Finnish leaders were aware that no external force was coming to rescue them, and striking a deal with Russia was the only way forward.

Finally, the 1944 Russo-Finnish armistice treaty was heavily tilted in Russia’s favour. Despite all odds against them, the Finnish leaders showed utmost maturity to restore peace and instil confidence in the Russian leadership’s mind about Finland’s intentions. Finland also did something unthinkably. To buy peace, they declared their leaders during World War II, who had sided with Nazi Germany, ‘Finnish war criminals’, and prosecuted them. Finnish courts sentenced to prison Finland’s wartime President Ryti, Prime Ministers Rangell and Linkomies, foreign minister, four other ministers, and its ambassador to Berlin.

Finns refer to 1945–1948 as “the years of danger.” Finland devised a new post-war policy called the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, named after Finland’s two presidents who formulated, symbolized, and rigorously implemented it for 35 years. The central theme of this line was to keep the Russian point of view in mind, talk to them frequently, maintain their trust, and not expect any help from the Western allies. They understood it well that if Russia felt secure, Finland would also be secure.

Leaders after leaders from Russia trusted these Finnish leaders. The trust ran so deep that when Stalin was once asked why he had not installed the Communist Party into power in Finland just like in every other Eastern European country, he replied, “When I have Paasikivi, why would I need the Finnish Communist Party?”

Finland chose not to change its presidents as in an everyday democracy but maintained two of them, whom Russians trusted, in office for 35 years. They postponed the presidential election scheduled for 1974. Finland’s government and the press never criticized Russia and exercised voluntary self-censorship. Finland refused the much-needed U.S. offer of post-war Marshall Plan aid. In return, Russia tolerated Finland’s increased trade with the West, association with the EEC (European Economic Community), and joining EFTA (the European Free Trade Association).

Zelenskyy A Pawn Or An Astute Leader

Most people scoff at Finland’s post-war behaviour and refer to it as Finlandization. From the preceding, it is evident that whatever Finland was doing was keeping in mind its national interest.

Just like Finns call years 1945–1948 as “the years of danger,” for Ukraine the years 2014-2022 could be called “the years of catastrophe.” It would be interesting to analyze, what Ukrainian leaders did or didn’t do to safeguard their nation and people.

Viktor Yanukovych was Ukraine’s president from 2010 until he was ousted in February 2014 following widespread protests. Yanukovych’s stance was not steady. Initially he said that Ukraine’s integration with the EU was the country’s “strategic aim.” On the other hand, he was of the view that the country should not join NATO and seek a neutral position between NATO and Russia. Despite being close to Putin neither he gave trustworthy signals to Russia nor to the West.

His controversial ouster, supposedly backed by the West in February 2014 added fuel to the fire, alarming Russia. End result was Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in March 2014, and in April, pro-Russia separatist rebels began seizing territory in eastern Ukraine.

In May 2014 elections pro-West Petro Poroshenko won the presidential elections with a comfortable margin. As per Russian media reports in 2015, Putin proposed a ceasefire by both government forces and separatist militiamen in southeastern Ukraine, as well as the withdrawal of heavy artillery by both sides. But that peace proposal was rejected by Poroshenko.

In the 2019 presidential elections, anti-Russia sentiment became the central theme. Presidential candidates Yulia Tymoshenko called Russia an “aggressor country” while TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the two countries are at war and wants Ukraine to join the EU.

Zelenskyy went on to win the election, and soon after that, he was in a boastful mood; he stated, “as a citizen of Ukraine, I can say to all countries in the post-Soviet Union, look at us. Anything is possible!” All in all, no Ukrainian leader showed the maturity displayed by the Finnish duo Paasikivi and Kekkonen. Their approach was confrontational giving rise to nationalism rather than giving peace a chance. They kept self-interest ahead of the national interest.

Courtesy: insightful.co.in

If one studies the European map, then from the location it is evident why when Finland and Georgia were under threat, the West didn’t react, other than making unfulfilled promises. Finland was Sweden’s problem and Georgia is almost an Asian country. But with Ukraine, Russia is right at the gate of western Europe. The threat for the West is real and that’s why they are supplying them with war-making machines. But is that enough? It is evident that Finland was fighting for its sovereignty whereas Ukraine is fighting a war on behalf of the West.

In the end, it is the innocent Ukrainians who are suffering. Neither they have the EU membership nor the umbrella of NATO. They lost their relatives, friends, homes and livelihood. In fact, they have landed up having the worst thing, a powerful neighbour as an enemy.

Choose your enemies wisely because they would give you lessons in leadership, the best or the worst.” ~ Insightful Geopolitics


A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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May 06, 2022
Finland and Sweden have expressed their firm intention to join NATO, which the organisation has reciprocated well. Russia attacked Ukraine for the very same reason; what would be Russia's reaction to this move of Finald - with which they share a common border. Kindly enlighten

Cdr Ravi Mathews

May 02, 2022
A good analysis

Cdr Deepak Singh

May 01, 2022
Very good article. I am aware of some facts because I chose Russian history during my BA(Hons) history. US and West will make Ukraine fight till the last Ukrainian, without themselves joining the war. And unlike Finland ,Ukraine President will not use his brain and diplomacy. Joker after all.


May 01, 2022
Sandeep. very well articulated article. 👏🏻👏🏻 Despite knowing these facts, they never attempted to plan any strategies and went ahead in inviting the trouble lead to suffering of the country and its citizens

Wendell Bruges

May 01, 2022
What excellent in-depth research, lessons in military history, diplomacy, and narration. You rock, Commander.

Mirtunjay Thakur

Apr 30, 2022
A well researched article. You make mil history interesting


Apr 30, 2022
Sandeep, you have hinted on the end state for this crisis. Russian wants its security to be assured. Since NATO chose to ignore its concerns, Russian decided to act, first by annexing Crimea and ensuring Russian access to the Black Sea and Sevastopol. Then by creating breakaway regions to Ukraine's east, thereby creating strategic buffer zones. Thirdly, in creating a sense of uncertainty in Ukraine's present and future leadership.

Sukhjit singh

Apr 30, 2022
Lessons of history are ignored at very high cost Great article Sandeep

Promod Kapur

Apr 30, 2022
Well researched and articulates the present times dilemma of Europe. Zelensky is the unfortunate fall guy of Europe in a conflict between USA and Russia. Whatever the immediate outcome of the current war, Ukraine's interests lie more in keeping peace with all its neighbours; Russia being far more powerful and having more ethnic closeness with a large section of Ukrainians is a factor that ought not be ignored. What Finland has achieved is because of the astute leadership it had in the crucial times, it was statesmanship at its best. In the end what stands out glaringly is that Russia is part of Europe, America is not. No matter to what length NATO (nee USA) might want to prolong the conflict through Ukraine, it is a debilitating event and it is Europe that will bear the full consequences. Ukraine needs a statesman to lead.

Ashutosh Bahuguna

Apr 30, 2022
Excellent analogy Sandeep .....Just hope, driven by vested western media analysis of " Weak Red Army " somebody is not encouraged to attempt another "Op Barbarossa"

Raghu Vir S Gauba

Apr 30, 2022
Excellent article ! The issue is what s the end state set to be achieved by any of the parties to the conflict. 😀

Pradeep Sharan

Apr 30, 2022
Absolutely, Sandeep. Great and relevant parallel drawn. Unfortunately no lessons were learnt and consequent misery was heaped upon citizens.


Apr 30, 2022
Swell researched article.v The simili between Finland and Ukraine cannot be overlooked. But Finland happened nearly 70 years ago. Ukraine is happening now. But lessons can be drawn...

Shaurya Shandilya

Apr 30, 2022
So well explained.

Vinod Nikkam

Apr 29, 2022
Well written. I was in Finland last month and what you have written resonates with what I saw there and read. In fact, the museums of Helsinki and the National library are replete with references to this Finnish dilemma and the resultant push and pull towards the heavy weights of the time, Soviet Union and Sweden. Then this debacle during WWII happened. Finland was able to keep Germany at bay due to their ‘ski soldiers’, brave men who knew the topography and used Guerilla warfare very effectively against a superior enemy. After WWII, Finland learnt to balance her western and Russian interests with finesse, and did it successfully. For decades, Finnish Premiers and key ministers were appointed only after a nod from Kremlin. Finland finally broke away from Soviet shadow post it’s disintegration and now is an affluent Nordic country which has been voted 1st in the happiness index for 5 years in a row (though there’s more to this than meets the eye. Suicide rates and alcohol dependency is an issue). A few decades back, it could’ve very easily gone the Ukraine way.. But today it’s a powerhouse with a potent military which is practically getting invited by NATO. A referendum is hence on the cards. During my stay there I saw a lot of military men, in supermarkets, train stations, stores etc….and fighter jets above in the snowing, heavy, overcast skies. Locals told me it’s unusual. Sums up Finland’s modern day challenge.

Cdr NK Kulkarni

Apr 29, 2022
A brief & to the point write up, which explains the particular geopolitics in a nutshell

GP Singh

Apr 29, 2022
Well written.


Apr 29, 2022
Hi Sandeep. Wonderful article. Haven't read WW2 and pre WW European history in too much detail. Very educative. I have believed and have commented that the Ukrainians are paying a heavy price for the unnecessary belligerence and lack of strategic thinking on the part of their leadership. The US UK and EU continue to talk of arming UKR. Haven't heard a single statement from the US and UK on the need for dialogue since the war. Pure Evil is all I can describe this as.

Sqn Ldr Bismi Devassy ( Retd )

Apr 29, 2022
Amazing write up sir . For a total novice like me in geo political topics , this has been such a simplified yet detailed analysis of the situation . Thankyou sir .

GP Capt TR Ravi

Apr 29, 2022
Choose Ur Enemies, if inevitable.... Fantastic narrative by the Commander....

Rajiv Gaur

Apr 29, 2022
Very well analyzed articles. Best wishes.

Capt Saikumar

Apr 29, 2022
A very well researched article. The facts, hostory and strategy fm before WW1 is crisp and accurate. Makes xxcellant reading to understand all aspects of the ongoing Russia- Ukraine war and the vested interests of other countries.


Apr 29, 2022
An excellent write Sandeep. Brilliant insights and a fresh look at age old perspectives. Keep it up Sandeep. Inspirational and insightful.

Narinder Pal Singh Hora

Apr 29, 2022
A very well articulated article. A great insight into the comparison of Winter war fought by Finland in 1939 and the current war being fought by Ukarain. It appears as a great blunder committed by Ukarain with no leader having any kind of acumen in diplomacy. Hope this article, if read by any Ukrainian leader, would help them reboot their strategy and try and save their people and infrastructure or whatever is left of it

Rajesh Dhawan

Apr 29, 2022
Very nicely compared and explained in simplistic narration.

Raman Gupta

Apr 29, 2022
History is not only to be learnt, it is to be learnt from. That, and a clear head among the leaders, would have prevented this disaster.


Apr 29, 2022
Very unique line of thinking, though I was aware of Russia / Finland war but never correlated it with the present war.

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