Staunton, March 16 – Russian President Vladimir Putin says that Stalin launched the Winter War against Finland in 1939 in order to “correct” mistakes and miscalculations of earlier Bolshevik leaders who had allowed Finland’s border with the Soviet Union to come within “17-20 kilometers of Petersburg.”
Speaking in Novo-Ogareva on Thursday to members of Russia’s Military-History Society, he said that he did not intend to give an assessment of Soviet actions in 1939-1940 but then did precisely that even as he called for honoring those who fell in the Winter War for “fulfilling their military duty” (ria.ru/society/20130314/927341148.html).
“Even the most superficial analysis” of that war, Putin said, allows for the conclusion “in general and on the whole” that “the state border” with Finland, being before the start of hostilities too close to the northern capital and thus “a sufficiently large threat” for the five million residents of that city.
In his view, the Russian leader continued, “the Bolsheviks of that time were attempting to correct the historical mistakes which they committed in 1917” when the Soviet state agreed to the nearby border at Finnish insistence because of Finnish contributions to the Bolshevik cause. Only later did they recall that the border was too close and launch the war.
The first months of that conflict, Putin continued, were “bloody and relatively ineffective from our side.” But then, “everything was arranged as it should have been.” Soviet forces “began to act in a different way. They concentrated significant forces” after “it became clear” that Moscow would have to use more forces than the Leningrad Military District had on its own.
The center dispatched military units from around the Soviet Union, he concluded, and Finland “felt on itself the entire might of the Russian, then Soviet, state.” As a result, and after its initial defeats, the Soviet military advanced into Finland, and Helsinki was compelled to agree to modify its border with the USSR in favor of the latter.
Putin’s remarks are significant for at least three reasons. First, they reflect a more honest assessment of the Winter War than Moscow has often offered, containing as they do an open acknowledgement that the Soviet side began the war and that the Finns were winning until Moscow deployed massive force against them.
Second, Putin’s comments once again show the current Russian leader’s preference for Stalin’s state-centered Realpolitik and belief that force is the ultima ratio in international affairs as against those who are committed to international law and the belief that ideas and principles rather than brute force should govern relations among states.
And third – and this is by far the most important – his words suggest that he is open to the possibility that when power allows it, the Kremlin leader would be open to the possibility of “correcting” what he may view as the mistakes of his predecessors at the end of Soviet times by the use of force against the neighbors of the Russian Federation.
That possibility is something both they and other powers must take into consideration lest their failure to do so create conditions that would open the way for actions like those of Stalin in 1939-1940 that could easily destabilize not only the region but the international system more broadly.