Do you think my arithmetic is faulty?
Fine, I admit adding up isn’t my core strength. However, I do know that 41 is greater than 3.5. But does Harry Howard, history correspondent for The Mail?
Apparently not. This he proved when drawing this parallel between the current rape of the Ukraine and the Soviet attack on Finland in November, 1939: “…more than 80 years ago, the similarly small Finland took on the might of the Soviet Union…”
If you look at the title above, the first numeral is the 2022 population of the Ukraine and the second is the corresponding statistic for Finland, 1939. I wouldn’t call that ‘similarly small’, would you?
Oh well, that’s just a careless oversight, we all commit them. The problem is that Mr Howard then proves the points I’m making increasingly often. One of them is general: the professional level of our journalism is slipping.
The other is specific: hacks writing about Russia, past or present, don’t study that subject deeply enough. Howard’s article is a case in point.
He first shows his ignorance by repeating Soviet propaganda on the casus belli: “At the time, Stalin feared an attack by Nazi Germany… and claimed the need to protect the capital Leningrad… from attack.”
Any serious student of the Second World War will know that Stalin didn’t fear a Nazi attack – not in November, 1939, nor at any time until it actually occurred on 22 June, 1941.
Putin’s role model compared the relative strength of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, and, unlike me, Stalin was good at arithmetic. He knew the Red Army enjoyed an overwhelming numerical superiority in personnel and every type of armaments.
Soviet tanks not only were the next generation compared to German panzers, but also outnumbered them at least 7:1. The Red Air Force’s planes were comparable to the Luftwaffe’s, while outnumbering them in every category (except dive bombers). The Soviet artillery park was several times greater and, unlike the Wehrmacht that was mostly equipped with WWI guns, it was state-of-the-art.
That’s why Stalin was so shocked when the Nazis did attack two years later: he had done his sums, concluding that, if anyone was to launch a first strike, it should have been him. So it wasn’t his fear of Germany’s attack on Leningrad that made him pounce on Finland.
What was it? According to Howard, “the Winter War began… when Finland refused to agree to Stalin’s demand to give up territory so he could push Russia’s border westwards.”
Now, unlike me, Marshal Mannerheim, the Finnish leader, was good at maths. And unlike Stalin, he was a professional soldier who, under Nicholas II, had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-General in the Russian General Staff (Finland was part of the Russian Empire at the time).
Hence Mannerheim had no trouble comparing a series of numerals, starting with those in the title above. He also knew that Finland had precious few tanks and practically no air force.
So why did he prove so intransigent? Surely he knew Finland couldn’t hold on to every inch of her territory in case of a Soviet attack? Why didn’t he avoid bloodshed and let Stalin have a part of Karelia, hoping he’d choke on it?
Simple. Unlike Mr Howard, Mannerheim knew Stalin wasn’t just after a piece of Finland. He was after the whole thing.
Some of it was pure acquisitiveness: following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin was in a hurry to claim the lands stipulated in that document. But also coming into play was Stalin’s particular hatred for Poland and Finland, the two parts of the Russian Empire that had repelled the Bolsheviks by force.
The Poles routed the Red Army in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw. The Finns had their own Civil War at the time the Russians had theirs. But the outcomes were different.
‘White’ Finns, brilliantly led by Mannerheim, defeated the ‘Reds’, and their chieftain, Otto Kuusinen, ran away to Moscow, where he stayed until his death in 1964. Hence, in addition to his imperial greed for territory, Stalin hated the Finns in general and Mannerheim in particular.
Just like Putin today, Stalin wanted to restore Russia within the borders of the Russian Empire. Having had to contend himself with merely half of Poland, he now wanted all of Finland.
To that end he formed a quisling communist government of Finland, led by that same Otto Kuusinen, an old Comintern subversive. Staffing the government proved hard because by that time Stalin had purged Comintern, executing most communist leaders taking refuge in Moscow. However, he did keep Kuusinen and a few others on tap. Just in case.
Mannerheim knew that, and he was also familiar with the song offensive being prepared by Stalin. Anticipating his conquest of Europe, Stalin had commissioned more than 70 rousing songs to be sung by the Red Army as it marched into one country after another.
Some of them were used, some weren’t because the requisite conditions failed to materialise. One that was used featured the refrain “Admit us Suomi, you beauty, into the necklace of your limpid lakes”.
Apart from waxing poetic about Finland’s limpid lakes, the song also explained that “Your motherland has been taken away from you more than once; we’ve come to give it back to you; we’ve come to assist your reprisals, your repayment with interest for your humiliation…”
Howard writes that Finland suffered defeat, in spite of inflicting heavy casualties on the Russians.
True, as a result of the war Russia did claim about 10 per cent of Finland’s territory. But do let’s agree on the terms. In military terms, victory means fulfilling the original objectives, not 10 per cent of them.
Since Stalin’s objective wasn’t pushing the Soviet border away from Leningrad (as he and now Howard claimed), but incorporating Finland into the Soviet Union, the Red Army suffered a crushing defeat. Stalin was incensed, and he continued the fine Russian tradition going back to Ivan the Terrible by executing all of his own returning POWs.
Still, why did he agree to a ceasefire? The Finns had been fighting heroically and brilliantly, but towards the end of winter, 1940, they had run out of steam. The people were exhausted, the army was bleeding to death and running out of essential supplies.
Why then, having suffered horrendous losses, did Stalin agree to take merely a patch of Finland’s territory? It wasn’t just the casualties – the Russians tend not to care about such details.
But the Red Army had been made to look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. And the Soviet Union had been expelled from the League of Nations, meaning Stalin had failed to fool anyone into thinking he was anything but a diabolical aggressor.
At that time, the Red Army could redeem itself by indeed occupying all of Finland. Why didn’t it?
Here Howard misleads his readers again: “Exhausted Finland had been forced to fight without the assistance of Britain and France – who were already at war with Germany.”
In spite of being at war with Germany, Britain still managed to send some volunteers, mostly pilots, to fight with the Finns. But that was just a token gesture.
However, another gesture came with the force of a sabre cut. HMG communicated to the Kremlin that, unless the Russians stopped their advance, the RAF would take out the Baku oilfields by an air raid from its Iraqi base at Mosul.
Apparently, by way of illustration, the British sent Stalin a documentary film about the everyday life of British aircrews in Iraq. Suddenly the documentary footage was interrupted by an animated sequence showing a dotted line on the map, starting at Mosul and going dot-dot-dot all the way to Baku. Stalin got the message and called a halt.
None of this means that parallels can’t be drawn between the on-going monstrosity and the Winter War. Yet if such parallel lines start at ignorance, they end up at misinformation. Which seems to be the stock in trade of our press nowadays.