80 YEARS SINCE WINTER WAR
Karelian Isthmus, the corridor that triggered Winter War
Today marks 80 years since the beginning of the Winter War, a conflict that shaped the nationalism of Finns, their minds and their perception of geopolitics until today. This article is the first of a series of 8 parts to be published until 13 March (when the war ended). Read them to know why Stalin decided to invade Finland and learn about the heroism of the inhabitants of the small nation.
It was a late November 1939 evening. Soviet General Kirill Meretskov was waiting for the final command from the top brass.
He was pleased with the military preparations going on at the Karelian Isthmus for weeks. Tanks were lined up. The Red Army soldiers were ready. When he would get the final nod, he would order the troops to cross the border and attack Finland.
Back at the Kremlin, not even in his fantasy did Joseph Stalin entertain the thought that Finland posed a military threat to the Soviet Union. After all, the Soviet was the largest and most powerful nation in Europe while Finland was one of the smallest and weakest.
Still he invaded Finland because his peace of mind was disturbed by the Karelian Isthmus.
This sparsely-populated Finnish terrain was of great importance just because of its location. Helsinki was to the west of it, and Leningrad to the east.
The Soviet dictator thought the Germans might use the Karelian Isthmus to attack Leningrad. It was the Isthmus that made Leningrad look vulnerable to attacks.
Possession of the Isthmus was actually one of the key reasons why Sweden and the 18th-century Russia fought many little wars in that Baltic corner.
One of the main objectives of the Soviet foreign policy after Hitler’s rise to power was to prevent German military and naval expansion in the Baltic region. Stalin thus conceived the idea of invading Finland because he wanted to insulate the Soviet Union from possible German military intervention.
The prolonged negotiations
In 1938, Stalin authorised his diplomats to discuss land swap deals with the Finns.
As part of the deal, Finland would move back its border along the Isthmus. In exchange, Stalin would cede a much larger amount of land in Soviet Karelia.
Stalin thought it was a lucrative offer and the Finns would jump at it. But he was astonished when Finland turned it down.
When Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia put the German troops very close to Russia’s best agricultural land, Stalin in March 1939 thought of intensifying pressure on Finland. The Finnish authorities were asked to send a negotiation team to Moscow.
Formal discussions began in Moscow in October 1939. Stalin opened the first session and announced his proposal:
- The border on the Karelian Isthmus must be moved back westward near the edge of Viipuri, a distance of 30-40 kilometres.
- Finland must destroy the existing fortifications on the Mannerheim Line, a defence fortification line on the Isthmus.
- Finland must agree to lease to the Soviet Union, for a period of 30 years, four small islands in the Gulf of Finland and the port of Hanko, where a submarine and patrol boat base could be established to protect against advances to Leningrad.
- In return for the favours, Finland would be given 5,500 square miles of territory in East Karelia, twice as large as the land Finland would lose. Moreover, there would be highly profitable trade deals and upon Finland’s request, the Red Army would also help defend against any German invasion.
The proposal rang alarm bells in the mind of Finns.
They knew Stalin’s almost similar deals offered to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia began as mutual defence agreements but ended up with the Soviet Union taking control of these countries.
When war broke out between Germany and Britain in September 1939, the Soviets set up air and naval bases in the three Baltic countries.
Young Karelian soldiers with an anti-aircraft machine gun on 30 November 1939. Photo Source: SA-Kuva.
The adamant Finns
Finns firmly rejected Stalin’s proposal.
They were not interested at all in changing the border on the Isthmus. Neither did they want to lease Hanko as that would directly contradict their neutrality.
The Soviets were very unhappy and displeased. Diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov was surprised by the audacity of the Finns. Juho Kusti Paasikivi, then a minister in Stockholm, was in the Finnish delegation.
Molotov asked him: “Are you trying to create a conflict?”
Paasikivi replied: “We do not want it, but you seem to be working toward that.”
The two parties had several rounds of talks afterwards, but they all ended in deadlocks. Finland repeatedly turned down Soviet proposals, causing the Soviet leaders to lose patience.
There were implicit threats already in the negotiations that the Soviets would storm the border and forcefully occupy what they had proposed if talks were not fruitful.
Soviets cut diplomatic ties
The then Finnish foreign minister Eljas Erkko was quite certain that the Soviets would surrender in the face of doggedness the Finns had shown.
However, Soviet leaders thought they had been respectful enough to Finland’s sovereignty, and the time had come to let the military handle the matter.
On November 28, Molotov announced that the Soviet Union was abolishing the 10-year non-aggression pact it had signed with Finland in 1934. He said it would be renounced as the Finnish government’s actions and statements indicated hostility towards the Soviet Union and threatened Leningrad’s security.
The next day, Molotov’s assistant Potemkin told Aarno Yrjö-Koskinen, then Finnish minister in Moscow, that the Soviet Union was severing diplomatic relationship with Finland.
At 00:15 on November 30, the order from the Defence Commissariat finally came to General Meretskov. A few hours later, at dawn, he commanded the Red Army to launch the invasion.
Shelling and gunfire began. Thick flames went up in the sky. The Finnish border was ablaze.
It was not formally declared but Finland was at war with the Soviet Union.
*NOTE: This article is the first of an 8-part series on the Winter War to be published from 30 November (the day the conflict started) til 13 March (when it ended). Next read: 'How winter harshness blessed Finns in Winter War' coming out on 12 December.