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Putin is discovering that overwhelming military power can be a curse

As Stalin learned in Finland, small countries can inflict serious damage on invading superpowers

- March 29, 2022

Consider the following scenario: Authoritarian Russia invades a small, democratic neighbor. Western democracies express support for the targeted nation but decline to send troops. The Russian army gains ground. Cities are bombed. The smaller country is outnumbered and outmatched. Few expect the war to last long.

But the invasion prompts a fierce resistance. The defenders know and use their terrain, and they deploy inventive tactics to exploit weaknesses in the Russian army. Thousands of Russian soldiers are killed, and the war grinds to a stalemate.

Ukraine in 2022? Yes — and also Finland in 1939.

More than 82 years ago, Joseph Stalin invaded Finland, aiming to capture territory and replace Finland’s democratic government with a puppet Communist regime. Then, as now, the war followed an unsuccessful Russian campaign of threats and coercion. And then, as now, the war did not go as planned for the invaders. The outgunned Finnish army mounted a determined defense of their nation, surprising even themselves — and embarrassing the Red Army.

The Winter War of 1939-1940 is remembered today mainly as a lesson in territorial defense tactics. But thinking about that war reveals important insights into the origins of the war in Ukraine — and how it might end.

Coercion isn’t just about power

Observers have drawn ominous parallels between the behavior of Stalin and Vladimir Putin. The two leaders now share another important similarity. They have both learned the hard way that even weak states can be difficult to coerce.

For millennia, scholars have told us that, as Thucydides wrote, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In 1939, Stalin was confident that Soviet military supremacy would allow him to achieve his objectives without fighting. He spent months threatening and intimidating Finland, trying to wring out concessions. At one point, Soviet negotiators pointed to a map and asked repeatedly, “would you perhaps give up this island?” But Finland did not budge, and Stalin resorted to war to get what he wanted.

My research on coercive diplomacy suggests that Stalin was stung by what I’ve called “Goliath’s curse.” The Finns were motivated by a fear that if they gave into Stalin’s threats, he would just make more demands. They knew they probably couldn’t defeat the Soviets. Finland’s top military officer in 1939, Gen. Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, wrote later that “we all knew we were not prepared to meet an attack by a Great Power.” But they believed that if they didn’t stand up to Soviet demands, their independence would be slowly whittled away until Finland was absorbed into the Soviet Union altogether.

Putin is also discovering that coercing weak nations is not so easy. Even after a month of war and thousands of casualties, Ukraine continues to refuse Russian demands. This is not a uniquely Russian problem. In recent decades, the United States, too, has been frustrated by weaker countries — including Panama, Iraq, Serbia, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria — standing up to its threats. In these cases, overwhelming power was not only ineffective but counterproductive, making it harder for the targeted nations to believe the superpower’s assurances that there would be no more demands if today’s were met. In coercive diplomacy, military superiority can be a mixed blessing.

Ukraine is winning the messaging wars. It’s been preparing for years.

Losing can still be a victory

In the 2009 Wimbledon final, Andy Roddick faced some of the longest odds of any Wimbledon finalist in tennis history. Sportsbooks gave Roddick just a 1-in-7 chance of defeating his renowned opponent, Roger Federer. Roddick proceeded to defy the skeptics, taking Federer to the wire in a thrilling fifth set — before losing as expected.

Such is the fate of underdogs: They usually lose. Finland in 1939 was no exception. While Finland significantly outperformed expectations, it ended up conceding even more territory than Stalin had originally demanded. Finland retained its independence but was compelled to remain neutral for decades, keeping NATO at arm’s length throughout the Cold War to avoid antagonizing the Soviets.

But there can be value in losing. Stalin learned that the Finns could — and would — put up a fight, even for seemingly small stakes. The Soviets lost more than 100,000 soldiers, several times more than the Finns. If the Soviets wanted to subdue Finland in the future, they knew it would be time-consuming and bloody.

Ukraine can prevail even in defeat

By standing up to Russian aggression today, Ukraine is developing a reputation for being hard to conquer. It is demonstrating a high degree of military resourcefulness and resolve in the face of superior military power. The war appears to be turning into a stalemate, and some observers even argue that Ukraine is winning, with Ukrainian forces not just defending but mounting counteroffensives of their own.

To be sure, Ukraine may still lose, and may eventually concede more in a peace deal than Russia originally demanded. Some will inevitably ask whether it was worth it. But the example of the Winter War suggests that a short-term defeat can be a long-run investment. Fighting today can discourage Russian coercion tomorrow.

Find all TMC’s analysis of the Russia-Ukraine conflict at our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Even if Ukraine is compelled to accept neutrality as a condition for peace, neutrality does not necessarily mean unarmed or isolated, as Audrey Kurth Cronin recently explained here at TMC. Finland today has a strong military, cooperates with NATO, and is a member of the European Union. Ukraine could reasonably aspire to something similar.

Perhaps this is the key lesson of 1939: Resisting Russian aggression is not only heroic but is also good foreign policy strategy. The pain Ukraine inflicts might compel Putin to pare back his war aims.

And once the fighting is over, the memory of this war might prevent Russia from someday trying to start another one. Even if Ukraine loses, it can succeed in the longer struggle to remain independent of the Russian goliath.

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Todd S. Sechser is professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia, senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and co-author of “Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).