UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground
The Legacy of the Second World War in Eastern Europe
The ‘Peace of 1945’: Case Study In Consequences: Finland
Featured remarks by retired Finnish Army Col. Pekka Holopainen, delivered during UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton AB, October 23-24, 2015.
At the outset, let me thank you for the opportunity to speak before such a distinguished audience.
One observer once noted that “Finland is located between East and West, but somehow up in the North”. This has been the main reason for all wars Finland has waged with Russia throughout the centuries. There has met the Byzantine mysticism and the Evangelic-Lutheran rationalism, the legacy of serfdom and the free farmer, and the chauvinism of a superpower and small country’s strong will to survive.
The experience of the Nordic countries during WWII shaped their subsequent security policies. The Finnish performance in the Winter War 1939-1940 is well-known, but less so is the closing months in the summer of 1944 of the ‘Continuation War’ between the Soviet Union and Finland. The strategic assault of the Red Army was anticipated, but when it started on the Karelian Isthmus on June 9, the overwhelming size of the force deployed and its crushing firepower caught the Finnish High Command by surprise. The Finnish Army, dispirited at first, was forced to retreat but gradually recovered. The Russian onslaught, aiming at defeating the Finnish Army rapidly in a couple of weeks, slowed down and was repulsed altogether after a month of ferocious fighting. When an armistice came into force on 19 September 1944, the frontline was entirely outside the present Finnish-Russian border. It should also be borne in mind that Helsinki was the other European fighting capital which was not occupied. This was the only one of the Soviet strategic assault operations that failed, a remarkable defensive achievement by a small army against a superpower. The main explanatory factor was that the Finnish military legacy was built – and is built – on a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the behavior and operational art of the adversary.
At the end of the day, Finland’s freedom and independence were saved. However, the price was high. Repelling the attacks of a then great power, the Soviet Union, took its toll: Altogether more than 94 000 Finnish soldiers were killed in action, more than 200 000 were wounded out of which more than 95 000 of them were suffering of a permanent war injury. Finland was obliged to cede parts of Karelia and Salla, as well as certain islands in the Gulf of Finland. That meant nearly 10 per cent of her territory and almost a half of her water resources. The new armistice also handed all of Petsamo to the Soviet Union, and Finland was further compelled to lease Porkkala, located only 30 kilometres from the capital Helsinki, to the Soviet Union for a period of fifty years. The ceded area included Finland’s second largest city, Viipuri. Finland had also pay out a large amount of war reparations to the Soviet Union (300 million dollars in gold, at 1938 rate meaning almost the double amount when implemented). As a result of this territorial loss, many Finnish Karelians – over 400 000 people -fled or were evacuated from their homes, relocating to areas that remained within the borders of Finland.
The Allied Control Commission (ACC) arrived in Finland on September 22, 1944 to observe Finnish compliance with the Moscow armistice. It consisted of 200 Soviet and 15 British members and was led by Colonel General Andrei Zhdanov, sometimes described as Stalin’s heir apparent. He had been in charge of the sovjetisation of the Baltic States in 1940. Immediately after its inception, the commission required Finland to take more vigorous action to intern the German forces in Northern Finland. Finland’s compliance with the commission resulted in a campaign to force out the remaining German troops in the area (i.e. the Lapland War). Simultaneously, Finland was required to demobilize, which was also required by the commission.
The ACC provided Finland with a list of war criminals against whom Finland had to start judicial proceedings. Although this required Finnish post-facto legislation, Finland was the only country on the losing side of the war that was allowed to try its own war criminals. The ACC interfered with the war-responsibility trials by requiring longer prison sentences than the preliminary verdict would have contained. The ACC also strove to change the Finnish political life by requiring a number of allegedly fascist (in practice anti-Soviet) organizations to be banned, among them the Civil Guard. Furthermore, the ACC required the forced return of all Soviet citizens, including Ingrian Finns and Estonians, to the Soviet Union.
After the war, the Finnish military secretly placed part of the weapons of the demobilized troops into several hundred caches distributed around the country. The caches would have been used to arm guerillas in case of a Soviet occupation. When the matter was leaked to the public, the commission required Finnish authorities to investigate and prosecute the officers and men responsible for the caching. The Weapons Cache Case was followed closely until the ACC determined that the case was purely a military operation. The Allied Control Commission left Finland September 26, 1947, when the Soviet Union finally ratified the Paris Peace Treaty.
After the war an entirely new political epoch started. Finland had to adapt to co-existence with the world’s indisputable new great power, the Soviet Union, whose ambitions to extend both its social system and geopolitical sphere of interest could not be mistaken.
The role of Finland as a front-line state was thus set, and this is a role which Finland continues to fill today: the unique circumstances of being “neighbor to a superpower and next door to a military alliance” meant that the Finnish defense posture is key to the security of the Nordic region as a whole, and this posture receives close attention.
At the outset of the Cold War, Finland was obliged to make significant concessions curtailing the country’s sovereignty. The most important of these two were the tough peace treaty with the former enemies, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, of 1947; and the so-called Treaty on Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance (FCMA Treaty) between Finland and the Soviet Union, of 1948. Under these agreements the peacetime military strength and permitted armament of the Finnish army were limited so dramatically that her defense capability rapidly collapsed. The Finnish government attempted energetically to acquire some sort of preferential right of interpretation regarding the true content of the treaty during the next 40 years, but naturally the Soviet Union and the Western powers drew their own conclusions. Finland’s policy of neutrality hence became hotly disputed. Most authorities were not sure how to take Finland, and there was particular uncertainty concerning the question of how she would act in crisis situations.
Ironically enough, an immediate aftermath of ratification of the FCMA Treaty was the decline in Communist influence in Finland. Rumors of an impending Communist coup attempt, that were never substantiated, obliged the widely unpopular Interior Minister Yrjö Leino to resign. Parliamentary elections held in July 1948 saw not a single Communist returned and the Communist-dominated Finnish People’s Democratic League vote declined by twenty per cent. The major player in Finnish affairs, General Zhdanov, who took his orders direct from Stalin in all matters, stated once in a telephone conversation with the latter that “these Finnish Communists…they are useless”. How we know this? -Of course that call was tapped by the Finnish Military Signal Intelligence.
One of the penalties of Finland’s security political situation during the period between the armistice and ratification of the 1947 peace treaty by all allied nations had been the denial of Marshall Aid from the United States. Subsequently the terms of the FCMA Treaty of 1948 precluded Finland from benefiting directly from the Marshall Plan.
According to a thorough and convincing study of the relations of the U.S. and other Western powers to Finland during the Cold War the main western actors were surprisingly willing and ready to support Finland, without definite military undertakings. Possible military support would be given on an ad hoc basis in a war situation and only if Finland chose the West rather than the Soviets.
Finnish neutrality during the Cold War of course demanded defense in all directions. In reality, however, intrusions from the West into Finnish territory apparently would not have been met with more than token “resistance”, if at all. Real contingency plans were aimed at fighting potential Soviet ground forces attacks. For security reasons these were not put on paper, but rather entrusted to selected key military personnel responsible for maintaining them. As late as in 1974, newly-appointed Chief of Defense General Lauri Sutela offered to present operational plans to his Supreme Commander, President Kekkonen, but the latter respectfully declined, saying: “I’m not interested in details, but I rely on you and trust that you know what you have to do.” Prudence apparently dictated the President’s choice. What he didn’t know, he couldn’t inadvertently reveal in the frequent talks he had with the Russians.
Finland’s policy of neutrality during the Cold War sought particular support from the so-called Nordic balance, a term coined by the Norwegians, or Nordic stability as the Finns called it, and from Sweden’s impressively strong defense.
During the period, Nordic collaboration was thus more important for Finland than for other Nordic countries. This gave Finland an opportunity to profile herself in her natural reference group, the Nordic countries. Great efforts were made, particularly in Finland and Norway, to reach mutual understanding on defense, but this did not always succeed. The cornerstone of the Finnish defense concept was, and still is, compulsory conscription. In the 1970s this could generate a 700,000 strong war-time force consisting mostly of trained reserves. The drawback, obvious to all informed observers home and abroad, was that adequate weaponry and equipment sufficed only for a small fraction of the mobilized army. Many would only have been provided with worn-out wartime weapons. This choice was one of necessity, since the Finnish national economy was all too small to provide for well-equipped armed forces capable of defending the country alone against a superpower. Therefore neutral Finnish foreign policy, and good, friendly and mutually beneficial relations with the Soviet Union became Finland’s main security tool, and military policy was relegated to a minor role.
Accordingly, defense capability was measured as to provide an initial threshold capability, high enough to give an adversary serious pause for thought about costs and risks. The extent of Soviet pressure against Finland varied over the years, but very serious challenges by the Russians were felt on more than one occasion. A crisis situation arose on 30 October 1961 when the Soviet Union made a formidable demonstration of power, exploding the enormous ‘Tsar Bomb’ equivalent to 57 megatons of TNT over Novaya Zemlya. On the same day Finland received a diplomatic note from the Soviet Union regarding a review of bilateral relations, which led to great concern in Finland and also in her neighboring countries, and more generally in the West. Russia’s timing was well judged; President Kekkonen was on a state visit to the United States. He was then obliged to travel not to Moscow but all the way to Novosibirsk for talks with the Soviet leaders. It was later assessed that Kekkonen had overreached in his attempts to edge Finland slowly in the direction of the West, and the Soviet leaders did not tolerate this. In politics, there was a tendency of avoiding any policies and statements that could be interpreted as anti-Soviet. This phenomenon was given the name “Finlandization” by the German press.
Another serious incident occurred in 1978, when during an official visit to Finland Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Dmitry Ustinov suggested joint military exercises between the Finnish and Soviet armies. President Kekkonen’s approach was to ignore the proposal and he successfully avoided discussing the topic altogether, but the Finnish Chief of Defense, with skillful diplomatic assistance, rejected the proposal politely but decisively.
Nobody could know for sure where the dramatic geopolitical changes at the end of the 1980s were to lead, but in Finland developments were followed alertly and the Finns were prepared to take calculated risks to improve their security-political situation. This happened on September 21, 1990 when Finland’s government unilaterally declared that the provisions of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 limiting Finland’s sovereignty had lost their meaning. At the same time President Koivisto reinterpreted the FCMA Treaty which finally disappeared into history on the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Having loosed the political chains of The Cold War, the next step of integration into western political structures was an application for Finnish membership in the European Union. Finland, Sweden and Austria became Union members on January 1, 1995. Finland has consistently striven to penetrate to the core of the EU. There is active collaboration over a joint foreign and security policy and a wish to strengthen the Union’s crisis-management capability.
Finland, however, decided not to aim for NATO membership, but rather engaged in a very ambitious Partnership for Peace program and adapted to the new European security order after the end of the Cold War while retaining general conscription.
In 2017, when Finland celebrates hundred years of independence from Imperial Russia, Finland is looking forward, rather than over her shoulder. As a nation, Finland is untroubled by any nostalgia for the past; and hoping never to make choices without any options, as was the situation after the ‘Peace of 1945’.