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Sol Sanders Archive
Monday, September `5, 2008

The 'Summer War': Will West learn from history?

Some dead old white Frenchman once said, I am told, that all historical analogies are odious. One definition of "odious" in the New Oxford Dictionary is "exciting hatred or repugnance". And that could well be. No two events in history are really alike. But it is useful sometimes to recall how something that is happening now might be better analyzed by looking back at another historical event.

The clash between invading Russian forces and those of Georgia has called up historical analogies on all sides. That includes the essentially false one to Kosovo and the Balkan wars. In fact, the Georgian episode was the reverse: the ethnic cleansing operations have come from the Russian side for the most part [both South Ossetia and Avkazia had large Georgian minorities before the implosion of the Soviet Union left them within the internationally recognized state of Georgia]. Secondly, of course, the separatist movements were not indigenous but sponsored by Moscow; something all the other Central Asian states and the Chinese have noted in their refusal to endorse Moscow's position and with their own minority problems.

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But the overarching analogy that might be most appropriate in this instance is what historians refer to as "The Winter War".

The attack of Josef Stalin's Soviet Union on Finland in November 1939 was seen at the time as a relatively small catastrophe. It came, after all, only weeks after Hitler had invaded and quickly divided Poland with the Soviets in September. That had set off "The Phony War" — an extended period of what turned out to be ineffectual Anglo-French preparation for the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries the next year, the British evacuation at Dunkirk and the collapse of France.

The attack on the Finns was denounced in the democratic world. The Soviet Union was even expelled from the already long since moribund League of Nations in a last futile effort to maintain international morality. But that organization long since had come victim to both the aggression of the fascist powers, Italy and Germany, the Japanese militarists, and cynicism of the the Soviet Communists.

The Finns had rejected Moscow's demands to give up Karelia, its border only 20 miles from doorstep of Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. The Isthmus had been the heartland of the Finno-Uguric peoples for centuries. Moscow also demanded Finland's Arctic Ocean port and lifeline to the West.

Stalin struck.

The Soviets threw three divisions, totaling 630,000 men, at the Finns, bombed civilian targets on the outskirts of the Finnish capital Helsinki [copying what the Japanese had done only two years before in Shanghai and introducing the horrors of the World War II attacks on civilian populations.] The Finnish soldiers were outnumbered 4 to 1, 200 to 1 in tanks, and 30 to 1 in aircraft.. But then, as now, the Russian military was hardly a well oiled machine; Stalin had only recently destroyed its effectiveness by purging half the officer corps. His Great Terror against his own people to eliminate his opposition had accused thousands of collaboration with the Nazis, just as for all their talk, Moscow retains today a World War II military [but alas! With nuclear weapons] that clanked into Georgia.

In the U.S. then there were statements of support - although the great bulk of Americans wanted no part of whatever was going on in Europe, "safe" behind our two oceans. The clinching argument for those who somehow hoped help might be given was that the Finns alone among all the Europeans had paid their war debts, the American loans during World War I. It was recalled how our Finnish immigrants had bested the bitter Upper Peninsula and the Dakota plains winters. A national campaign for Aid to Finland was mounted. A half-hearted British-French effort to send help and troops through Norway — and cut off strategic Swedish mineral shipments to the Nazis at the same time - hardly got off the ground.

A few Americans dimly anticipating the coming showdown against the bestiality of the Nazis cheered the white-clad Finnish ski troops with their light skeletal submachine guns. They held the Soviets at bay in fierce fighting along "the Mannerheim Line" . It was, after all, a primitive miniature of the French Maginot line that supposedly was going to stop the Germans in the same trenches where the butchery of World War I had stalemated - but which, of course, didn't.

There were apologists - an English literature professor, one of the most popular, a Communist fellow-traveler, set up a booth on the campus at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a sign asking for Aid to the Soviet Union. After all, some said, the Finnish forces were commanded by Field Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim, a Finn but of suspect Baltic German ethnicity [and actually a veteran of the Tsarist guards from Estonia across the Bay]. And Germany had helped the Grand Duchy of Finland achieve independence with the demise of their grand duke, the Russian tsar, in the tumult of the Russian Revolution. The Finns had brought it on with their stubbornness. The Soviets were merely reinforcing the defenses of their second largest city. Besides it was a small corner in northern Europe and there were bigger issues.

Helsinki held out until March, far longer than anyone had expected. But in the peace treaty, the Finns had to give up 10 percent of their territory, a quarter of their industry. Their valiant had gained them international respect. A Soviet attempt to create a puppet Democratic Finnish Republic failed to attract any of what would later would be called Quislings [after the Norwegian Nazi traitor].They maintained their sovereignty - preparation [ironically along with the byproduct of their enormous post-World War II reparations to the Soviets] for their sophisticated hi-tech democracy today.

Ironically, the miserable Soviet showing probably tipped the scales for Hitler in his decision in 1941 to launch Operation Barbarosa. That ill-fated Nazi attempt to conquer Russia was perhaps his ultimate mistake in trying to establish a Reich that would last a thousand years.

Later, of course, a Finnish government was to collaborate with the Germans in their attack on the Soviet Union - but that's another analogy for another time.

"Finlandization" came into the geopolitical lexicon: it was the name for the Soviets neutralizing and dominating their neighbors - a major factor in Stalin's grab of Eastern and Central Europe in the post-WWII Cold War — with threats and subversion and direct intervention while the victim's friends stood aside.

What has all this to do with the Russians' attack on Georgia?

Again, we see a huge military machine grinding down a small country with budding democratic impulses. Again, there appears to be a good deal of hand-wringing with little action by the democratic block. Again, the pattern of naked aggression - dressed up with claims of supporting newly coined Russian citizens and redressing supposed local grievances - is apparently to get a pass. Again, there would be rationalizations for why the victim is not pure enough to deserve our all out support.

Is this then "The Summer War" which will precede another larger confrontation later because the keepers of the peace found too many excuses for their failing to act? These thoughts should have occurred, at least, to the Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb and French President Nikolas Sarkozy as they rush back and forth to Moscow to sell out the Georgians in unenforceable cease fires. And to some Americans trying to build a new airbridge into Georgia much as the Berlin Airlift kept hope alive for a democratic Germany just 60 years ago this summer.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

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