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05 September 2023

When the winter comes

On a recent visit to the north-eastern regions of Finland I had occasion to reflect on the Winter War of 1939 and 1940 and what it tells us about the situation in Ukraine today. Russia invaded Finland in late November 1939 to protect Leningrad, today's St. Petersburg, which at the time was only 20 miles away from the Finnish border. The Soviets had asked Finland to move the border some 20 miles further to the west, and invaded after Finland refused. The war lasted only a little over three months. While Finnish troops were no match for the Red Army, Finnish guerrilla tactics were surprisingly effective and curtailed Russia's advance. The Russians suffered heavy casualties. The winter war ended in March 1940 with the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland ceded 9% of its territory - the most important of which was the eastern part of Karelia, a region to the east of Helsinki that stretched almost all the way to Leningrad. The Soviets took Lake Ladoga and the stretch of land between the lake and the Gulf of Finland. They also got a region of north eastern Finland. Most of the Finns who live in those territories were repatriated back to Finland. 

A little over a year later, Nazi Germany and Finland together tried to recapture Karelia in what is known as the continuation war, which was part of World War II. After the continuation war ended in 1944, Finland ceded more territory - the province of Petsamo in north-eastern Lapland, which is now part of the Murmansk oblast.

With the usual warning that history does not repeat itself exactly, I am only drawing limited parallels. The Finnish Russian wars came in two parts. It was only the second peace treaty, in 1944, that laid the ground for a long period of stability along the Finnish-Russian border. 

The Ukraine war could end in a similar way - with Ukraine ceding some territory in exchange for a deal that would provide Ukraine's security afterwards.

This is exactly what Stian Jenssen, chief of staff of Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato general secretary, suggested: Ukraine would join Nato after a peace deal with Moscow. (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ukraine-rejects-proposal-to-surrender-land-to-russia-for-nato-membership-pmhv0jl30). He was forced to make a grovelling apology later after protests from Ukraine. But as always, it is the gaffe that tells us more than the retraction. 

Jenssen is not alone. Robert Brieger, the current chairman of the European Union Military Committee, warned in an interview with the German daily Die Welt (https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/plus247042602/Russland-kann-Ukraine-Krieg-noch-sehr-lange-weiterfuehren.html) of a war of attrition with no winners. He concluded that Russia could hold out for a very long time and that Ukraine is unlikely to regain all of the occupied territories. What this means is that insiders are now discussing scenarios and outcomes they were not discussing before.

Nato membership for Ukraine will have to be part of any credible deal. An armistice or peace deal would otherwise not hold for long. Russia would regroup, and attack again in a few years. The deal envisaged by Jenssen would be one where Putin gets the bragging rights of having obtained territory in eastern Ukraine, plus an official recognition of Crimea, in exchange for Ukraine becoming part of Nato and the EU. 

I would add an additional point. Western support for Ukraine is strong but not infinite. A German poll (https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend/deutschlandtrend-3390.html) on whether Germany should supply cruise missiles to Ukraine showed that 52% of the electorate is opposed, with only 36% in favour. Electorate support for weapons deliveries to Ukraine has been weakening in both the US and Germany, two of Ukraine's three largest suppliers of weapons and financial assistance. The other is the UK.

Ukraine will probably discover an ugly truth about the EU. Continental Europeans, who are not well versed in military affairs, are great in virtue-signalling, but not so great in follow-up. The European public will support Team Ukraine only for as long it wins. There is a lack of maturity in the public debate on security in many western countries. 

Ukraine has made some progress in its counter-offensive, but did not achieve the big breakthrough so far. Once we reach November and the winter sets, the campaign will be suspended for another four to six months. Ukraine and the west underestimated the impact of land mines, Russian drones, and Russia's air defence superiority. 

To many supporters of Ukraine in the west this will come as a shock. A deal envisaged by Jenssen will clearly not satisfy those in the west who draped themselves in blue-yellow flags in the early days of the war, and who will accept nothing less than total victory, including the reconquest of Crimea. Ukraine's supporters, especially in the western media, have been lulling themselves into a false sense of security with predictions of Vladimir Putin's imminent demise. When Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his failed coup, the western media treated this as a sign of Putin's weakness. When the coup failed, they doubled down and said it left Putin vulnerable. Now that Prigozhin is dead, we are hearing the same again. Western commentary on Russia constitutes an exercise of wishful thinking. The problem with Putin is not that he is weak but that he is dangerous. 

One of the factors that favoured Russia in the 1939/40 winter war was the exceptionally cold winter in Karelia, where temperatures reached -40 degrees celsius. Russia's enemies in the west have always underestimated the effect of the winter. 

My expectation is that we are either looking at a two-winter war that ends with a dirty deal, or a war of attrition that ends in exhaustion. Western political support that will exhaust itself first.

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