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Will Ukraine Turn Out Like Chechnya or Finland?

Two past wars are likely shaping Putin’s thinking about Ukraine.
March 10, 2022
Will Ukraine Turn Out Like Chechnya or Finland?
Two Chechen fighters warm by the fire burning next to a house destroyed by Russian artillery in the center of Grozny, 15 January 1995. Russian troops entered the presidential palace in the breakaway Chechen capital 19 January 1995 on the 39th day of their intervention to crush the republic's self-declared independance. (Photo credit should read MICHAEL EVSTAFIEV/AFP via Getty Images)

It is often assumed that strategies are chosen based on careful reflection and objective facts, but strategic culture—the lived and inherited experiences of decision-makers—is sometimes more influential. As we try to assess how Vladimir Putin will respond to Ukraine’s brave resistance, two Soviet/Russian military experiences may help us understand his next moves, and Ukraine’s likelihood of ultimate success. Both Russia’s wars against Chechnya from 1994 to 2009 and the Russo-Finnish War (or Winter War) of 1939-1940 started poorly for Moscow but ended in radically different outcomes

It is clear now that Putin misjudged the Ukrainian resistance. Hoping to seize Kyiv quickly and install a puppet government, Putin’s false assumptions, poor intelligence, and hubris ran up against Ukrainian courage and deep knowledge of the enemy. Most experts agree that Putin’s likely response to initial failure is to double down on violence and seek to destroy Ukrainian nationhood. Russian superiority in numbers and firepower, along with Putin’s willingness to engage in butchery, will probably overwhelm Ukrainian resistance in the short term.

The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen suggests that Putin’s likely model for Ukraine is Chechnya, a once proud, fierce, and independent-minded Caucasian republic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya declared its independence from Russia in 1992 under the presidency of a former Soviet Air Force General. Russian troops invaded in December 1994, expecting a quick victory and regime change. Instead, they faced heavy resistance and defections from their own force. The invasion quickly became a quagmire and the Russians resorted to indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and an eventual siege of the capital, Grozny. Official casualty statistics are unknown, but estimates put Russians casualties in the thousands or tens of thousands, and Chechen fighters and civilians likely suffered even more. The fighting was brutal, rife with carpet bombing, massacres, murder, and weaponized rape on an industrial scale. By the time the Kremlin signed a ceasefire agreement in 1996, Grozny looked like wartime Stalingrad.

The ceasefire was indecisive—it failed to resolve the question of Chechnya’s status within the Russian state to Moscow’s liking. In 1999, after a series of apartment bombings in Russia blamed on Chechen terrorists (but which were likely actually carried out by the FSB), Putin, then prime-minster, oversaw the Second Chechen War. It took until 2009 for the Russians to announce that the insurgency has been snuffed out—and much of the credit for the victory goes to Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s hand-picked sub-dictator of Chechnya, who rules in a particularly brutal manner but ensures that his fiefdom creates no problems for Putin.

Moscow’s experience with Chechnya is a microcosm of everything Putin hates about the 1990s. The drive for independence was spawned by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” It threatened Russian statehood by exacerbating religious and ethnic divisions with Russia (Chechnya is a Muslim-majority region with a Chechen ethnic majority). Russia’s response was slow, indecisive, and weak. Liberal and humanitarian-minded journalists and activists in Russia exposed and castigated the human rights abuses carried out by the Russian Army—especially Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered on Putin’s birthday, likely because of her uniquely effective reporting from Chechnya. Putin will do anything to ensure that his war in Ukraine ends like the Second Chechen War, not the First—but what he really fears is an even worse outcome.

A more hopeful example of what we are likely to see in Ukraine is Moscow’s experience with Finland. As part of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Nazis and Soviets agreed that Finland (among other countries) fell into the Soviet “sphere of influence.” Stalin demanded Finland, which was not a party to the treaty, turn over territory to the Soviet Union. Finland refused. In response, Stalin invaded Finland and sought to install a puppet regime. He assumed that Finland’s small army would quickly crumble and that Finland’s large working class was ready to support Moscow’s communist goals.

Instead, Stalin was caught off-guard by the Finns’ willingness to fight, even with little or no assistance from the outside world. Although the Finns had no tanks, artillery, or air power, they put up a vigorous and successful defense. Finns facing Soviet tanks invented the Molotov cocktail, named after Stalin’s foreign minister.

Like today’s Russian army in Ukraine, the Red Army entered Finland in 1939 with little real knowledge of Finland or the Finns and extremely poor intelligence. Instead, the Soviet troops were fed a diet of propaganda. The lack of understanding was matched by poor preparation—many Soviet conscripts didn’t even know the name of the country they were invading, and many came without proper gear to fight in winter conditions. Massive Soviet frontal attacks along thin forest roads led to thousands of needless deaths—so many that some Finnish soldiers reportedly went mad from the up-close slaughter of so many Soviet soldiers. The Finns were clever, too: Noticing that the Soviets dropped their soldiers from low-flying airplanes into soft snow banks behind the lines, the Finns painted the massive boulders in the disputed Karelian isthmus white, with expected results.

Despite the initial failures, the Soviets re-organized, shot failing commanders, and strengthened their assault, eventually overwhelming the Finnish defenders with massive artillery barrages. Nikita Khrushchev later wrote that the Soviets lost a million men in Finland, but most estimates believe the Soviets suffered closer to a half million casualties, including 200,000 fatalities, in the three-month war. Ultimately, the Finns won a truce from Moscow, effectively trading land in exchange for the continuation of their government. After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Finns resumed the conflict during the War of Continuation.

Due to their brave resistance and clear display of national resolve, Finland was the only Baltic nation that remained free and sovereign until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as the only country bordering the Soviet Union from which the Red Army withdrew after World War II. The Finns lost much land in their east and along their coast, but as one Soviet General remarked following the war, the Soviet Union gained “just about enough ground to bury our dead.”

History suggests that dictators cannot accept fault, and that Putin is likely to revert to his ugliest instincts. He will seek to make Ukraine like Chechnya. But it is already clear that he has suffered a moral defeat, and his savagery has strengthened Ukrainian statehood and western resolve. Ukraine has some of the same advantages the Finns and Chechens did—home soil, the defensive, a unifying and motivating cause, and an enemy that underestimates them. In addition, they have political and military support from some of the most powerful countries in the world. Hopefully, that will be enough.

John Sipher

John Sipher is a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.