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To me, this is one of the biggest history mysteries. By the end of February 1940, the USSR breached the Mannerheim line, and the Finnish troops were exhausted and short of ammunition. I have little doubt that at that moment, the USSR could easily conquer Finland and either absorb it or make it a vassal state. Why did the USSR not do this?

UPDATE: In response to a comment, I want to add that I read many materials, including the relevant Wikipedia pages (page 1, page 2) and ''Memoirs of the Second World War'' by Churchill, but found no satisfactory answer to my question, as explained below.

Churchill gives no reasons or hypotheses why the Soviets stopped and concluded such a peace agreement, whereas Wikipedia only provides seemingly unrealistic reasons:

(a) ''For the Soviets, casualties were high ... ''

But the USSR had already breached the Mannerheim line, and the Finnish forces were rapidly approaching exhaustion. The USSR had paid a price in terms of casualties to reach a position from which it could relatively easily conquer the entire Finland, and those casualties were a sunk cost, i.e., a cost that had already been incurred and could not be recovered by concluding a peace with the Finns.

Also, I do not think that casualties were really of great concern to the Soviet government. After all, if casualties had been of great concern, the USSR would have planned and executed the campaign much better. The Soviet government saw its own people rather as renewable resources.

The losses the USSR had suffered were ~150,000 killed and about the same number of wounded, and it was not much on the global scale at all, at least not enough to substantially affect the balance of power between the USSR and any other power. The population of the USSR was about 170 million people at that time.

(b) ''... the situation was a source of political embarrassment to the Soviet regime.''

But the USSR had already attacked Finland and had already participated in the division of Poland. It is hard to see how continuation of the Winter War would have led to any additional substantial reputation losses.

I guess that if the USSR had cared that much about its reputation as a non-expansionist state, it would not have later annexed the Baltic states, just months after the Winter War, so I highly doubt that the ''political embarrassment'' was the real reason why the USSR stopped the Winter War.

Moreover, the military reputation of the USSR had been seriously damaged by the first stages of the Winter War, and the USSR could have repaired its military reputation by continuing the war and fighting the Finns in a more proper way from the military standpoint - better planning and execution, more resources, etc. The USSR was in an excellent position to repair its military reputation, as the Mannerheim line had already been breached. The military reputation damage suffered by the USSR in the Winter War may have been one of the factors that led Hitler to the decision to attack the USSR.

(c) ''... there was a risk of Franco-British intervention.''

But if the USSR had been afraid of that, the Soviets would probably not have started the war, in the first place.

France and Britain were already at war with Germany and had no obvious geopolitical interest to defend Finland. Yes, I know that the Allies had plans of intervention with a pretext of helping the Finns, but the planned operation was actually aimed at cutting off shipments of Swedish iron ore to Germany and was intended to be very limited, with the Allied offers to Finland being 20,000-50,000 volunteers only. No full-scale war against such a big and distant power as the USSR was or could be planned by the Allies. As Churchill writes only about volunteers, I guess no war would have been declared by the Allies against the USSR if the Allies had intervened, i.e., the intervention would have been a proxy war in which French and British volunteers would have somewhat helped Finland.

No ultimatum was given by the Allies to the USSR regarding the Winter War, and no diplomatic pressure by the Allies was applied to the Soviet Union to stop the war. On the contrary, to have a pretext for the planned operation, the Allies needed the Winter War going on and thus simply had no interest to try to make the USSR conclude a peace with the Finns.

(d) ''With the spring thaw approaching, the Soviet forces risked becoming bogged down in the forests.'

But the USSR would have conquered Finland anyway, and I do not think that the approaching thaw was a major obstacle. At most it could have caused a delay.

(e) The USSR allegedly did not want to conquer Finland in full and only wanted to secure the border.

But the USSR established a puppet government headed by Kuusinen, and also the war was portrayed in the USSR as a war against ''White Finns'' or ''Capitalist Finns.'' There was even a popular war song in which the Soviet troops were portrayed as liberators of Finland. It is also hard to see what principle differences between Finland and the Baltic states were there for the Soviet government.

Wikipedia does not substantiate the above hypotheses (a)-(e) by referring to any historic documents or memoirs of people who knew or heard how the decision to stop the war had been taken by the Soviet government.

UPDATE 2. I am especially interested to see whether there is any evidence, direct or indirect, indicating what the Soviet leadership actually thought and how it took the decision to stop the war.

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    Welcome to History:SE. Aren't the reasons covered in the Wikipedia article? Perhaps you could edit your question to explain why you think the reasons given there aren't a sufficient answer? Apr 5 '19 at 13:38
  • Much better. +1 Apr 6 '19 at 0:39
  • 3
    WRT "...the Finnish troops were exhausted and short of ammunition...", you may know this now, but did the Soviets know it then? You may have little doubt that the Soviets could have conquered Finland, but 1) that's your opinion; and 2) based on hindsight. It's the opinion of the Soviet leadership that mattered.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 6 '19 at 3:41
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    Just a remark: the Baltic states had been annexed in July-August 1940, months after the end of the Winter war. In 1939 they remained independent, but had to accept the Soviet military bases.
    – jmster
    Apr 6 '19 at 18:20
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    Khrustchev memoirs provides an answer of sorts. Apr 8 '19 at 21:02
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The relevant archives are still closed and, I think, will continue to be closed for a long time. One, thus, has to look for memoirs of former Soviet leaders (of that time). Three of them wrote such memoirs: Kaganovich, Mikoyan and Khrushchev. The first two say nothing of interest (regarding your question), but Khrushchev (in book 1) did have something to say on this matter.

The most relevant pages in Khrushchev's memoirs are 254-255. Here is what he writes:

Once again the question comes up: Could the Soviet-Finnish war have been avoided? I will not take it on myself to try to draw a definitive conclusion. If we are to talk about Stalin, on the other hand, the person who decided these questions, he did not begin the war in 1939 in order to seize Finland. We did not in fact try to occupy that country, and when the Finnish army was effectively defeated in 1944, Stalin demonstrated statesman like wisdom then, too. The territory of Finland with its population could not decide any fundamental questions of foreign policy for us. It was a small nationality, whose country was not very rich in natural resources; but the signing of an armistice between ourselves and Finland, which then declared war against Germany—that was a good example for other satellites of Hitler’s Germany to see. The advantage for us was greater than occupation. Besides, the step that we did take left positive traces as far as prospects for the future were concerned.

As everything written by a (former) Soviet official, this has to be taken with a (rather large) dose of salt. Here is my reading between the lines:

  1. Initially, the Soviet leadership was expecting a "quick and victorious war". Stalin was more than happy to make Finland a "people's democracy" (see item 3 below), like Mongolia in 1920s or Eastern European countries in late 1940s. This is what Kuusinen's government was formed for and there is no other good explanation for its formation.

  2. As we all know, things did not go well and by mid-March 1940 (after Red Army finally broke the Mannerheim line and took Vyborg) Stalin has decided that Finland was not worth further efforts. Khrushchev writes of strategic insignificance of Finland in the context of the 2nd world war, but the cited paragraph concludes his discussion of the Winter War of 1939-40, so, in my reading, applies to this war as well.

  3. Lastly (but this is just my take, Khrushchev said nothing about this): Further conquest of Finland in 1940 would have taken more time and troops. Even after that, USSR would need a significant presence of Red Army and NKVD on Finnish land in order to pacify it. At the same time, USSR needed the regular troops and NKVD for the takeover of Baltic republics (and Bessarabia) in Summer of 1940, which were much more strategically significant. For the Baltic republics, at least initially, the original plan for Finland also served as a blueprint (per this wikipedia article):

In May 1940, the Soviets turned to the idea of direct military intervention, but still intended to rule through puppet regimes.[55] Their model was the Finnish Democratic Republic, a puppet regime set up by the Soviets on the first day of the Winter War.[56]

Edit. I found the following article

Kimmo Rentola, Intelligence and Stalin's Two Crucial Decisions in the Winter War, 1939–40, The International History Review, 35 (2013) 5, 1089-1112, DOI: 10.1080/07075332.2013.828637

The article itself is behind the paywall (I now have a pdf file). The abstract is below:

In 1939–40, the fierce Winter War was waged between the Soviet Union and Finland. This article analyses Stalin's two main decisions, to attack and to make peace, and the intelligence behind those decisions. Already at the outbreak, it was obvious that the attack was based on a serious misjudgment. The Soviets did not foresee that the action would become a real war, very different from the occupation of eastern Poland in September. It will be shown that this was due more to Stalin's miscalculation of consequences than to any major failure of intelligence collection. As to why Stalin made peace at the very moment when the Red Army finally began winning, and with the Finnish government he had declared non-existent, this seems to be connected with defective assessment of intelligence from London and Paris. Even the Cambridge Five were discarded. Both real and perceived threats of Allied intervention weighed heavily in Stalin's decisions, in particular the southern threat against Baku and the Caucasus. The analysis will contribute to scholarly discussion on Stalin's foreign policy and the role of intelligence in Soviet decision-making. New evidence is mainly provided by intelligence and security documents released by the Central Archives of the Russian Federal Security Service.

Given that the article is based on author's access to Soviet intelligence archives, I am inclined to believe his conclusion, even though it is different from mine (stated above).

With three collaborators, in 2017 Kimmo Rentola also published a book (in Finnish) based on the research described in the paper (all four authors are professional historians). enter image description here

Below are some excerpts from Rentola's article:

The decision for peace.

In his diary, the Communist International Secretary General Georgi Dimitrov probably pinned down the very night Stalin changed his mind on the Finnish war. In the Bolshoi Theatre on 21 January 1940, Stalin explained the war to Politburo members. At first, his tone was confident. It has turned out, he said, that the issue was not mere Finland, as the Finns had supporters and were prepared and armed for a major war. Nevertheless, they would be crushed and their backbone officers and soldiers - 150,000 men - killed, he promised, toasting the restoration of the ‘somewhat tarnished glory’ of the Red Army. Then the atmosphere changed. Deputy Defence Commissar Georgi Kulik brought bad news, probably a military-intelligence report on the threat against Baku, since later that night Stalin said, as if as an afterthought: ‘It is not we but the Turks who stand to lose. We are even glad that we shall be free of certain ties of friendship with Turkey.’ At the theatre, Stalin accused Kulik of panicking and promised to send him a psychology textbook, to address his condition. A former student of theology, the Kremlin leader praised the wisdom of old Greek monks: when bad news arrived, they retreated to the sauna to think and wash away ‘the shit’ of false impressions. Then they would make up their minds, not on the basis of impressions and phantoms, but relying on basic facts...

The British saw signs that ‘popular discontent in Russia is spreading, particularly in Transcaucasia’, even under a ruthless regime. Sir Orme Sargent of the Foreign Office pushed the Ankara Embassy for Turkish intelligence, since ‘events are moving rapidly and it may shortly become a matter of even greater urgency than it is at present for us to be able to strike, if not directly, at any rate indirectly, at Soviet interests in the Caucasus’. For Stalin, the threat against Baku was enough. Molotov’s long answer to Maisky and through him, to Butler, was conciliatory, even humble, considering the propaganda treatment reserved for the British during the last six months. Rejecting as ‘ridiculous’ the idea that the Soviets could ally with Germany against the West, Molotov sought British mediation for the Finnish war, stressing that the issue (now again) was the security of Leningrad. The border should be drawn where Peter the Great got his border in 1721; that was much more than the Soviets demanded before the war, but much less than the entire country under a puppet government. In addition, they wanted Hanko and some islands, but to appease the British, the already conquered northern Petsamo with its Canadian-owned nickel mines would be returned to Finland. ‘Are you thinking about our mediation?’, an astonished Butler asked. His Majesty’s Government declined to help....

On 2 March, Britain and France informed Sweden and Norway of their intention to send reinforcements to Finland. The latter two refused the right of passage, not wanting a world war and the Germans on their soil. Stockholm informed Mannerheim about the announcement from Berlin: if Sweden allowed Allied transit, Germany would be bound to ‘join the game’. On 4 March, the Marshal learned from the British that the French Prime Minister Daladier’s last-minute promise of 50,000 troops in March was crudely exaggerated: the real figure would be much lower and in April at the earliest. Mannerheim concluded that Western assistance would be ‘too little and too late’. The government of Finland decided not to ask officially for Western aid, but to accept the Soviet conditions, to save the body of the country by cutting off one limb, as Tanner said.

NKVD intelligence in Stockholm was quite clear about the desperate situation of the Finns. In early March, they reported that the Finns would not endure three weeks, lacking heavy artillery and aeroplanes, the soldiers exhausted. Both Mannerheim and Tanner supported immediate peace, as did the whole people. However, there was ‘no revolutionary situation, either in the army or among the people’.

Stalin did not have those three weeks. The Red Army advance was too slow; he had to hurry ‘out of the danger zone’. On 5 March, Molotov recorded that ‘the danger of a foreign intervention is great.’ Voroshilov was sent to Caucasia to strengthen the defences. All the time, the NKVD Paris rezidentura bombarded the centre with alarming reports: huge numbers of aeroplanes already sent (176 from France, 164 from Britain, forty-four from the United States, and thirty-five from Italy); plans ready to send three divisions of troops to Finland proper, Sweden letting them through despite its apparent neutrality; twenty-thousand snow camouflage suits and 20,000 mountain rucksacks already distributed by the French Army economic administration; the exile Poles preparing to take part.

In this atmosphere of alarm, danger, and humiliation, Stalin committed a mass murder excessive even by his standards by ordering the execution of 25,700 Polish officer prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest and elsewhere. ‘Each of them is only waiting for liberation to get the chance to join actively in the struggle against the Soviet power,’ Beria argued. The Finnish war was not directly mentioned, but these were the days when Stalin had to abandon his wish to kill a similar group of Finns.

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  • I'm not an expert on this, but the explanation provided here feels very fitting. Insider information about how Stalin made up his mind are a necessary part of it. I seem to have upvoted this year ago, but would do it again, if I could. Nov 6 at 14:56
  • @JyrkiLahtonen: Since you might be the only Finnish-speaker at HSE, please, consider ordering the book I mention in my answer through the inter-library loan at your university and checking that my answer is consistent with the book. Aside: I still find it astounding that the authors got access to the top-secret RF archives. My guess is that it required an approval at the very top, maybe directly by Putin, who appears to have a good rapport with Sauli Niinisto (the current president of Finland). Nov 6 at 15:25
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The Soviets were indeed winning, but there were several reasons to stop:

  • They'd basically fulfilled the demands they made of Finland before starting the war. Those were mainly about moving the border so that Leningrad wasn't so close to Finland.

  • Making an aggressive war against a much smaller country was becoming politically embarrassing, even to Stalin.

  • The spring thaw was on the way, which presented a definite risk of the Red Army becoming bogged down in mud.

  • There was a risk that the French and/or British would intervene. This was their intention, but they'd been unable, so far, to get Norwegian and Swedish agreement to move troops through those countries. If Finland was swallowed by the USSR, that might very well change.

  • The Red Army had lost a lot of troops and equipment. While the Finnish army was running out of men and equipment, the Finnish people would have been really hard work to rule. They'd been part of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire, and they hadn't liked it one bit.

  • The USSR was notionally allied with Germany, but weakening the Red Army a lot further for a gain that was not essential risked Germany taking advantage. Stalin never trusted anyone, especially not Hitler. While Stalin was surprised by the timing of Operation Barbarossa, he had been preparing for war with Germany for a long time. He seems to have convinced himself that the German preparations that had been detected were an attempt to trick the USSR into attacking before its build-up was complete.

Making peace just looked like a good idea, I think.

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    Do you have sources for the last two points? About the fifth point: Finland was almost at the end of their resistance, so the would not be able to continue the war much longer. About the last point: Since Stalin was surprised by the invasion of Soviet Union on 1941, I have doubts about it as well.
    – Santiago
    Apr 5 '19 at 17:54
  • Added sources and explanation on last two points. Apr 5 '19 at 18:48
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    The real reason is N4. If Britain interfered, then SU would remain one-on-one against Germany, with no allies. This is what Stalin (who planned to attack Germany) was afraid of most of all.
    – Alex
    Apr 6 '19 at 16:14
  • Alex, if Stalin was afraid of that, why did he attack Finland, in the first place?
    – Sandra
    Apr 8 '19 at 15:20
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    The initial attack was predicated on the idea that the victory would be easy. You might not fear weakening yourself relative to a potential future conflict with Germany if you expect a three-week war with minimal losses. You might fear weakening yourself for a potential future conflict with Germany after 300,000 casualties.
    – tbrookside
    Apr 8 '19 at 19:50

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