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The Lesson Stalin Could Teach Putin About Invading a Neighbor

Earlier this month, American officials made a stunning allegation: Moscow had begun production of a “graphic propaganda video” that would show the aftermath of an alleged attack on ethnic Russians inside Ukraine. The video, featuring clips of corpses and actors in mourning, would justify the need for Russian troops to invade to stop a supposed “genocide.”

The existence of such a video is still under debate, and more recent intelligence assessments from White House officials indicate that a Russian invasion might come as early as this week, preceded by a barrage of missile strikes and cyberattacks. Still, there’s little reason to think Russian officials wouldn’t have at least considered a false flag attack as a pretext for an invasion that has been preemptively condemned by much of the West. This is a regime that has all but perfected disinformation operations over the past decade, from pumping lies about Russian responsibility for the destruction of passenger planes to hiring actors in 2014 to claim Ukrainians had “crucified” a young boy.

Nor would Putin’s regime be the first dictatorship to resort to a false flag attack to cloak its aggression abroad. In the early 1930s, Japanese forces detonated a stretch of railway in northern China, blamed it on the Chinese and used it as a pretext to invade Manchuria. A few years later, in 1939, the Nazis faked a Polish raid on a German broadcasting tower as a predicate to launching a full-scale invasion of their eastern neighbor, sparking the Second World War in Europe in the process.

That same year, though, there was another false flag attack that was, at least at the outset, just as successful as the Japanese or Nazi variants. This attack hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves, but there are lessons buried in it for officials in both Kyiv and Moscow if they want to avoid a looming catastrophe.

In late 1939, Joseph Stalin stared at a map of the USSR’s northwestern borderlands, feeling buoyed by recent developments. The Soviet despot had recently inked a nonaggression pact with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, keeping the bellicose Nazis at a distance. He’d also held Japanese forces at bay in the east, stabilized his southern flank, and begun gobbling up the Baltic States. But there was one security concern that was top of Stalin’s mind: Finland.

The Finnish border was less than 20 miles from Leningrad’s outer reaches, well within range of a potential assault. Technically, the Soviets and the Finns had reached a formal agreement recognizing Finland’s independence; the border had been established in 1917, as the Russian empire convulsed in the civil war that resulted in communist victory. For Stalin, however, the Finnish presence near the Soviets’ only Baltic port, an area that housed about one-third of Soviet military industry, was unacceptable. And he was determined to change it.

As Stanford scholar Stephen Kotkin’s recent biography of the Soviet leader illustrates, Stalin hardly cloaked his desires. “We cannot do anything about geography, nor can you,” Stalin declared to one Finnish official. “Since Leningrad cannot be moved, the frontier must be moved farther away.” (Not that the Finns had any misconceptions about Stalin; as Kotkin writes, “To the leaders of Finland’s parliamentary democracy, Stalin was a gangster.”)

Efforts at diplomacy predictably failed, not least because of Stalin’s intransigence. “Is it your intention to provoke a conflict?” the perplexed Soviet foreign minister asked Stalin at one point. Stalin only smiled in response. The answer quickly became clear.

But one question remained: how to manufacture a reason for invasion. The Soviets and Finns, after all, maintained a nonaggression pact, and no one would credibly look at the Finns — with a population of only 4 million, against the Soviet Union’s 170 million — as aggressors. With state propaganda outlets pumping out anti-Finnish propaganda, and with Soviet officials in the Kremlin purring that Soviet troops would conquer Helsinki in as little as three days, Stalin spied a solution.

On Nov. 26, five shells and a pair of grenades blasted a Soviet position along the Soviet-Finnish border. Four died, including multiple Soviet soldiers, along with nine others injured. Though a Finnish investigation promptly fingered Soviet troops as the ones who’d fired upon — and killed — their own troops, the Soviets moved just as quickly. Claiming they were coming to the defense of “democratic forces” against a “fascist military clique” running Helsinki, Stalin immediately announced support for a new “People’s Government,” headed by a hand-picked Finnish communist. Over 100,000 Soviet troops rolled in, facing off against a country without an air force, with hardly any armored vehicles, and without even any wireless technology at its disposal. Left adrift by Western partners, the Finns stood alone. And Stalin stood ready to carve up the country as he desired.

It was, Kotkin wrote, Stalin’s “first genuine test as a military figure since the Russian civil war.” And it was a test he would fail, in spectacular fashion.


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