The Winter War and Soviet Military Bases in Estonia


  • Eve Kubi




Winter War, Red Army, military bases, navy, air force


In 1938 the Soviet Union started to methodically demand that Finland extend the Nonaggression Pact between the two countries so that it would have been possible to establish Soviet military bases in the Finnish territory on a fully legal basis. The Soviets justified it with a need to ensure national security. In fact, the Soviet Union wished to recover Finland as a whole, it having been part of the former Russian Empire, but in order not to come across as an aggressor, at first it was necessary to use diplomatic means. Pursuant to a secret protocol of the Nonaggression Pact concluded between the Soviet Union and Germany on 23 October 1939, Finland was part of the Soviet sphere of interest. The Soviet Union began to resolve the so-called Finnish issue on 12 October 1939, when it issued an ultimatum to Finland demanding that Finland shift the state border further away from Leningrad (the boundary ran at 32 km from the city). It also demanded that the Hanko Peninsula be rented out for a Soviet naval base for 30 years, as well as a few islands in the Gulf of Finland. In order to achieve what was desired, pressure was applied: the Soviet Air Force began to systematically violate Finnish airspace. On 12 October 1939 negotiations between the Soviet Union and Finland began in Moscow. The lead negotiator on behalf of Finland was Juho Kusti Paasikivi; the Soviet Union was represented by Joseph Stalin and the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov. Since the Finns declined to conclude a pact with the Soviet Union in the style of the Baltic States, Moscow began to resolve the so-called Finnish issue in a military manner. The Soviet Union began acts of war against Finland on 30 November 1939, and the war that was to be historically called the Winter War had an indirect impact also on Estonia. Preparations for occupying Finland had already been started well before negotiations took place in Moscow in October-November 1939. In March 1939 the Commander of the Leningrad Military District, Komandarm 2nd rank Kirill Meretskov, received an order from the People’s Commissar for Defence of the Soviet Union, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, to evaluate the readiness of the troops of the District for a military conflict with Finland. By 19 April, the headquarters of the Leningrad Military District had prepared a report concerning offensive plans against Finland and Estonia using a northwestern front to be created on the basis of the District. On 7 September 1939 the Red Army started mobilisation and its troops began to concentrate in the Karelian Isthmus. The main force of the planned Finnish offensive was formed by the troops of the Leningrad Military District. According to the offensive plan, four armies (425,640 soldiers), 24 divisions, 2,289 tanks, 2,446 aircraft and 2,876 cannons and mortars were sent against Finland. The most powerful unit of the Soviet military grouping, the 7th Army, operated in the Karelian Isthmus, while north of Ladoga the 8th, 9th and 14th Armies were preparing for invasion. Preparations for attacking Finland were also made by the Red-Banner Baltic Fleet: the order to prepare a military action plan to occupy Finland was received on 3 November 1939. The Soviet Union used its air and naval bases in Estonia to attack Finland. The bases in Estonia provided the Soviet Union with a great advantage in the war against Finland as the distances for attacking Finnish cities were rendered considerably shorter. Since Paldiski was remarkably closer to Finland than the Kotly or Koporye airfields in Leningrad Oblast, the range of aircraft based in Estonia was also significantly greater. The aircraft of the 10th Air Force Brigade, located in Estonia, were used in combat against Finland as of the first day of the war. It was very convenient to attack the city and port of Turku from there. Turku and other ports in Southeast Finland were of utmost importance to Finland, as they provided a connection with the West, through which necessary goods, including weapons and ammunition, were obtained. The vicinity of the bases located in Estonia to the war theatre facilitated an easier return to their airfields for aircraft damaged in Finland. Several aircraft returning from Finland performed emergency landings outside their bases. Incidents where Soviet airmen bombed the Estonian coast, probably mistaking it for Finland, were frequent. In addition to the air force, the Soviet Union also used vessels, mainly submarines, of the Red-Banner Baltic Fleet located in Estonia, in operations against Finland. As a result of the treaty concluded between the Soviet Union and Finland, the Soviet Union gained possession of the Hanko Peninsula amongst other territories. The most direct way to supply Hanko was an airfield located near Paldiski. Paldiski became an interim base when introducing Soviet soldiers to the Hanko Peninsula. By using the Soviet-based troops located in Estonia in the war against Finland, the Soviet Union severely violated international law.


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