How the Finns Deter Russian Invasion

If you want ordinary people to make your society occupation-proof, you have to teach them to kill well before they need to do so.

An outline of Ukraine with a photo of soldiers rushing through snow set inside of it.
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

In the past few days, the Ukrainian government has handed out tens of thousands of rifles to ordinary, untrained citizens, and it has encouraged anyone capable of striking a Zippo flint to learn how to prepare and throw Molotov cocktails. In perhaps related news, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko has forbidden the sale of booze, historically a poor accompaniment for automatic weapons and improvised firebombs. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the release from prison of certain criminals, also to take up arms against Russian invaders. Ukraine’s territorial-defense force, a citizen army, has trained sporadically for months but has only now opened its ranks, frantically, to everyone physically capable of serving. This truly universal force is a few days old, the youngest armed group on the planet, and in a few more days we may see whether its members mostly kill Russians or are mostly killed by them.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a strategic failure because it assumed and required a quick and decisive victory, and at best it will get victory slow and Pyrrhic. But the Ukrainians have failed badly as well, by waiting too long to arm and train their citizens. If you want ordinary people to make your society occupation-proof, you have to teach them to kill well before they need to do so.

The strategist Edward N. Luttwak has proposed that countries aligned with NATO shift in this direction preemptively, as a matter of policy. Instead of buying heavy, technologically advanced equipment, Luttwak told me, they should adopt the Finnish model. In Finland, adolescent males report for a short and intense period of military training, followed by shorter refreshers for most of their adult life. The training is not, as in the Israeli model, a few years of dedicated service. Nor does it emphasize military discipline, such as keeping one’s bunk tidy and shoes polished, or the Prussian-style transformation of citizen-recruit into fighting machine. Instead, it prepares civilians to be ready to join their unit and harass and kill invaders. A country of Finland’s size can rapidly field nearly 1 million trained soldiers. “Ukraine could have done this,” Luttwak said, “and they should have.”

The Finno-Soviet Winter War of 1939 ended with Soviet withdrawal, and Luttwak said it should now be a deterrent model for other countries, including Poland and the Baltic nations. “Do not try to stop the invasion,” Luttwak said. “Wait for them to enter your country. Once the tank stops rolling forward, let the soldiers come out to cook or to pee, and then kill them.” Finland suffered during the invasion and conceded territory in the peace treaty that ended the war three months later. But the Soviets lost about seven times as many men, and when they withdrew, they knew that occupying Finland again would mean frostbite, fear, and the chance of getting shot dead in the snow with your pants down.

A Finnish defense official I spoke with stressed that the Finnish model incorporates a technologically advanced professional military and would not work without it. But a territorial-defense reserve can deter occupation in the first place—particularly if it has training and enjoys the logistical support of other countries. The Ukrainians have only the latter, and it may be too late for the former. Kyiv was distributing about 10,000 rifles a day. “Ten thousand [rifles] is not a serious number,” Luttwak said. “We have to talk about a million for Kyiv alone. There are NATO warehouses full of these, and we could easily just send them to the border and give them to whoever wants them.” Western Ukraine, where those rifles would presumably arrive, is anti-Russian and nearly half the area of Germany.

Moreover, since the Winter War, technological innovations have tilted the balance even further in favor of a moderately trained civilian reserve. The Finnish model is much more deadly when combined with modern point-and-shoot anti-tank weaponry, such as the Javelin system already on the ground in Ukraine. The Javelin is expensive—each missile costs about as much as a small American suburban house—but since money and weapons are just about the only things Ukraine’s allies are ready to provide, that might not be such a big issue. Javelins can destroy a tank and its occupants from far away; the operator does not need to hide in a hole and wait for a tank’s hatches to open. Instead, he locks on to its infrared signature, then fires a rocket from his shoulder. It flies 150 yards up and nearly two miles horizontally, then arcs down to hit the tank from above, where armor is thinnest. Javelins are simple to use. Two weeks of training is standard in nonemergency conditions, and the Ukrainians are motivated learners.

But they might not have that long. Instead of convening defense units weeks or months ago, Ukraine is hastily teaching clerks and accountants and babushkas to throw old beer bottles full of gas—a useful skill, but coming awfully late. Scenes of civilians throwing such devices at a piece of towed Russian armor (and briefly setting themselves ablaze in the process) are good for Ukrainian morale but worrisome overall. Guerrilla tactics are not instinctive to most people. Is it better to toss a Molotov cocktail sideways out of your sedan window as you drive past your target, or better to drop it from a second-story window as the target passes? What do you do when the target shoots back? The advice “Here’s a gun and an incendiary device; go forth and do what comes naturally” will turn a few of its recipients into Ho Chi Minh and many others into corpses. The risks are not only to these fresh-baked Ukrainian guerrillas themselves. Right now in Kyiv, suspicion of Russian spies and saboteurs is understandably high, and checkpoints will be operated by Ukrainians who just learned how to find the safety on their rifle. Mistakes will be made, and friends shot.

Where these efforts undoubtedly count is in the propaganda war, which Ukraine is winning overwhelmingly. Russians will see images of people ardent with desire to kill them, and these people will include Ukrainians whom in other circumstances the Russians might want to help cross the street, play soccer with, or date. This is demoralizing. For some men, the thought of being shot by a girl is particularly sickening. (In the Second Chechen War, one potent image was of the semi-mythical mercenaries known as “White Stockings”—blond Estonian female ex-biathletes recruited by Chechens to snipe at Russians, and aim at the groin.)

The Ukrainian government tried to keep its people calm, and it convinced them that the invasion would not happen. (Indeed, it convinced itself.) The resulting lack of preparation, which goes far beyond the training of civilian reserves—why no food stockpiles? why no physical obstacles littered around Kharkov and Kyiv to slow down Russian armor and make the invaders easier to kill?—will be criticized bitterly, just as the esprit and personal bravery of Zelensky and other Ukrainians will be admired. Free societies do not militarize their population casually. Conscription is an encroachment on freedom. But the same could be said about an invasion by Vladimir Putin. And if I were in a country between Berlin and St. Petersburg right now, I would be considering which encroachment to fear more.