Peace negotiations

The Soviet Union considered Kuusinen’s government, which it had established, to be the only official representative of Finland. The situation changed on 29 January 1940, when Finland received the news via Stockholm that the Soviet Union was prepared to negotiate. Overtures of peace had been made in Stockholm between Hella Wuolijoki and Alexandra Kollontai from 10 January onwards. The Soviet Union’s preconditions turned out to be harsh. The situation at the front worsened significantly in February. Receiving Western military assistance seemed uncertain. It was doubtful whether the assistance would make it to Finland, as Norway and Sweden stood by their refusal to allow passage to the Anglo-French forces.

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In December, the Soviet Union refused to negotiate with the Finnish government

The Soviet Union likewise refused all offers of peace mediation between the Finnish and Soviet governments in December. The latter explained its stance with the fact that it had signed a treaty of mutual assistance and friendship with the Finnish People’s Government, i.e. Kuusinen’s government.

The Red Army’s invasion of the Karelian Isthmus was stopped at the end of December. In January, the Red Army doubled its troops at the Finnish front. On the Karelian Isthmus, the number of troops was tripled.

Germany was unwilling to act as a mediator

Immediately after the start of the war, Finland asked the United States to act as a mediator. The country did make a mediation offer, but it was rejected by the Soviet Union. Next, the Finnish government turned to Germany. Wipert von Blücher, the German ambassador to Finland, was more willing to assist his host country than his own government was. Drawing on Blücher’s report, Count F. W. von der Schulenburg, the German ambassador to Moscow, asked Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs V. M. Molotov on 7 January about the Soviet Union’s stance on Finland’s unofficial negotiation offer. Molotov stated that it was too late.

Adolf Hitler, the German Führer and chancellor, forbade his subordinates from acting as mediators in the war between Finland and the Soviet Union in any way. In reality, the German ambassadors had already been given the same message by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop prior to the start of the Winter War. Wipert von Blücher had received separate notice well in advance that Finland did not belong to Germany’s sphere of influence.

Wuolijoki and Kollontai started holding meetings in Stockholm on 10 January

The notification of the Soviet Union’s preparedness to negotiate was preceded by unofficial discussions held in Stockholm with Soviet Ambassador Alexandra Kollontai. They were initiated with Tanner’s permission by the leftist author Hella Wuolijoki on 10 January. Later, on 21 February, Eljas Erkko, the Finnish chargé d’affaires to Stockholm, came to meet two representatives sent by

the Soviet government regarding the matter. One of them was a person Finland was already familiar with, Boris Yartsev, whose real name was Boris A. Rybkin.

The Soviet Union accepted the Finnish government as a negotiating party on 29 January

Winter War-era Prime Minister Risto Ryti and Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner. SA-kuva.

At the end of January, Finnish representatives in the diplomatic circles of the Baltic countries started receiving intelligence that the Soviet Union was ready to initiate discussions with the Finnish government. On 29 January, the Soviet Union notified the Swedish government of a possibility for peace. This information was conveyed by Soviet Ambassador to Stockholm Alexandra Kollontai during a meeting with Swedish Foreign Minister Christian Günther on 29 January. The following day, Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner received information that the Soviet government considered an agreement with the Ryti–Tanner government to be possible.

Before possible peace negotiations could be initiated, Finland had to agree to cede certain territories. The message conveyed via Sweden also included the Soviet government’s statement that the promises it had made to Kuusinen’s government did not apply to the Finnish government.

Stalin wanted to avoid a war against the Western powers

The reason why the Soviet Union changed its stance can only be deduced, as no first-hand archived sources exist. The Soviet Union’s intelligence service was efficient. In January, the Soviet leadership was already aware of the decision made by the Western powers at the end of 1939 to prepare to provide military assistance to Finland. The notification of the Soviet Union’s preparedness to negotiate was issued only two days before the start of the preparatory attacks that preceded the Red Army’s large-scale offensive on the Karelian Isthmus. The idea may have been to prepare for a political resolution if a military resolution could not be achieved quickly enough.

Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London, assured that Finland would remain independent

Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London, visited British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs R. A. Butler for the first time since the start of the Winter War on 1 February 1940. On the same day, the Red Army launched attacks in preparation for a large-scale offensive on the Karelian Isthmus. Maisky assured Butler that the Soviet Union had no intention of annexing Finland. Maisky also stated that the Soviet Union had no demands towards Sweden and Norway, instead hoping that they would remain neutral.

Foreign Minister Tanner met with Kollontai in Stockholm

Tanner visited Stockholm several times in February. During these visits, he also met with Kollontai, to whom Tanner presented his views of the possible cessions of territory by Finland. Among other things, Tanner offered the island of Jussarö in place of the Hanko Peninsula. Following Moscow’s rejection of Finland’s offers as insufficient, Tanner inquired after the Soviet Union’s demands. The demands made by Moscow on 13 February came as a shock to the Finns. In addition to the Hanko Peninsula, Moscow also demanded the Karelian Isthmus, Ladoga Karelia and Border Karelia, among other things.

The harsh demands did not make Sweden soften its stance

On the same visit, Sweden once again informed Tanner that it would neither participate in the war with active troops nor allow Allied troops to pass through its territory to Finland. Tanner returned to Finland. The news from the Karelian Isthmus front was bad. With the large-scale offensive that had been launched on 11 February, the Red Army’s forces had succeeded in breaching the Mannerheim Line and it was expanding into a breakthrough. On 15 February, the commander-in-chief decided to withdraw the troops deployed on the western Karelian Isthmus from the Mannerheim Line to the defensive line southeast of Viipuri (Vyborg), i.e. the Interim Line.

Western military assistance or a bitter peace?

Tanner relayed the Soviet Union’s preliminary peace terms during a government meeting on 25 February. According to him, the only options available to Finland were either initiating peace negotiations or continuing the war with military assistance from the West. However, whether this assistance would reach Finland or not depended on Sweden’s stance on allowing the troops passage through its territory. Many of the government members still believed that there was hope for a third option, that Sweden would deploy its troops to Finland.

The government still hoped that Sweden would participate in the war

Foreign Minister Tanner was sent to look into the situation in Stockholm. Sweden stood by its negative stance during the discussions held on 27 February with regard to both deploying its own troops to Finland and allowing passage to Western troops. Hansson dramatised his refusal to allow passage by stating that if the Western Allies tried to pass through Swedish territory to Finland, Sweden would be forced to join the war against Finland on the Soviet Union’s side.

The deadline for the Soviet Union’s ultimatum was 1 March

The following day, Günther relayed the Soviet Union’s ultimatum to Tanner. Finland was to inform the Soviet Union no later than 1 March of whether it would agree to the preliminary terms for the peace negotiations.

Finland failed to reply by the deadline. However, the negotiation channel had not been severed for good.

The Western powers demanded an official appeal for military assistance

The Western powers had likewise set absolute deadlines for Finland’s appeal for assistance. They demanded that Finland submit an official appeal for military assistance. This appeal would have allowed the Western Allies to tie the deployment of a military expedition to Scandinavia to the resolution of the League of Nations of its member states’ obligation to assist Finland. Finland’s official appeal for assistance could also have been used to pressure Sweden and Norway.

The government decided to send peace negotiators to Moscow

The Finnish government decided to initiate peace negotiations on 5 March. Moscow announced that it was prepared to receive the negotiators. The members appointed to the negotiation delegation on 6 March were Prime Minister Risto Ryti, Minister without Portfolio J. K. Paasikivi, Member of Parliament Väinö Voionmaa and the industrialist, Major General Rudolf Walden, who was an individual trusted by Field Marshal Mannerheim. Voionmaa primarily acted as a representative of the Social Democratic Party of Finland in the delegation.

The Soviet Union’s peace terms were stricter than the preliminary terms

The Finnish negotiation delegation held its first meeting in Moscow on the evening of 8 March. The Soviet Union presented its own terms for peace. They had become stricter compared to the preliminary terms. The Soviet Union now also demanded the partial cession of the areas of Salla and Kuusamo. In the Petsamo area, Finland was now required to cede the part of the Kalastajasaarento (Rybachy) Peninsula that belonged to Finland. The area to be leased on the Hanko Peninsula was larger than stated in the preliminary terms. The border next to the Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia seemed less favourable than stated in the preliminary terms. The terms now included the new and peculiar demand that a railway be built between Kemijärvi and Märkäjärvi (now Salla). The tracks would be connected to a railway that was being built by the Russians between Kandalaksha and Salla.

The Finnish government requested a situation assessment from the military command

The tightened terms came as a shock to the negotiators and the Finnish government. It seemed like there were no other options. Another situation assessment was requested from the commander-in-chief, who had wavered between Western assistance and a harsh peace. Mannerheim submitted the written situation assessment requested by the government on 9 March. It was written by the commander of the Army of the Isthmus, Jaeger Officer, Lieutenant General Erik Heinrichs.

The situation at the front already looked desolate on 9 March

According to the situation assessment, the front could be maintained on the Karelian Isthmus for some days, or a few weeks in the best-case scenario. In his statement, Heinrichs referred to the statements he had requested from the commanders under his command. Statements were provided by: Jaeger Officer, Lieutenant General K. L. Oesch, who was the commander of the Coastal Group, which was in charge of defending the northern shore of Vyborg Bay; Jaeger Officer, Lieutenant General Harald Öhquist, who was in charge of defending the western Karelian Isthmus (Viipuri–Vuoksi (Vuoksa) front); and Jaeger Officer, Major General Paavo Talvela, who was in charge of defending the eastern Karelian Isthmus (Vuosalmi–Taipale (Solovyovo) front).

The commander-in-chief considered peace to be the only option on 11 March

Two days later, Mannerheim saw agreeing to the harsh peace terms to be the only option. This is evident in his proposal to the government on 11 March regarding a telegram that would be sent to the negotiators in Moscow: ‘…the situation is serious at the front, continuing military operations will only make it deteriorate further. Surrendering Viipuri is only a matter of days. We cannot guarantee that the defences will hold out successfully for a month, and the assistance offered may not arrive until 5 weeks from now, provided that the troops are allowed passage. Failing this, we may face even harsher terms and be required to cede larger areas.’

On 12 March, the government authorised the negotiators to sign the peace treaty

In a session held on 12 March, the Finnish government authorised the Finnish peace negotiation delegation in Moscow to sign a peace treaty. This took place in the late evening. In accordance with the treaty, hostilities ceased at the fronts at 11am on 13 March. The peace treaty was opposed by two ministers of the government: Minister of Defence Juho Niukkanen and Minister of Education Uuno Hannula.

Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner made a speech on the radio at 12 noon on 13 March


Väinö Tanner making a speech on the radio on 13 March 1940. SA-kuva.

At 12 noon on 13 March 1940, an hour after the peace treaty came into effect, Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner made a speech on the radio. He began with a report on the Moscow peace negotiations. The nature of the negotiations was revealed by the wordings chosen by Tanner: ‘On Tuesday, 12 March of the current year, a meeting was held in Moscow between Finland and the Soviet Union where the Finnish delegates were presented with the text of the peace treaty…’ In his report, Tanner went over the territories that would be ceded to the Soviet Union and the schedule for withdrawing from them, among other things.

In the speech he made after the report, Tanner went over the background of the war, its key political events and the reasons for signing the peace treaty. Tanner stated that of the Western

Allies, the United Kingdom and France had been prepared to provide military assistance to Finland. However, it had seemed impossible for these forces to reach Finland. The only viable route to Finland passed through Norway and Sweden.

The countries in question had previously refused to provide military assistance to Finland, citing their neutrality. For the same reason, they refused to allow the troops included in the military assistance offered to Finland by the Western powers to pass through their territories.

Finland was a small country that could not continue fighting against a great power alone endlessly. Despite the harsh peace terms dictated by the Soviet Union, the Finnish government considered peace to be a better alternative than continued fighting; ‘so long as our resistance remains unbroken.’

Parliament approved the peace treaty on 15 March

Parliament had no actual opportunity to participate in the preparation of the peace treaty. It was not able to address the peace treaty until it had already been signed. Parliament began discussing the peace treaty on 15 March. In a vote held at the third deliberation on the same day, 145 members of Parliament voted in favour of the peace treaty while three opposed it. Nine members abstained from voting and 42 were absent.

The Winter War-era government submitted its resignation on 27 March 1940

Ryti’s government gave up its seats on 27 March 1940. The majority of the members of the Winter War-era government continued in the new government formed under Ryti. In addition to Niukkanen and Hannula, J. K. Paasikivi and Minister of Justice J. O. Söderhjelm also left the government, with Paasikivi becoming the envoy to Moscow. Väinö Tanner, who had acted as the minister for foreign affairs in Ryti’s previous government, was now appointed the minister of supply. Rolf Witting, a bank manager and former professor, was appointed the new minister for foreign affairs.

Ari Raunio