Lawyers are negotiators. Every day, we negotiate for our clients’ liberty, property, lives, and livelihood. We all have stories to tell, and in part two of this article, I would like to tell some of yours, particularly your “Paasikivi moments”, which I will define as a particularly audacious negotiation which results in an unexpectedly favorable outcome. These are the stories we tell after work, and they are particularly satisfying when your client is both the good guy and the underdog.
I recently stumbled upon the story of a man I had not previously heard of, but who is a national hero in Finland, named Juho Paasikivi. As Finland’s foreign minister in 1939, he was both the public face and voice of Finland when that small nation was confronted by Soviet threats of aggression and demands against its sovereignty.
At this crucial moment in Finland’s history, he audaciously rejected Stalin’s ultimatums and gained for Finland the respect and sympathy of the free world. Paasikivi made it clear to the Soviets, and later proved to the world, that Finland would fight before it would surrender its independence and its freedom. Paasikivi has been called Finland’s David to Joseph Stalin’s Goliath.
In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union, who had erstwhile been sworn political and ideological enemies, unexpectedly entered into a mutual non-aggression treaty, which shocked and confused the world. These sworn enemies were now military allies, although their alliance would implode in slightly less than two years. The treaty was signed and sealed just as Germany was preparing its invasion of Poland, and the timing of the treaty was no coincidence. Germany feared a two-front war and the Soviet Union feared Germany. Both nations showed that they could be cynically expedient in matters of foreign policy.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Germany and the Soviet Union also signed a secret addendum to the treaty which, although rumored to exist, would not be fully disclosed until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
That secret protocol divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union by specifically designating their respective “spheres of influence.” Delegated to the Soviet Union were the region of Bessarabia, which Russia had lost to Romania after the First World War, and the Baltic States, i.e., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland. In addition, the two dictatorships agreed to divide Poland between them at a north-south line created by the rivers Narew, Vistula, and San.
Eight days after the signing of the treaty in Moscow, Poland was attacked from both directions. Germany invaded across Poland’s western border on September 1, and Soviet troops penetrated Poland’s eastern frontier shortly thereafter. Misinformation in Poland, combined with the Poles’ hoping against hope, proved beneficial to the Soviet invasion. At first, many in eastern Poland, especially Poland’s ethnic Jews, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians, welcomed the Soviets as liberators. The Soviets quickly proved, however, to be as brutal as their German counterparts in the west. Within several weeks, German and Soviet troops met at the designated line of demarcation, and Poland ceased to exist.
Soon thereafter, as the Soviet Army purged the Polish government, executed Poland’s military officers and defenders, and relocated Poland’s citizens, the Soviet Union began to make demands upon Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to yield to Soviet occupation, under the pretense of protecting order and providing for mutual defense. By mid-October 1939, over 70,000 Soviet troops, a force larger than the size of the three nations’ combined standing armies, occupied those nations.
In a short time, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov dropped all pretense, instructing the Lithuanian foreign minister that, “You must take a good look at reality, and understand that in the future, small nations will have to disappear. Your Lithuania, along with the other Baltic nations, will have to join the glorious family of the Soviet Union. Therefore, you should begin to initiate your people into the Soviet system, which in the future shall reign everywhere, throughout all Europe.”
As the governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania collapsed, they were replaced by Soviet puppet governments. Consistent with the secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin’s de facto annexation of Lithuania became official on August 3, 1940. Latvia became a Soviet republic on August 5, and Estonia followed on August 6, 1940. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had over the preceding year acceded to Stalin’s escalating demands without a shot being fired. Stalin expected the same of Finland.
In October of 1939, Stalin summoned Finland to the conference table to discuss “political questions.” Soviet ultimatums would be given to Finland, and the Finns were expected to bow to those demands. Trouble was not anticipated. As Nikita Khrushchev would later write, “All we had to do was raise our voice a little bit and the Finns would obey.”
That expectation was not without reason. The Finns were clearly disadvantaged by their isolated geographical position. The Baltic Sea, which abutted Finland’s west and south, was dominated by the German and Soviet navies. The Soviet Union controlled the territory to Finland’s east and southeast.
Nazi Germany would be of no assistance, the German ambassador to Finland having been instructed to “avoid any commitments which would disturb German-Soviet relations.” The western democracies, France and Britain, located on the other side of Germany, could not have assisted Finland if they had wanted to, which they didn’t. Although they were allied against Germany (ostensibly for the purpose of protecting and assuring Polish sovereignty), they were not at war with the Soviet Union. Nor were they inclined to escalate the war to check Soviet aggression against Poland or anyone else. The western Allies would be of no assistance to the Finns.
Finland’s geography would provide one major advantage, however, against the Soviet invasion: Finland is one of the coldest places on Earth, and winter was just around the corner.
The Finnish delegation arrived at the Kremlin in October, 1939. The negotiations with the Soviets extended into November as the Finns stalled for time. At the final meeting between the two countries, the Soviets’ ultimatum to the Finnish delegation was crystal clear: Stalin demanded that Finland cede a substantial portion of Finnish territory to the Soviets and allow Soviet troops to occupy Finland.
Stalin told Paasikivi that, should Finland refuse immediate Soviet occupation, the Soviet Union already had a million Soviet soldiers in place and poised to attack Finland.
The Finnish foreign minister requested a phone.
“Excuse me for a moment,” said Paasikivi. “May I have a telephone to talk to my government?
“Certainly,” said Stalin.
A telephone was delivered to the conference table, and Paasikivi called the assembled Finnish government. In Russian, he instructed them, “Please tell our 350,000 troops to put three bullets in each of their rifles. The Russians are threatening to attack us with a million men.”
Stalin was speechless. The Finnish delegation rose, closed their briefcases, and walked out.
The Russians soon staged a border incident, and then in a bogus “retaliation for Finnish aggression,” attacked Finland from the east and southeast, initiating the Winter War.
Although the Soviets grossly outnumbered the Finns in both men and material, the Finnish winter proved to be extreme, and it wreaked havoc on the Soviets’ mechanized army. Russian tanks and vehicles froze solid in the forty-below-zero conditions. The thick pine forests and frozen rivers, lakes, and swamps proved impassible. The badly-coordinated Soviet troops became stranded in the ice- and snow-covered mountains. The Finnish countryside became dotted with frozen Russian troops, many of which spent the winter preserved in bizarre standing, leaning, and sitting positions.
The Finnish army, armed with rifles and mounted on skis, annihilated the remainder. Finland halted the Soviet invasion in its tracks, and, for a time, garnered the respect and admiration of the free world. That respect would not survive the later alliance between the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Finland, having been belligerent against our Russian ally, would be denied membership into the United Nations for ten years after World War II, finally being admitted into the U.N. with Spain, Italy, and Austria in 1955. The Winter War, and the criminal acts of the Soviet Union which led to it, would become an embarrassing footnote in western history books.
Paasikivi, meanwhile, had swagger. Three months into the Winter War, the international press quoted him as saying, “Our troops are complaining. They are complaining that the ground is so frozen, it is difficult to bury the Russians.” Paasikivi’s swagger was not bluster: The Russian dead in the Winter War totaled over 200,000 to Finland’s 24,900. In addition, the Russians lost nearly 1,000 planes and 2,300 tanks and armored cars in the Winter War.
In the spring of 1940, knowing that they could not withstand the Soviets indefinitely, the Finnish government returned to the negotiation table. This time they had considerable bargaining power. Some territorial concessions were made to the Russians but Finland retained its independence. Over the next five years, as the world engaged in the Second World War, Finland would fight two more campaigns against the Soviets and one against the Germans. Ultimately, Finland kept its independence, even during its post-war isolation.
Finland, a nation of six million, had successfully defended itself against a country 30 times its size. Although they knew the odds were overwhelming, the Finns also knew that the Soviet purges of the late 1930s had left the Soviet army’s leadership uncoordinated, political, and in-fighting. The mistakes made by the Russian army in the Winter War, especially their decision to send a mechanized force into the Finnish winter, were predictable if not inevitable.
The Finnish Army, meanwhile, was composed mainly of sharpshooters on skis, and their tactics and training proved were highly effective. Finland, along with its Scandinavian neighbors, had invented the Biathlon. Paasikivi wasn’t bluffing: All his soldiers seemed to require were skis and three bullets in each gun, although they also made formidable use of improvised petrol bombs which they dubbed “Molotov’s cocktails.” Also containing kerosene and tar, these were remarkably effective when directed at the air intakes of Soviet tanks.
As lawyers, we all have had our “Paasikivi moments.” I recently represented a shareholder in a corporate break-up. After a year-long, discovery-intensive battle culminating in a 12-hour mediation wherein we laid out the mutual assured destruction scenario which was eminent should this situation continue, my client got his life back. He is still a good client, and I am his best pal.
As a young lawyer in the early eighties, I was retained to represent a man in a case that carried mandatory jail time. The defendant was determined not to go to jail. This fellow’s problems were multiple: a pending divorce, problems at work, substance abuse issues, and he had some mental health issues as well. When he said, “I won’t survive in jail,” I took him at his word. This case was going to trial.
At the last minute the day before, the assistant DA called and offered to have my client plead to a lesser included offense, adding that he didn’t have time to waste trying this. He had bigger fish to fry. My client, of course, was ecstatic, and I was a hero.
It was a Paasikivi moment, possibly my first.
As for the client, we kept in touch, he got his life back in order, and he ceased his misdemeanoring.
If you recall a Paasikivi moment of yours that I could use in a follow-up to this article, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to publishing more war stories.
Sources: Elliston, “Finland Fights” (Little, Brown & Co., 1940); Moorhouse, “The Devil’s Alliance” (Perseus, 2014); Brinkley and Haskew, “The World War II Desk Reference” (Harper Collins, 2004).