Scenes from the 1939-1940 Winter War, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Finland.
Scenes from the 1939-1940 Winter War, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Finland.
Scenes from the 1939-1940 Winter War, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Finland. (SA-KUVA)

Red Dawn in Lapland

Finland shares an 833-mile border with an aggressive and unpredictable neighbor. That proximity led to a major conflict during World War II—the horrific Winter War—and even now it keeps Finns nervous about Russia’s intentions. David Wolman suited up to train with the elite soldiers who will be on the front lines if this cold feud ever gets hot.

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It was a frigid January morning on the outskirts of a Finnish military base, 62 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Daylight was still four hours away and would cast off again by midafternoon. Through darkness and gently falling snow, I could see only one of the soldiers skiing in a line ahead of me. A white camouflage cover wrapping his 60-pound pack was like a taillight in the dense, dark forest. I moved slowly, sliding my long skis, breathing heavily, and ruing the fact that the sweat on my brow and in my boots would ice up as soon as I stopped and the get-cold began. Temperatures were in the teens, but I didn’t have much right to complain. Earlier that week the high was minus five degrees. Last year at this time it was minus 30.

Dressed in white snowsuits flecked with small squares of black and gray, we moved without speaking, the only sound a light wind in the trees and the crunch of ski-pole baskets pushing through a thin layer of crust. Our group consisted of 18 elite Finnish troops, nine U.S. Marines and Green Berets, two Swedish soldiers, and me.

The trail led west, away from the garrisons of the Jaeger Brigade, a Finnish Army unit based on the edge of the town of Sodankylä. Finland’s Santa- and northern-lights-centric tourism takes place elsewhere in Lapland, leaving Sodankylä with not much more than a collection of gas stations, two kebab joints, an iffy Thai massage parlor, and the Hotel Bear Inn. If you’re here, particularly in winter, it’s probably because of the Jaegers, who are some of the most knowledgeable winter-warfare specialists in the world.

We were headed to the base’s shooting range, on a predawn excursion, just one part of a grueling 12-day course in cold-weather operations. Today’s agenda included shooting from skis, orienteering, and sled handling. Over the next few days, the group would also have to ski-race through an obstacle course, make fires in the snow, drill ice cores, build shelters, set booby traps, slaughter and cook two reindeer in the field, and self-rescue after skiing into a frigid river.

All this was preparation for the unthinkable: war with Russia. Not that anyone ever said so. During orientation a square-jawed Finnish Army captain showed us a map depicting the week’s combat simulations. When he said that the enemy would be attacking from the west, I expected chuckles: Sweden isn’t exactly known for bellicosity. But no one laughed. To the professionals who would have to do the actual fighting, the prospect of conflict with anyone, from any direction, just isn’t funny.

(Petra Zeiler)

Finland and Russia share an 833-mile border and, despite a long history of conflict, have gotten along pretty well over the past half-century. Some of this can be attributed to Finland’s unblinking focus on national defense, coupled with an almost religious pragmatism about the perils of its neighborhood. Finland is a member of the European Union, works closely with the U.S. and allied militaries, and is one of the most liberal democracies in the world. However, a policy of nonalignment when it comes to NATO has enabled the country to lean so decisively west without alienating Russia. During the past few decades, the collapse of the Soviet Union, coupled with soaring Finnish prosperity, further reduced tensions, especially for young urbanites in Helsinki. Russia is one of Finland’s top trading partners, and nowadays shoppers and tourists from across the border are as commonplace to Finns as moose and saunas.

But when the Shirtless Judo Cowboy barged into Crimea and Ukraine in 2014, the equipoise between Finland and Russia was suddenly upset. The takeover made it clear that Vladimir Putin was done with the existing world order. In the three years since, the tension has only grown, thanks to Brexit, hard-right populism elsewhere in Europe, Russian military maneuvers, a buildup of NATO forces along the Russian border, the civil war in Syria, and the Russia-friendly verbiage of President Donald Trump.

A war may sound unlikely, but there’s a memory that’s always in the minds of many Finns: 78 years ago, the nation held its own after an invasion by the Soviet Union, enduring conditions too miserable to fathom.

Before I connected with the Jaeger Brigade, I spent time with a group of military buffs dedicated to memorializing this event—the Winter War, a 105-day conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union that took place over the winter of 1939–40.

Hiking quickly along narrow paths cut through a forest and snowed-over bog near the town of Suomussalmi, Sami Pihlajamaa paused and pointed a cigarette toward a waist-deep hole in the snow. Draped over it was a replica of a makeshift tent, providing what would have been just enough headroom for a soldier, his knees crammed against the hard, frigid ground. Extending through the top of the shelter was a tin pipe about 18 inches around—the chimney for a fire. Temperatures for the Red Army grunt who once huddled in this hole, and thousands of others like him, were as low as minus 40 degrees.

Pihlajamaa, 45, runs the nearby Raaten Portti Winter War Museum. (He is also, should Finland ever need one, a decent stand-in for Jon Hamm.) Over the past two days, he and some other locals had staged this “rat hole” for today’s event, a reenactment and memorial service honoring soldiers who served in the Winter War.

“They were howling when they were running,” a combat reenactor told me. Most were shot, a small number escaped or were captured, and many froze.

The cobbled-together woodstove attached to that chimney came with a catch. “They couldn’t light the fires,” Pihlajamaa said. “If they did, they would get picked off by the Finnish soldiers hiding silent somewhere close.” After a slow pull on his Marlboro, Pihlajamaa said of the phantom Soviet soldier hiding here: “He was going to die, and he knew it.” To underscore the statement, he picked up a vintage Red Army helmet and held it to the sky so I could see the bullet hole in front. Then, with care, he set it back in the snow.

In late November 1939, the Soviets marched into Finland with a fighting force nearly three times as large as the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. Why Finland? Readying for what he assumed would be eventual war against Germany, Stalin, like Hitler, was busy editing the map of Europe to his strategic advantage. Finland mattered because of its perch above the Baltic Sea and because its southeastern border with the Soviet Union was less than 20 miles from Leningrad. If the Germans took Finland, they would be dangerously close to this Red Army stronghold.

A simple fix, Stalin reasoned, was to gobble up the country, which had gained independence from Russia only two decades earlier. Finland’s 3.5 million people would put up little or no opposition, he thought. According to some bad intel, they would even welcome the Soviets as liberators. Expecting as much, the first divisions rolled into Finland carrying musical instruments for a celebration. The operation was euphemistically called the Winter Offensive of the Leningrad Military District.

The Soviets “invaded a neighbor so infinitesimally small that it could do no conceivable possible harm,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it. More than a David and Goliath contest, the Winter War became a fight over nothing less than the organization of society, of totalitarianism versus democracy.

Scenes from the 1939-1940 Winter War, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Finland.
Scenes from the 1939-1940 Winter War, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Finland. (SA-KUVA)

With snowfall picking up again, Pihlajamaa, dressed in vintage winter fatigues over an old, weathered snowsuit, continued following the boot-pack trail to the edge of a lake. What took place here and along nearby Raate Road was one of the pivotal battles of the Winter War. Soviet forces had arrived in Finland in massive convoys, restricted almost exclusively to the rutted roads connecting the two countries. As the Red Army’s 44th Rifle Division moved westward, trying to link up with another nearby division, the Finns blew up a few Russian tanks and trucks along sections of the convoy, halting their advance. With mines and booby traps in place, they blocked the Soviets from joining their comrades or retreating to the border and cut off any new supply lines. Soviet command shrugged and told the 44th to take cover in the surrounding forest and fight.

For the thousands of Red Army troops shivering in rat holes, hunger quickly set in. The few horses on hand were slaughtered and eaten during the first days of January 1940; other desperate men boiled and ate their belts.

Meanwhile, Finnish soldiers on skis delivered unpredictable raids and sniper fire, creating an impression that the forest itself wanted the Red Army dead. Tales of Finnish snipers have become legend, none more so than that of five-foot-three Simo Häyhä, a.k.a. the White Death, who’s credited with at least 500 kills.

“The Finnish soldiers, they were everywhere,” Pihlajamaa told me, tracing a circle with his hand. The captured commander of the Red Army division would later recall that he never even saw a Finnish combatant until he was taken prisoner. “When we sent our sentries to take their positions around the camp,” he said, “we knew that within minutes they would be dead with a bullet hole in the forehead or the throat slashed by a dagger.”

While Red Army troops froze, Finnish units sheltered in comfortable snow caves and, farther back from the front, warm tents for a dozen men or more, complete with roaring woodstoves, reindeer furs, lanterns, and radios. There are even accounts of Finnish soldiers building saunas in the forest.

The Finns had weaponized winter. Many Soviet soldiers grew so hungry, cold, and psychologically tortured that they ditched their dugouts to surrender or flee back across the border. “They were howling when they were running,” a combat reenactor told me. Most were shot, a small number escaped or were captured, and many froze. Roughly 5,700 Soviets may have perished during the Suomussalmi-Raate battles, compared with an estimated 600 Finns. In all, the war claimed nearly 26,000 Finns and 140,000 Red Army soldiers. The trees around Raate, Pihlajamaa told me, are still crying from what they witnessed.

This history helps explain why recent Russian aggression has put Finns on edge. The mayor of one small town near the border put it starkly: “We just do not know what Putin does. Or will do.” Another man at the Raate event said his parents and others in town talk about how the situation today reminds them of Stalin. And then there’s President Trump. Sipping vodka from a paper cup inside a cozy Finnish Army tent, the man said, “We don’t know nothing about Mr. Trump. Who is he? And what is he doing? And for whom?”

Pihlajamaa and I continued along the trail from the museum to an end point at Lake Kokkojärvi (Bonfire Lake), where about 20 people had gathered to cook sausages over a fire and experience a bit of wartime history. A textbook summary of the Winter War might say that Finland ultimately lost. It certainly capitulated; the country had to relinquish large swaths of territory along the border and a few years later was forced to give up access to the Arctic Ocean. Yet among Finns, and indeed much of the world, the Winter War is considered an astonishing victory; independence saved against extraordinary odds. “Finland was flexible but did not break,” Pihlajamaa said, pouring me a cup of vodka. “It is a horrible thing, what took place here,” he said. “But we’re proud for our nation. It is key to our dignity.”

On most nights with the Jaegers, the first order of business was food. Returning to the garrison after 9 P.M., having eaten little between lunch and dinner but insufficiently softened MREs, we smacked the snow off our boots and aimed ourselves at the boxes of sugar cookies, yogurt, fruit drinks, and tired-looking apples set out in the common room.

Some of the Finnish soldiers would change into their standard army uniforms and walk to the sauna, about half a mile away, while one especially gung-ho U.S. Marine loaded up on protein powder and hit the gym. Most of us stayed in the barracks, scarfing food and beginning the task of unpacking, organizing, prepping, and repacking gear for the next day’s mission, loading balled-up newspaper into boots to absorb moisture overnight, cleaning weapons, and decorating every inch of the wall heaters with wet boot liners, balaclavas, gloves, mittens, wool socks, and undershirts.

Downtime was critical. Fitness, endurance, skiing skill—these things matter for high-level functioning at low temperatures. But so do the endless hours of gear preparation. You have to get the little things right, like which pocket to stash a balaclava in while you’re skiing, and how to buckle and unbuckle bindings while wearing mittens, since bare skin on metal in subzero temperatures is a no-no. You learn that seemingly trivial details can be just as important for your welfare, and your unit’s, as trauma bandages or ammunition.

One evening, seated on the thin foam mattress on his bunk, a Finnish soldier I’ll call Tim was meticulously wrapping the stock and handgrip of his RK 62 rifle with white tape. (“Is the tape for camouflage or just cool looking?” I asked. “Both,” he said.) While an American and a Finnish soldier next to us discussed the different complications that arise when you get sand versus snow in a weapon, Tim and I got to talking about Finland’s place in the world, a soldier’s place in modern-day Finland, and the role of wars past.

Twentysomething, with wide eyes and eyebrows leaning into each other, Tim began detailing a family history that, like almost everyone’s in Finland, reached status critical during the Winter War. His grandfather, still a teenager, was part of the home defense of a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland that was ultimately lost to the Soviets.

Some Finns today, Tim told me, have grown skeptical of the need for a robust defense force. The notion seems dated, based on a worldview rooted in Cold War resentment, not modern geopolitical necessity. Sweden ended its policy of mandatory military service, and some Swedes at the time chided Finland for not doing the same. “You have these people with the idea that life is all flowers and happy,” Tim said. “But it’s not.”

Now the Russian threat is heating up again; Sweden itself is about to resume conscription. In some ways it’s worse than before, or at least more complex, because of the sunny interlude after the Iron Curtain fell. In the past, Finns knew where they stood. But now? The situation is analogous to the instability of snowpack on a slope after a thaw-refreeze event. Yet an upside to all this, Tim told me as he cleared his rifle chamber, is that homeland security is once more a legitimate concern. “The situation in Crimea and Ukraine woke people up. It put the notion of having a strong defense force back in people’s minds.”

US and Finnish soldiers training in Sodankylä
US and Finnish soldiers training in Sodankylä (Joonas Mattila/Finnish Army)

The Russian takeover of Crimea and aggression toward Ukraine may have been the most destabilizing recent event in Eastern Europe, but other provocations—perceived or real—have been plentiful. In 2014, a Russian submarine was detected in the Stockholm archipelago, prompting Sweden’s largest naval mobilization in decades. Six months later, when a sub was detected off the coast of Helsinki, the Finns took things a step further, firing depth charges at a presumed, but not confirmed, Russian vessel. (A leading theory is that the Russians were looking for, and possibly trying to tap, undersea telecommunications cables.) Russia has also reopened a base near the Finnish border and has nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in the region.

Headlines about these developments point to a climate of escalation: “Facing Russian Threat, Nordic Leaders Talk Tactics,” “Scared by Russia, Sweden and Finland Make War Pact,” “Cold War Jitters Resurface as U.S. Marines Arrive in Norway.” However, a Department of Defense official told me recently not to interpret it that way. “It’s more messaging about where the limits are,” she said, which was not very reassuring.

Last spring, U.S. secretary of defense James Mattis met with Finnish defense minister Jussi Niinistö in Washington, D.C. This was a signal that the Pentagon is serious about its relationship with Finland and with that 833-mile line in the snow. And in August, President Trump invited Finnish president Sauli Niinistö to the White House.

Yet so far Trump has only undermined the spirit of allegiance with Finland and the rest of Europe. He has criticized and questioned the need for NATO, his trip to Europe last spring was characterized by more America Firsting, and his summertime powwow with Putin was a cause for serious concern among U.S. allies. As one Finnish Ministry of Defense official told me: Finns are well accustomed to uncertainty coming from the east, “but now we have uncertainty coming from across the Atlantic.”

One morning with the Jaegers, during shooting exercises, I got a taste of how worried some people are about the new world disorder. As the wind whipped snow across the bleak, floodlit expanse separating shooters from targets, a stocky Finnish soldier removed his ear protection and politely asked me what I thought about my new president. He said Trump’s talk about dumping NATO, about a more isolationist America, about Putin, about anything except for steaks, had made unease the norm in Finland. “When I learned that he won,” he said, “I wondered: Should I get more ammo?”

On one training day, we skied into the forest beyond the base to practice on a steep slope that dips down to a meadow. Finland doesn’t have much in the way of mountains. Yet the glaciated landscape in this part of Lapland and along the border areas to the south is marked by rolling, thickly forested hills intercut with rivers, bogs, lakes, and tiny ponds created when chunks of receding glacier broke off and melted in place. Describing Finland’s interior and the torment it caused the Soviets, author John Langdon-Davies once wrote: “Every acre of its surface was created to be the despair of an attacking military force.”

We spent the next three hours walking duckfooted uphill and doing kick turns, which Finns call Laplanders. It was easy to spot the seasoned skiers, compared with the soldiers who hadn’t done it in a while, or the Green Beret—from North Carolina, God love him—who had never been on skis in his life. The Finnish officers were ludicrously good. Transitioning in nanoseconds from a standstill to full motor, heels sweeping back, skis lightly slapping the surface of the snow, they dashed up a road or broke trail through 14 inches of powder. In a country where the cultural DNA is more ski track than double helix, this is just how it’s done.

When the exercises were completed, we skied about half a mile toward the base, arriving at an obstacle course used for basic training in summer. Leaning over his poles, a Jaeger captain explained that we would complete the course buckled into our bindings. The next thing I knew we were skiing up to a metal ladder and crawling or limboing—still on skis—beneath the bottom rung, side-stepping across logs, jumping from four-foot ledges, tearing down 50-degree mounds, bending and kick-turning through a maze, and commando-crawling under a web of rope, pushing skis in front of us as we went. At one point I spotted the Green Beret from North Carolina, the left side of his face gashed and bloodied.

The following afternoon, it was time to read the snow. A burly Finnish Army captain who smoked a pipe and was armed with not one but three puukkos—the famed Finnish knives—taught us how to scrutinize ski tracks. Fresh tracks with collapsing walls, for instance, suggest a lone patroller, while cleaner, more compacted walls indicate a unit of skiers. If the tracks are extra deep, the skiers may be carrying more weight, like a heavy machine gun.

After practicing how to conceal tracks with broken branches and to set booby traps to slow pursuers, we tied our skis together with leather belts and piled into two Hägglunds BV 206 troop transporters, tank-like vehicles that soldiers simply call BVs. It had been dark for hours when we started drilling cores from the Jeesiö River to test whether the ice was thick enough to safely hold the vehicles. (It was.) Most of us had donned our “happy suits,” big white Stay Puft Marshmallow onesies that helped, somewhat, to fend off the cold. As one instructor droned on about the physics of freezing and another struggled to unfold a long ice saw, soldiers stood with arms crossed over their ammo vests, occasionally doing sets of ten or fifteen squats to keep their blood moving.

Finally, it was time for the plunge. We made our way to an area by the river where course instructors had cut a large hole in the ice. Spotlights next to the hole illuminated the scene in the otherwise pitch-black night.

For this drill, we had to ski down a small ramp and into the water, then get our gear and ourselves out without dying. I know what you’re thinking: polar bear plunges are invigorating! Maybe so. But dunking in nearly freezing water when you’re dehydrated and already cold, clothed in ski gear and thick rubber boots, and without a warm sauna to hop into afterward, is not beneficial. It’s potentially fatal.

Sauced on adrenaline, I stood on the shore in my happy suit to watch a Green Beret from Michigan glide into the frozen hellhole. Mike (not his real name) had kept me laughing much of the week with lighthearted jabs at the Finnish officers, who insisted that we wear only the clothes they prescribed, and with his antipathy toward the very conditions in which we found ourselves in Finland. “I just hate cold water,” he told me, the resignation in his voice reminding me of Indiana Jones saying: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

As Mike’s skis disappeared into the black, his eyes went freakishly wide, like an infant getting their first bath. He knew his assignment: move his weapon, pack, and skis up onto the ice before climbing out. But the body sometimes makes its own plans, especially when expiry is imminent. Mike did a few frantic strokes to the edge of the hole and threw his arms on the ledge. Three Finnish officers stood around the opening, barking at him to retrieve his gear.

The skis had floated to the other end. Mike unshouldered his rifle and managed to shove it and the pack out of the water. By this point he was breathing in long gasps, moving hand over hand along the edge of the hole to reach the skis. Once he’d finally pushed them onto the ice, he grabbed his poles and, gripping them just above the baskets, used the bladed tips to stab the ice and pull himself forward. Repeating this sequence once more, he was out. Miserable, but out.

Stepping onto my skis and throwing my pack over my shoulder, I recalled two pieces of advice Tim had given me the night before: Try not to let your head get wet, and kick like hell. Before I knew it, I was in. After pushing my gear up onto the ice, I did a few freestyle strokes back to the ramp. Three or four hard kicks later, I found myself standing, then stumbling waterlogged through the snow, chattering f-bombs with each exhale as I hurried up the trail to the supply of dry clothes stashed in my backpack.

When it was all done, when I’d managed to get dressed and jog around a little, I was able, for the first time in three days, to detach myself enough from the incessant attention to body temperature and thirst to have this thought: If Russia attacks, will any of this make a lick of difference?

This is the year 2017, the age of cyberwarfare, stealth warships, photon cannons, precision aerial surveillance, and Massive Ordnance Penetrators. The tools of modern conflict feel rather distant from tasks like starting a fire in the snow or properly applying ski wax.

True, soldiers must be ready for anything. And diverse skills and challenging exercises boost morale, stamina, and overall readiness. Yet from 50 yards away, our “snow-how” sometimes looked like it had been sourced from 1930s newsreels. I felt this acutely during our first day on skis, when we competed in relay races, hopping in and out of bindings and skiing back and forth, a couple of the biggest and burliest Finns laughing as they flopped across the finish line. I had a similar impression when we practiced telemark turns and one of the skiers asked me to take his picture as he went over a jump.

The possibility that the Finnish military’s wintertime edge is a relic doesn’t pair well with the nation’s spirit of self-reliance. As one Finnish military expert told me: “We were left alone in the Winter War. We survived. That was a miracle.”

One afternoon in Sodankylä, we practiced defending against an air attack in the forest. The BVs were parked in a clearing; the sky was a deep shade of indigo. Eight soldiers in the back and four of us in front quickly emerged and fanned out to take cover among the trees, RKs pointing up at an imaginary helicopter. We repeated this drill three or four times. During a pause, I asked a Marine, a guy who had recently returned from the Middle East, if this kind of exercise even mattered.

“The tactics aren’t wrong or anything,” he shrugged. But he agreed that it felt dated. The white camouflage netting we unfurled over the parked BVs, for example, would provide little cover from a surveillance aircraft using thermal-detection technology.

Dunking in nearly freezing water when you’re dehydrated and already cold, clothed in ski gear and thick rubber boots, and without a warm sauna to hop into afterward, is not beneficial. It’s potentially fatal.

As for rehearsing a possible air attack, the Marine was more blunt: “If it’s a drone, you’re not even going to see anything. You’re only going to hear a whizzing sound before you get blown up.” A cyber attack would be quieter still, up there, everywhere, in the cloud, not a single shot fired, and by morning the enemy would have control of the electrical grid, financial systems, air traffic. In a word, takeover.

A few days after freezing my ass off with the Jaeger Brigade, I met Jukka Juusti, secretary of Finland’s Ministry of Defense, at his headquarters in Helsinki. Juusti sat and sipped tea at the same conference table that field marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, hero of the Winter War, had used to pore over maps and conjure a strategy of defense against the invading Soviets.

“There’s no doubt that Russia is building up military capability,” Juusti said. The diplomacy that has enabled Finland to coexist peacefully with Russia for two generations remains crucial. As such, criticisms, or even facts that could be interpreted as criticisms, are often countered. “We are pretty much used to our neighbors,” he quickly added. “It’s quiet. We don’t feel the threat.” Possibly because there isn’t one yet. On an excursion to the eastern edge of the country early on during my trip, a retired member of Finland’s elite Border Guard pointed to a set of hare tracks running under a gate and leading off into the forests of Russia. “We’ve had a border incident!” he said, laughing.

Finland is not Ukraine. To the extent Putin can be read, he sees Ukraine as very much part of the Russian sphere of influence—economically, strategically, even culturally. Not so Finland. If there ever was an invasion, the bogus justification would probably be, in the words of one Finnish defense official, “part of some bigger game in Scandinavia.” This seems unlikely, but unpredictability means exactly that. Six months before it happened, few would have guessed that Russia would invade Ukraine.

One thing the Russians have made clear is that Finland (or Sweden) joining NATO represents a line in the sand. Neither country looks keen to do so. Even if one or both did apply, all 29 member states would have to agree to the expansion, knowing full well how angry Putin would become. Instead, the Finns have been increasing cooperation and collaboration with the West. Tight partnerships are no Article 5 guarantee—the NATO doctrine that considers an attack on one an attack on all—but it’s something. Sweden and Finland have publicly stated that if either country is struck, the other will not remain neutral.

The Finns are loathe to reveal much about their arsenal but happy to discuss their successful conscription program, large reserve force (900,000 strong), and national will to fight, which surveys suggest is second only to Israel’s. Finland has some of the most sophisticated rocket systems in the world, it recently purchased 120 new tactical drones, and it’s set to buy 60 new warplanes this year. It also has a $1.4 billion upgrade planned for select warships in the coming years.

Last year, Finland passed a law shortening the call-up time for reservists. Meanwhile, a center for excellence in so-called hybrid defense—the now common mix of cyber and conventional tactics—just opened in Helsinki. There, EU specialists and allies will monitor threats and research how best to counter those that fall into that vast gray area between peace and conflict, cyber hostility and real-world weaponry. As one U.S. Defense Department official told me, the plan “fits the narrative of Finns stepping up security, not just for themselves but for neighbors as well.”

When Juusti’s honesty-diplomacy pendulum swung back again, it was time for some frankness about history, recent tensions, and Finnish defense. Depending on how you count and how far back you go, people who can loosely be described as Russian have gone to war against people loosely described as Finnish dozens of times. For officials like Juusti, ignoring the importance of credible defense would mean ignoring history itself.

A key component of that defense is securing the north. The Red Army nearly overwhelmed the Finns during the Winter War in part because no one had anticipated such a furious Soviet attack in a sparsely populated area. Juusti wouldn’t elaborate on specific military capabilities except to say that commandos on skis in Lapland are very much part of modern Finland’s defense strategy: “We are more ready now than we used to be.”

Not ready to win like you win a biathlon or a football game, but ready to safeguard independence by making the cost of invasion viciously expensive.

Hearing this, I recalled my final night in Sodankylä. We were riding back to base in the all-terrain carriers after the freezing-water drill. Exhaustion was overtaking me so completely that, despite the loud hum of the vehicle, I nearly fell asleep.

Looking out the window into the moonlit forest, I spotted two silhouetted skiers. At first they looked like something else—snowmobiles, maybe—because they were moving so fast. But then the shapes came into focus, darting along a trail parallel to the road, arms and poles moving rhythmically, lights from their headlamps blinking each time the skiers passed behind a tree.

I stared at them, mesmerized by their grace and speed. Then I imagined them continuing on for another 20 or 30 miles before digging a snow cave, stripping out of their sweaty gear, zipping into happy suits, and taking up a position overlooking a strategic bridge near the border, sniper rifles at the ready. Then I imagined another team of two or ten skiers, 100 miles away, moving silently across the border into Russia, armed with explosives, and another group elsewhere in Lapland, escorting a flight crew through a frigid snowscape to a cave in the middle of nowhere, where a fighter jet was being readied for launch.

Pihlajamaa, the Raate Road reenactor, had told me that before his military service, he had always assumed modern-day Finland wouldn’t stand a chance against Russia. “Too big, too powerful,” he said. But after his training, after learning firsthand how, if they had to, his fellow Finns would take to the forests and transform once again into deadly apparitions, he expressed a different opinion. “I would feel bad for the Russians.”

David Wolman (@davidwolman) is working on a book about cowboys. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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