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Ukrainian War of Independence
Part of World War I and the Russian Civil War
January uprising.jpg
Armed workers of the January Arsenal Uprising in Kiev
Date8 November 1917 – 17 November 1921
(4 years, 1 week and 2 days)
LocationCentral and Eastern Europe
Result Bolshevik victory
Most of Ukraine forms the Ukrainian SSR, while Poland seizes what is now western Ukraine.

Ukrainian People's Republic
West Ukrainian People's Republic
 German Empire (1918)

Poland (1920-1921)
Ukrainian SSR
 Russian SFSR
Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine
(allied with the Bolsheviks until 1919)

Hetmanate of Ukraine

White Movement
 German Empire (1917–1918)

Romania (1918)

Poland (1918–1919)

France (1919)

Greece (1919)

The Ukrainian War of Independence was a period from 1917 to 1921 of sustained warlike conflict between different political and military forces, which resulted in the establishment and development of a Ukrainian republic, later a part of the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It comprised a series of military conflicts between Ukrainians who supported different governmental, political and military forces, among them Ukrainian nationalists, anarchists, Bolsheviks, the Central Powers forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the White Russian Volunteer Army, and Second Polish Republic forces for control of Ukraine after the February Revolution in the Russian Empire. Also involved were foreign interventionists, in particular France and Romania. The struggle lasted from February 1917 to November 1921 and resulted in the division of Ukraine between the Bolshevik Ukrainian SSR, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. The conflict is frequently viewed within the framework of the Russian Civil War as well as the closing stage of the First World War.

Background[edit | edit source]

During the First World War Ukraine was in the front lines of the main combatants: the Entente-allied Russian Empire and Romania, and the Central Powers of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary. By the start of 1917 – after the Brusilov Offensive – the Imperial Russian Army held a front line which partially reclaimed Volhynia and eastern Galicia.

Eastern Front of World War I in 1917

The February Revolution of 1917 encouraged many ethnic groups in the Russian Empire to demand greater autonomy and various degrees of self-determination. A month later, the Ukrainian People's Republic was declared in Kiev as an autonomous entity with close ties to the Russian Provisional Government, and governed by a socialist-dominated Tsentralna Rada ("Central Council"). The weak and ineffective Provisional Government in Petrograd continued its loyalty to the entente and the increasingly unpopular war, launching the Kerensky Offensive in the summer of 1917. This Offensive was a complete disaster for the Imperial Russian Army. The German counter-attack caused Russia to lose all their gains of 1916, as well as destroy the morale of its army, which caused the near-complete disintegration of the armed forces and the governing apparatus all over the vast Empire. Many deserting soldiers and officers – particularly ethnic Ukrainians – had lost faith in the future of the Empire, and found the increasingly self-determinant Central Rada a much more favourable alternative. Nestor Makhno began his anarchist activity in the south of Ukraine by disarming deserting Russian soldiers and officers who crossed the Gaychur River next to Gulyai Pole, while in the east in the industrial Donets Basin there were frequent strikes by Bolshevik-infiltrated trade unions.

Ukraine after the Russian revolution[edit | edit source]

February 1918 article from The New York Times showing a map of the Russian Imperial territories claimed by Ukraine People's Republic at the time, before the annexation of the Austro-Hungarian lands of the West Ukrainian People's Republic

Ukrainian People's Republic poster by B. Shippikh, Kiev, 1917

All this led to the October Revolution in Petrograd, which quickly spread all over the empire. The Kiev Uprising in November 1917 led to the defeat of Russian imperial forces in the capital. Soon after, the Central Rada took power in Kiev, while in late December 1917 the Bolsheviks set up a rival Ukrainian republic in the eastern city of Kharkov (Ukrainian language: Kharkiv ) – initially also called the "Ukrainian People's Republic".[1] Hostilities against the Central Rada government in Kiev began immediately. Under these circumstances, the Rada declared Ukrainian independence on January 22, 1918 and broke ties with Russia.[2][3]

The Rada had limited armed force (the Ukrainian People's Army) at its disposal and was hard-pressed by the Kharkov government which received men and resources from the Russian SFSR. As a result, the Bolsheviks quickly overran Poltava, Aleksandrovsk (now Zaporizhia), and Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk) by January 1918. Across Ukraine, local Bolsheviks also formed the Odessa and Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republics; and in the south Nestor Makhno formed the Free Territory – an anarchist region – then allied his forces with the Bolsheviks. Aided by the earlier Kiev Arsenal Uprising, the Red Guards entered the capital on February 9, 1918. This forced the Central Rada to evacuate to Zhytomyr. In the meantime, the Romanians took over Bessarabia and the Germans captured Kishinev (Romanian language: Chişinău ). Most remaining Russian Army units either allied with the Bolsheviks or joined the Ukrainian People's Army. A notable exception was Colonel Mikhail Drozdovsky, who marched his White Volunteer Army unit across the whole of Novorossiya to the River Don, defeating Makhno's forces in the process.

German intervention and Hetmanate, 1918[edit | edit source]

Europe in 1919 after the treaties of Brest Litovsk

Faced with imminent defeat, the Rada turned to its still hostile opponents – the Central Powers – for a truce and alliance, which was accepted by Germany in the first Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (signed on February 9, 1918) in return for desperately needed food supplies which Ukraine would provide to the Germans. The German and Austro-Hungarian armies then drove the Bolsheviks out of Ukraine, taking Kiev on March 1. Two days later, the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which formally ended hostilities on the Eastern Front of World War I and left Ukraine in a German sphere of influence.

Yet disturbances continued throughout Eastern Ukraine, where local Bolsheviks, Greens, and the anarchist Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine refused to subordinate to Germany. Former Russian Army General Pavlo Skoropadsky led a successful German-backed coup against the Rada on April 29.[2] He proclaimed the conservative Hetmanate, and reversed many of the policies of the former government. The new government had close ties to Berlin, but Skoropadsky never declared war on any of the Triple Entente powers; Skoropadsky also placed Ukraine in a position that made it a safe haven for many upper- and middle-class people fleeing Bolshevik Russia, and was keen on recruiting many former Russian Army soldiers and officers. Despite sporadic harassment from Makhno, the Hetmanate enjoyed relative peace until November 1918; when the Central Powers were defeated on the Western Front, Germany completely withdrew from Ukraine. Skoropadsky left Kiev with the Germans, and the Hetmanate was in turn overthrown by the socialist Directorate.

Resumed hostilities, 1919[edit | edit source]

File:Картина Перфецького "Київ, 31 сепня 1919 р.".jpg

Leonid Perfetsky. Kyiv, Aug 1919

Almost immediately after the defeat of Germany, Lenin's government annulled the Brest-Litovsk Treaty – which Leon Trotsky described as "no war no peace" – and invaded Ukraine and other countries of Eastern Europe that were formed under German protection. Simultaneously, the collapse of the Central Powers affected the former Austrian province of Galicia, which was populated by Ukrainians and Poles. The Ukrainians proclaimed a Western Ukrainian People's Republic in Eastern Galicia, which wished to unite with the Ukrainian People's Republic; while the Poles – who were mainly concentrated in Lwów (now Lviv) – gave their allegiance to the newly formed Second Polish Republic. Both sides became increasingly hostile with each other. On January 22, 1919, the Western Ukrainian People's Republic and the Ukrainian People's Republic signed an Act of Union in Kiev. By October 1919, the Western Ukrainian People's Republic was defeated by Polish forces in the Polish-Ukrainian War and Eastern Galicia was annexed to Poland; the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 granted Eastern Galicia to Poland for 25 years.[4]

The defeat of Germany had also opened the Black Sea to the Allies, and in mid-December 1918 some mixed forces under French command were landed at Odessa and Sevastopol, and months later at Kherson and Nikolayev (now Mykolaiv). The cause and purpose of French intervention was not entirely clear; French military leaders quickly became disillusioned by internal quarrels within the anti-Bolshevik forces that prevented effective collaboration against Bolshevik pressures, and they particularly criticized the White Russian Volunteer Army for its arrogance towards the local population. Strong anti-foreigner feelings among Ukrainians convinced French officers that intervention in this climate of hostility was doomed without massive support. When the French government failed to supply enough equipment and manpower for extensive military operations, the French army faced defeat at the hands of pro-Bolshevik forces and French officers counseled Paris to withdraw the expedition from Odessa and Crimea.

File:Ucrania marzo 1919.png

The relative positions of key combatants in Ukraine in March 1919

File:Ucrania noviembre 1919.png

The relative positions of key combatants in Ukraine in November 1919

A new, swift Bolshevik offensive overran most of Eastern and central Ukraine in early 1919. Kiev – under the control of Symon Petliura's Directorate – fell to the Red Army again on February 5, and the exiled Soviet Ukrainian government was re-instated as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic moved to Kiev on March 15. The Ukrainian People's Republic (UNR) faced imminent defeat against the Bolsheviks – it was reduced to a strip of land along the Polish border with its capital moving from Vinnytsia to Proskurov (now Khmelnytskyi), then to Kamianets-Podilskyi, and finally to Rivne. But the UNR was saved when the Bolshevik armies had to regroup against a renewed White Russian offensive in South Russia and the Urals, which threatened the very existence of Bolshevism – and so required more urgent attention. During the spring and summer of 1919, Anton Denikin's Volunteer Army and Don Army overran all of central and Eastern Ukraine and made significant gains on other fronts. Yet by winter the tide of war reversed decisively, and by 1920 all of Eastern and central Ukraine except Crimea was again in Bolshevik hands. The Bolsheviks also defeated Nestor Makhno, their former ally against Denikin.

Polish involvement, 1920[edit | edit source]

Again facing imminent defeat, the UNR turned to its former adversary, Poland; and in April 1920, Józef Piłsudski and Symon Petliura signed a military agreement in Warsaw to fight the Bolsheviks.[2] Just like the former alliance with Germany, this move partially sacrificed Ukrainian sovereignty: Petliura recognised the Polish annexation of Galicia and agreed to Ukraine's role in Piłsudski's dream of a Polish-centered hegemony in Eastern Europe.

Immediately after the alliance was signed, Polish forces joined the Ukrainian army in the Kiev Offensive to capture central and southern Ukraine from Bolshevik control. Initially successful, the offensive reached Kiev on May 7, 1920. However, the Polish-Ukrainian campaign was a Pyrrhic victory: in late May, the Red Army led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky staged a large counter-offensive south of Zhytomyr which pushed the Polish army almost completely out of Ukraine, except for Lviv in Galicia. In yet another reversal, in August 1920 the Red Army was defeated near Warsaw and forced to retreat. The White forces, now under General Wrangel, took advantage of the situation and started a new offensive in southern Ukraine. Under the combined circumstances of their military defeat in Poland, the renewed White offensive, and disastrous economic conditions throughout the Russian SFSR – these together forced the Bolsheviks to seek a truce with Poland.

End of hostilities, 1921[edit | edit source]

On October 12, 1921 a Soviet delegation signed an armistice and began peace talks with Poland. Meanwhile, Petliura's Ukrainian forces – which now numbered 23,000 soldiers and controlled territories immediately to the east of Poland, planned an offensive into central Ukraine for November 11 – but were attacked by the Bolsheviks on November 10. After several battles, they were driven into Polish-controlled territory by November 21. On March 18, 1921, Poland signed a peace treaty in Riga, Latvia with Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine.[2] This effectively ended Poland's alliance obligations with Petliura's Ukrainian People's Republic. According to this treaty, the Bolsheviks recognized Polish control over Galicia (Ukrainian language: Halychyna ) and western Volhynia – the western part of Ukraine – while Poland recognized the larger central parts of Ukrainian territory, as well as eastern and southern areas, as part of Soviet Ukraine.

Having secured peace on the Western front, the Bolsheviks immediately moved to crush the remnants of the White Movement. After a final offensive in the Isthmus of Perekop, the Red Army overran Crimea. Wrangel evacuated the Volunteer Army to Constantinople in November 1920. After its military and political defeat, the Directorate continued to maintain control over some of its military forces; in October 1921, it launched a series of guerrilla raids into central Ukraine that reached as far east as the modern Kiev Oblast ("Kiev province"). On November 4, the Directorate's guerrillas captured Korosten and seized a cache of military supplies. But on November 17, 1921, this force was surrounded by Bolshevik cavalry and destroyed.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

In 1922, the Russian Civil War was coming to an end in the Far East, and the Communists proclaimed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as a federation of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia. The Ukrainian Soviet government was nearly powerless in the face of a centralized monolith Communist Party apparatus based in Moscow. In the new state, Ukrainians initially enjoyed a titular nation position during the nativization and Ukrainization periods. However by 1928 Joseph Stalin had consolidated power in the Soviet Union. Thus a campaign of cultural repression started, cresting in the 1930s when a massive famine – the Holodomor – struck the republic, claiming several millions of lives. The Polish-controlled part of Ukraine had a different fate – there was very little autonomy, both politically and culturally – but it was not affected by famine. In the late 1930s the internal borders of the Ukrainian SSR were redrawn, yet no significant changes were made.

The political status of Ukraine remained unchanged until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany in August 1939 that allowed the Red Army to enter Poland and incorporate Volhynia and Galicia into the Ukrainian SSR. In June 1941, Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union and conquered Ukraine completely within the first year of the conflict. Following the Soviet victory in World War II, to which Ukrainians greatly contributed, the region of Carpathian Ruthenia – formerly a part of Hungary before 1919, of Czechoslovakia from 1919 to 1939 and again of Hungary between 1939 and 1945 – was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR, as were parts of pre-war Poland. The final expansion of Ukraine took place in 1954, when the Crimea was transferred to Ukraine from Russia with the approval of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Legacy[edit | edit source]

The war is portrayed in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The White Guard.

Gallery[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

1The Verkhovna Rada in 1992 used this design as the basis for the modern Ukrainian national flag.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Ukrainian (Soviet) People's Republic at WMS (Russian)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 J. Kim Munholland. "Ukraine.". Encyclopædia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-30076/Ukraine. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  3. Reid, Anna (2000). Borderland : A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. Westview Press. pp. 33. ISBN 0-8133-3792-5. 
  4. Arkadii Zhukovsky. "Struggle for Independence (1917–1920)". Encyclopedia of Ukraine. http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages\S\T\StruggleforIndependence1917hD720.htm. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 

External links[edit | edit source]

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