What was the Soviet-Ukrainian War (1917-1921)?

Introduction

The Soviet-Ukrainian War (Ukrainian: радянсько-українська війна, romanised: radiansko-ukrainska viina, or більшовицько-українська війна, bilshovytsko-ukrainska viina) is the term commonly used in post-Soviet Ukraine for the events taking place between 1917-1921, nowadays regarded essentially as a war between the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Bolsheviks (Ukrainian Soviet Republic and RSFSR).

The war ensued soon after the October Revolution when Lenin dispatched the Antonov’s expeditionary group to Ukraine and Southern Russia.

Soviet historical tradition viewed it as an occupation of Ukraine by military forces of Western and Central Europe, including the Polish Republic’s military – the Bolshevik victory constituting Ukraine’s liberation from these forces. Conversely, modern Ukrainian historians consider it a failed war of independence by the Ukrainian People’s Republic against the Bolsheviks.

Historiography

In Soviet historiography and terminology, the armed conflict is depicted as part of the greater Russian Civil War: in Ukraine, this war was fought between the national government (led by Symon Petliura) and the Bolshevik government (led by Lenin).

The war may be divided into three phases:

  • December 1917 to April 1918:
    • Revolutionary days, Bolshevik uprisings, invasion of the Red Guards formations, signing of protectorate treaty, and liberation from Bolsheviks.
  • December 1918 to December 1919:
    • Civil war in Ukraine, invasion of the Red Army, unification of Ukraine, anti-Soviet peasant uprisings, Denikin’s Volunteer Army and the Allied intervention, loss of West Ukraine to Poland.
  • Spring 1920 to Autumn 1921:

Important Documents

  • Declarations of the Central Council of Ukraine (Universals).
  • Ultimatum of Sovnarkom to the Central Council of Ukraine.
  • Treaty of Brest-Litovsk granting status of neutrality to Ukraine as a bufferzone for the Central Powers, as well as military protection, in negotiating peace with the Bolsheviks of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
  • Unification Act, unification of the western Ukraine.
  • Treaty of Warsaw, Polish-Ukrainian anti-Bolshevik pact.
  • Peace of Riga, splitting of Ukraine.

Background

After the February Revolution of 1917 the nationalities within the tsarist empire (renamed the Russian Republic) demanded national autonomy from Petrograd. In summer of 1917 the Provisional government approved regional administration over some parts of former tsarist Ukraine.

In October 1917 the government of Ukraine denounced the Bolsheviks’ armed revolt and declared it would decisively fight against any attempted coup in Ukraine. A special joint committee for preservation of revolution was organized to keep the situation under control. The Kiev Military District command tried to prevent a Bolshevik coup, leading to street fights and eventually surrendering of pro-Bolshevik troops in the city. On 14 November 1917 the Ukrainian Central Rada issued its “Appeal of the Central Council to the citizens of Ukraine” in which it sanctioned transfer of the state power in Ukraine to itself. On 16 November a joint session of the Rada and executive committee of the local workers and soldiers soviets recognised the Central Rada as the regional authority in Ukraine. On 20 November 1917 the Rada declared Ukraine the Ukrainian People’s Republic as an autonomous part of the Russian Republic and scheduled on 09 January 1918 elections to a Ukrainian Constituent Assembly. The Secretary of Military Affairs Symon Petliura expressed his intentions to unite both the Southwestern and Romanian fronts that were stretched across Ukraine into one Ukrainian Front under the command of Colonel General Dmitry Shcherbachev.

On 17 December 1917, the Bolsheviks planned an All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets and on 11-12 December 1917 set off a number of uprisings across Ukraine in Kiev, Odessa, Vinnytsia. They were successfully defeated by the Rada. On 17 December 1917 Sovnarkom, that initiated peace talks with Central Powers earlier that month, sent a 48-hour ultimatum to the Rada requesting it stop “counterrevolutionary actions” or prepare for war. Also on 17 December 1917 Reingold Berzins led his troops from Minsk towards Kharkiv to Don. They engaged in an armed conflict at a rail station in Bakhmach with the Ukrainian troops who refused to let the Red forces (three regiments and an artillery division) pass. The Central Rada did not accept the accusations and stated its conditions: recognition of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, non-interference in its internal affairs and affairs of the newly organised the Ukrainian Front, permission on transferring of Ukrainised troops to Ukraine, division of the former imperial finances, participation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in the general peace negotiations. The same day the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets in Kiev, after the Bolshevik delegation left, recognised the authority of the Ukrainian government and denounced the ultimatum of the Russian government. The Kiev Bolsheviks in their turn denounced that congress and scheduled another one in Kharkiv. Next day, Sovnarkom in Moscow decided for war. Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko was appointed the commander-in-chief of expeditionary force against Kaledin and the South Russia, while near the borders with Ukraine (Bryansk-Belgorod) Red troops began to gather.

The Kievan Bolsheviks who fled to Kharkiv joined the regional Congress of Soviets of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic. They then declared this meeting the First All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets that announced the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets. It called the Central Rada of Ukraine an enemy of the people declaring war against it on 02 January. The Rada then broke all ties with Petrograd on 22 January 1918, and declared independence, thereby commencing the Ukrainian War of Independence. It was around this point that Bolshevik troops began invading Ukraine from Russia. Russian military units from Kharkiv, Moscow, Minsk and the Baltic Fleet invaded Ukraine.

War

December 1917 to April 1918

The Bolsheviks, numbering around 30,000 and composed of Russian army regulars stationed at the front, a number of garrisoned units, and Red Guard detachments composed of laborers from Kharkov gubernia and the Donbass, began by advancing from the northeast led by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko and Mikhail Muravyov. The Ukrainian forces at the time of the invasion consisted of about 15,000 made up from volunteer detachments and several battalions of the Free Cossacks and the Sich Riflemen.

The invasion of pro-Soviet forces from Russia was accompanied by uprisings initiated in Ukraine by the local Bolsheviks in the developed cities throughout the territory of Left-bank Ukraine as well as Right-bank Ukraine. The Bolsheviks led by Yevgenia Bosch conducted a successful uprising in Vinnytsia sometime in December 1917. They took charge of the 2nd Guard Corps and moved towards Kiev to help the Bolsheviks in the city. Pavlo Skoropadsky with a regiment of the Free Cossacks managed to stop them near Zhmerynka, disarm them, and deport them to Russia. The other Bolshevik forces captured Kharkiv (26 December), Yekaterinoslav (09 January), Aleksandrovsk (15 January), and Poltava (20 January) on their way to Kiev. On 27 January, the Bolshevik army groups converged in Bakhmach and then set off under the command of Muravyov to take Kiev.

As the Bolsheviks marched towards Kiev, a small Ukrainian National Republic unit of less than 500 schoolboys (some sources give a figure of 300), commanded by Captain Ahapiy Honcharenko, was hastily organized and sent to the front on 29 January 1918 to take part in the Battle of Kruty. The small unit consisted mainly of the Student Battalion (Kurin) of Sich Riflemen, a unit of the Khmelnytsky Cadet School, and a Haidamaka detachment. About half of the 500 men were killed during the battle.

On 29 January 1918, the Kiev Arsenal January Uprising, a Bolshevik-organised armed revolt, began at the Kiev Arsenal factory. The workers of the plant were joined by the soldiers of the Ponton Battalion, the 3rd Aviation Regiment and the Sagaydachny regiment. Sensing defeat, the “Central Rada” and Petlyurist forces stormed the city on 03 February. After six days of battle and running low on food and ammunition, the uprising was suppressed by counter-revolutionary forces, in which 300 Bolshevik workers died. According to Soviet era sources, more than 1500 pro-Soviet workers and soldiers were killed during the struggle. On 08 February the Ukrainian government evacuated Kiev in order to avoid destruction by opposing Soviet troops, which then entered Kiev under Mikhail Muravyov’s on 09 February.

Once the Bolsheviks took Kiev, they began an offensive in Right-Bank Ukraine. However, on 09 February the UNR signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and thus received aid from German and Austro-Hungarian troops in late February, over 450,000 troops. In exchange for military aid, the Ukrainians were to deliver foodstuffs to the Central Powers. Under the command of Symon Petlura, the combined forces pushed the Bolsheviks out of Right Bank Ukraine and retook Kiev on 01 March. Because of the socialist policies of the Rada, mainly the policy of land nationalisation which affected food exports to the Central Powers, on April 28 the German forces disbanded the Tsentralna Rada and installed the Hetman government in its place. Ukrainian, German, and Austro-Hungarian armies continued making gains, taking back Left Bank Ukraine, Crimea and the Donets Basin. These setbacks forced the Bolsheviks to sign a peace treaty with the Ukrainian government on 12 June.

Post-Hetmanate Intervention

During November 1918, troops from the Directorate of Ukraine overthrew the Hetmanate with some help from the Bolsheviks. German forces led by the Soldatenrat kept their neutrality during the two-week-long civil war as they were withdrawing from the country, due to the defeat of the German Empire in World War I. The Directorate reestablished the Ukrainian People’s Republic. On 22 January 1919 the neighbouring Ukrainian Republics united under the Act Zluky.

The Central Military-Revolutionary Committee in Kursk on 22 October 1918 issued the order to form two divisions under the Army Group the Ukrainian Front or the Group of the Kursk Direction. The group was assigned the Worker’s Division of Moscow, the 9th Soviet Division, 2nd Orlov Brigade, and two armored trains. According to Antonov-Ovsiyenko the Army accounted for some 6,000 soldiers, 170 artillery guns, 427 machine guns, 15 military planes, and 6 armoured trains. On 15 December 1918 the meeting of the Ukrainian chief of staff was called in Kiev headed by Otaman Osetsky and including the Chief Otaman Petliura, Colonel Bolbachan, Colonel Shapoval, Sotnik Oskilko. They were discussing the border security and formed a plan in case of threat from all sides.

To stop the coming war with the Bolsheviks, the government of Chekhivsky sent a delegation to Moscow led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Semen Mazurenko. The delegation succeeded in signing a preliminary peaceful agreement yet it did not stop the aggression from the Russian side due to poor communication between the delegation in Moscow and the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. On 28 December 1918 the Central Committee of the Left UPSR officially declared the mobilisation of forces in the support of the Soviet government by an armed staging. From the beginning of January 1919 the Bolshevik bands consistently were crossing the eastern and north-eastern borders to raid.

January 1919 to June 1919

On 07 January 1919 the Bolsheviks invaded Ukraine in full force with an army led by Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Joseph Stalin, and Volodymyr Zatonsky. The Directorate declared war once again against Russia on January 16 after several preliminary ultimatums to the Russian SFSR sovnarkom to withdraw their troops. The two main directions of the Bolshevik’s forces were onto Kiev and Kharkiv.

During that time the Soviet forces were advancing across North-eastern Ukraine and occupied Rylsk and Novhorod-Siversky. On 21 December the Ukrainian Front took the important strategic railroad connection in Kupyansk. After that, a full-scale advance started between the Dnieper and Oskol Rivers. On 03 January, the Red Army took Kharkiv, almost as by the same scenario when Bolsheviks had occupied Kiev in February 1918. The Ukrainian forces at that time consisted of two regular troop formations, the Zaporozhian Corps and the Sich Riflemen, as well as partisan detachments. These partisans were led by unreliable atamans which occasionally sided with the Bolsheviks, such as Zeleny, Anhel, and Hryhoryev. The army which had over 100,000 men, fell to about 25,000 due to peasants leaving the army and desertions to the Bolsheviks. Bolbochan with the remnants of the Zaporizhian Corps retreated to Poltava which was holding off the Red Army for a couple of weeks more. On 06 January 1919 the government of Pyatakov officially declared the creation of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. Yet his government continued to stay in Kursk until 24 January. On 04 January the Bolsheviks Army Group Ukrainian Front was reformed into the unified Ukrainian front under the command of Antonov-Ovsiyenko with his deputies Kotsiubynsky and Schadenko. On the several inquiries about the purpose of the Russian Army in Ukraine that the Directory was sending to Moscow, Chicherin finally responded on 06 January:

…there is no army of the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic in Ukraine. At this time the military action that takes place on the territory of Ukraine is between the armies of Directory and the Ukrainian Soviet Government which is completely independent.

On 12 January, the troops under the command of Mykola Schors occupied Chernihiv while other units under command of Pavlo Dybenko took Lozova, Pavlohrad, Synelnykove, and established contact with Nestor Makhno. After some long discussion between the members of the Directory and other state officials, it was decided to declare War against Soviet Russia. The only person who was against it, was the chairman of the Directory Volodymyr Vynnychenko, while Shapoval, for example, for some reason was simply requesting the prompt creation of the Soviet government. Denikin later commented that the war declaration did not change absolutely anything on the frontlines and only reflected the political crisis inside the Ukrainian government with the victory of the military party of Petliura-Konovalets-Hrekov over Vynnychenko-Chekhivsky. On 20 January the Soviet Army took Poltava while the Ukrainian troops retreated further to Kremenchuk. On 26 January Dybenko took Katerynoslav. The Soviets took Left-Bank Ukraine, and then marched on to Kiev. On 02 February they forced the Directorate to move to Vinnytsia while troops of Schors and Bozhenko occupied Kiev three days later.

Then Chekhivsky resigned from office, right after Vynnychenko has created in Kamyanets-Podilsky the Committee for the salvation of Republic, which was again dissolved by Petliura on 13 February. During that time the Soviet troops has acquired the rest of the Kiev Governorate while the bands of Hryhoryev took Oleksandria and Yelyzavethrad. By 06 March the Directory has relocated to Proskurov while yielding most of Polissya and Podillya to the Bolsheviks. Surprisingly, by the end of March the Ukrainian armies successfully conducted series of military operations liberating Sarny, Zhytomyr, Korosten, and threatening to take back Kiev. On 02 March Otaman Hryhoryev occupied Kherson and by 12 March he was already in Mykolaiv. By 03 April the Entente forces evacuated from Odessa which Hryhoryev entered three days later.

June 1919 to December 1919

By October 1919, about 70% of the Directorate’s troops and more than 90% of the allied Ukrainian Galician Army fell to typhus.

December 1919 to November 1920

Refer to First Winter Campaign (1919-1920) and Polish-Soviet War (1918-1921).

From 06 December 1919 to 06 May 1920, the UNR Army under the command of Mykhailo Omelianovych-Pavlenko carried out an underground operation known as the First Winter Campaign in the Kirovohrad region against the Soviet 14th Army. Another significant development of this period was the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw with Poland on 22 April and then beginning of a joint offensive with Polish troops against the Bolsheviks. On 07 May, a Ukrainian division under the command of Marko Bezruchko entered Kiev, but was quickly forced out by a Red Army counteroffensive led by Semyon Budyonny. The Ukrainians and Poles were pushed back across the Zbruch River and past Zamość toward Warsaw. The Poles signed a peace with the Soviets on 18 October. By 1921, the Polish author of the Polish-Ukrainian alliance, Józef Piłsudski, was no longer the Polish head of state, and only participated as an observer during the Riga negotiations, which he called an act of cowardice. Petliura’s forces kept fighting. They lasted until 21 October, when they were forced to cross the Zbuch River and enter Polish-controlled Galicia. There they were disarmed and placed in internment camps.

November 1921

Refer to Second Winter Campaign (1921).

The last action of the UNR against the Soviets was a raid behind the Red Army lines in November 1921 known as the Second Winter Campaign. This campaign was meant to incite a general uprising amongst the Ukrainian peasants, who were already disgruntled with the Soviets, and to unify partisan forces against the Bolsheviks in Ukraine. The commander of the Ukrainian forces was Yurii Tiutiunnyk.

Two expeditionary forces were established, one from Podolia (400 men) and one from Volhynia (800 men). The Podolia group only made it to the village of Vakhnivka, before returning to Polish territory through Volhynia on 29 November. The Volhynia group started out on 04 November, captured Korosten on 07 November and made its way to the village of Leonivka. When they began to run low on supplies they decided to return. However, on its return west, it was intercepted by a Bolshevik cavalry force under the command of Grigore Kotovski at Bazar and routed in battle near Mali Mynky on 17 November. 443 soldiers were captured by the Soviets during the battle. 359 were shot on 23 November near the town of Bazar, and 84 were passed on to Soviet security forces.

This was the last operation of the UNR army against the Soviets. The end of the Second Winter Campaign brought the Ukrainian-Soviet war to a definite end, however partisan fighting against the Bolsheviks continued until mid-1922 and in response the Red Army terrorised the countryside.

Aftermath

The end of the war saw the incorporation of most of the territories of Ukraine into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which, on 30 December 1922, was one of the founding members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Parts of Western Ukraine fell into under the control of the Second Polish Republic, as laid out in the Peace of Riga. The UNR government, led by Symon Petlura, was forced into exile.

For the next few years the Ukrainian nationalists would continue to try to wage a partisan guerrilla war on the Soviets. They were aided by Polish intelligence (see Prometheism); however they were not successful. The last active Ukrainian movements would be mostly eradicated during the Holodomor. Further, the relative lack of Polish support for the Ukrainian cause would cause a growing resentment on the part of the Ukrainian minority in Poland towards the Polish interwar state.

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