The 1920 Battle for Ukraine — a warning from the past

Having practically saved Europe from a communist takeover, Poland's head of state Joseph Pilsudski’s insistence a century ago on a strong, independent Ukraine, protected by the Western democracies from Russian intimidation and threats, resonates powerfully today.
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Bolshevik propaganda poster of Polish-Soviet war, 1920. Text reads: 'This is how the Polish lords' plan finishes. Long live Soviet Poland'. Credit: Stepan Mukharsky/Wikipedia Commons
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Over one hundred years ago, on the 16th of August 1920, the Soviet Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw. The Bolshevik commander on the ground, General Mikhail Tukhachevsky, enthusiastically cabled the commander-in-chief of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky. Warsaw, he wrote, was merely a bridge. After the collapse of Poland, the Red Army would march through Berlin, Paris and even London for a world revolution and the creation of a single European Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under Moscow.  

The fate not only of Europe but of the world hung in the balance. Europeans, realising the dire consequences of a Soviet victory in Poland, held their breath.  Foreign embassy staff in the Polish capital hurriedly evacuated their posts and Warsaw residents began fleeing the capital in panic. Joseph Pilsudski, Poland’s Head of State and commander-in-chief, emerged from isolation with an eerily calm, confident demeanour, presenting his generals with a battle plan that is today referred to as the ‘Miracle on the Vistula.’ When Soviet forces stepped foot on the bridge over the Vistula River connecting Warsaw’s east bank to its city centre, Pilsudski ordered a massive counter-offensive. As Poland’s elite First Army defended Warsaw, Polish forces simultaneously attacked the Red Army from the rear, the north and the south.   

The Russian advance was not only halted but dramatically reversed. Within two days the Red Army had been repelled 25 miles eastward and some 30,000 Russian POWs were now in Polish hands. As the Bolshevik retreat intensified, Pilsudski was hailed as the saviour not only of Europe but of the Western world from a communist takeover. Under intense pressure from France and Britain, Pilsudski agreed to a ceasefire and to sign an armistice at Riga in October 1920. The reason the Polish-Soviet War began in the first place must sound eerily familiar to contemporary observers of European affairs. For it began with a joint Polish-Ukrainian military campaign in April 1920 to wrest Ukraine from Russian control for the express purpose of creating an independent Ukrainian Republic on the Dnieper.    

One day after the Polish leader, Pilsudski, and the Ukrainian leader, Seymon Petliura, signed an agreement on April 26, 1920, in which Poland recognised the independence of Ukraine, Polish and Ukrainian troops began their military campaign. On May 7, 1920, units of Pilsudski’s cavalry entered Kiev, followed by Ukrainian and Polish infantry. ‘At a time when the Polish army fights a common enemy side by side with the brave Ukrainian troops,’ Pilsudski cabled to Petliura, ‘… this successful joint struggle between the Ukrainian Republic and Poland will bring forth lasting prosperity to both nations.’ The following day, Pilsudski told his top generals: ‘It is in the Polish interest to withdraw our troops from the occupied Ukrainian territories as soon as possible in order to establish friendly neighbourly relations with the new Ukrainian state.’ The Polish occupation of Ukraine, he continued, ‘must be calculated in terms of months and not in years.’ To the Ukrainian people, Pilsudski issued an appeal, assuring that Polish troops would withdraw once the Ukrainian government and armed forces could defend themselves against Russian aggression.   
Pilsudski’s vision of the organisation of European states in the aftermath of the First World War was ahead of his time. For in his view, the independence of Ukraine was not only a fulfilment of President Woodrow Wilson’s promise of the right of nations to self-determination, but it was also critical for the security of Europe as a whole. As he said in 1920, ‘without an independent Ukraine, Poland will never be secure.’ When the victorious Allies sternly warned Pilsudski against Polish military ‘recklessness’ in Ukraine, Pilsudski replied that Russia, whether Bolshevik or tsarist, possessed a ‘fiercely annexationist nature’ that had to be confronted or European security would be compromised.

Earlier, on the 5th of January, 1920, British Prime Minister Lloyd George warned Poland’s foreign minister that the Western allies would regard a military offensive in the east as a provocation and incitement against Russia. On the 19th of April 1920, the eve of the Polish-Ukrainian military offensive, The Times of London maintained that ‘the fable of Polish imperialism has alienated a great deal of the natural sympathy in Entente countries for Polish aims and aspirations.’ When Polish and Ukrainian troops advanced towards Kiev a few weeks later, the British MP and former undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Lord Cecil, issued a formal complaint with the League of Nations on the 3rd of May 1920, against ‘the deplorable events now taking place in Central Europe [where] for months past Poland has been notoriously preparing to attack Russia.’ In his 1924 account of the Polish-Soviet War, Year 1920, Pilsudski discussed the reason behind his support for Ukrainian independence: ‘I had decided to make every possible effort to remove as far as possible from the places where the new national life was burgeoning and taking shape, any attempt that might be made or any snare that might be set with a view to imposing once more a foreign life upon us, a life not organised by ourselves.’ The policy of the West European democracy of appeasement towards totalitarian aggressors did not begin at Munich in 1938 but rather in 1920 in their reaction to Poland’s campaign for Ukrainian independence which they warned would incite Russia and endanger Europe.

It is not surprising that when Leonid Kravchuk was sworn in as independent Ukraine’s first president on the 5th of December 1991, he is reported to have said, ‘if only Pilsudski were alive today!’ Having practically saved Europe from a communist takeover, Joseph Pilsudski’s insistence a century ago on a strong, independent Ukraine, protected by the Western democracies from Russian intimidation and threats, resonates powerfully today.

Joshua D. Zimmerman

Joshua D. Zimmerman holds the Eli and Diana Zborowski Professorial Chair in Holocaust Studies and East European Jewish History at Yeshiva University. He is the author or editor of a number of works on the Holocaust, including 'Contested Memories. Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and Its Aftermath' (2003) and 'The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939–1945' (2015). His forthcoming book, 'Jozef Pilsudski. Founding Father of Modern Poland', comes out in May 2022 with Harvard University Press.

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