Poland and Ukraine in Alliance - 1920

The Polish – Ukrainian Alliance in 1920

This post was written by Mirosław Szumiło, a historian at the Institute of National Remembrance, Poland, and it was originally published on przystanekhistoria.pl in Polish. The English translation below followed the Hungarian translation prepared by Miklós Mitrovits.

Cover photo: Conversation between General Antoni Listowski (first from the left) and Symon Petlyura ataman (second from the left) in April 1920.

On 22 April 1920, the Republic of Poland and the People’s Republic of Ukraine signed an agreement in Warsaw that came to be known as the “Piłsudski–Petljura alliance”. It established a link between two states that were fighting to keep their independence in the face of the common enemy, Soviet Russia, that attacked them.

The direct objective of the treaty was to put up a joint military effort against the Bolshevik Russia that tried to export the revolution. At the same time, the agreement also served to realize Piłsudski’s ambitious plans.

Borders just like before the partition?

During World War I, the Poles fighting for their independence believed that new borders would resemble those that were in place before the partitions. (The former Polish-Lithuanian state was partitioned in 1772, in 1793 and 1795 among the Prussian, Russian and Austrian state. Before 1772 the eastern borders ran from River Siniuha via the Cherkasy pocket to River Dnieper, then run along the Chernobyl-Homel-Vicebsk line. Thus, it included the Western part of Ukraine and nearly all of Belarus and Lithuania. – Miklós Mitrovits’s note.) At the same time, during the 19th century, national movements sprang up in areas where Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians lived and these national movements also desired to have their own state. Piłsudski was aware of this and tried to reconcile these movements with the idea of reconstituting the Polish republic. based on a concept of a federative structure. Roman Dmowski’s nationalist concept was opposed to this plan and refuted the idea of a multinational Polish state. Instead, he aimed for an ethnically Polish Poland in accordance with his slogan „Poland for the Poles”.

In November 1917, following the Bolshevik turn, (the city became part of Russia in 1667 – Miklós Mitrovits’s note.), the independent People’s Republic of Ukraine was proclaimed in Kiev. In February 1918, it became a German protectorate. From November 1918, the Ukrainian state had to fight in three theatres: against Poland that was in the remaking, against the Bolsheviks and against the Whites. The leader of the state, Symon Petlyura chief ataman tried to reach consensus with Poland against the Bolsheviks that were a common enemy. The situation was further complicated when another Ukrainian state called the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, was created in Eastern Galicia and it fought for its survival against Poland.

  Piłsudski’s plans about a federative structure included that Lithuania and Belorussia (the area of the former Lithuanian Grand Duchy) should be within the borders of the Polish republic but that Ukraine would be an independent state that was allied to Poland. The head of the state wanted to achieve a situation when an anti-Russian alliance would balance out Russian power in the Eastern part of Europe. Indeed, this was the essential point of the planned federation. As Andrzej Nowak, a renowned historian from Krakow, has noted:

“Ukraine would have a key role in this collaboration because an independent Ukraine and its secession from Russia would have prevented the eventual return of imperial ambitions of Moscow.”

Symon Petlyura and Marko Bezruchko, commander of the 6th Sich Artillery division. (source: Wikipedia)

Our common enemy unites us 

The common enemy constituted the main source of bonding between Piłsudski and Petlyura. Both of them believed that Russia was the main threat regardless of whether it was a White or Red Russia. Collaboration only became possible when the war for Eastern Galicia ended in July 1919 and Anton Denkin’s White army, which fought for restoring the Russian Empire, was defeated. In early 1920, the Red Army occupied nearly the entire Ukraine. A smaller army and the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic retreated to territories that were under Polish control. Both Poland and Russia used the winter to prepare for a final armed conflict.

 Piłsudski decided that it would start a pre-emptive campaign to Ukraine. As he explained: “Bolsheviks must be defeated, and we have to do it quickly before they become stronger. […] Kiev and Ukraine are their sensitive spots for two reasons: First, without Kiev hunger threatens Moscow. Second, if we threaten them with organizing an independent Ukraine, they will not take risks and will be forced to negotiate.”

Secret negotiations between the People’s Republic of Ukraine and Poland concluded on the night of 21-22 April 1920 in Warsaw when the document called “Political Treaty between Poland and the People’s Republic of Ukraine”. Poland recognized the right of Ukraine to be independent and the parties agreed that the Western border of Ukraine should be along river Zbruch and to Pripyat in the north, thus leaving the entire Galicia and most of Volhynia on the Polish side. (This line is 330-340 km to the West compared to the borderline in 1772. – Miklós Mitrovits’s note) Both governments gained a valuable ally against the Bolsheviks and Ukraine got a chance to continue the fight for its independence.

Capturing Kiev and premature turn

 The allied Polish-Ukrainian forces launched their offensive on 25 April 1920 and at first, it seemed they would succeed. On 26 April, they occupied Zhytomyr and it was here that Piłsudski turned to the inhabitants of Ukraine in a declaration. The next day they broke through the Bolshevik lines at Berdychiv (Polish: Berdyczów) and captured a large number of prisoners of wars along with ammunition and equipment. Following this success, the allies suspended the campaign for ten days. During this time their enemy retreated and stopped beyond River Dnieper. On 7 May, units of general Rydz-Śmigły’s 3rd army occupied Kiev that had already been evacuated. In the campaign for Kiev only two Ukrainian divisions participated and even these were understaffed. At the same time, “Petlyuraist” partisans provided valuable military support to the Polish army. West of the River Dnieper Ukrainian state structures started to form. Contemporaries believed that if Ukraine had had three months it would have stabilized its position and create a strong army and would have also gained the recognition of France. However, there was no time.

Bolsheviks outfoxed the Polish army and went into the offensive in Belorussia on 14 May 1920. Although when new Polish units arrived this attack was reversed, Semyon Budyonny’s cavalry broke through the frontline south of Kiev and was already in the back of the Polish army. In this situation, Rydz-Śmigły evacuated Kiev and treated to the West. Although he saved his army, by avoiding engagement with Budyonny’s army, he denied the order that Piłsudski gave. Thus, the “campaign on Kiev” ended with a defeat.

Symon Petlyura and Józef Piłsudski at Winnica in April 1920 (source: Wikipedia)

Apathy of the inhabitants and errors in leadership 

Polish literature on the events often puts the blame on Ukrainians. Indeed, although Petlyura called for volunteers for the army, there was hardly any response. Ukrainian peasantry did not identify strongly with the nationalist movement and the many years of war have exhausted them. They preferred to see a rule that would bring about peace and order in the fields and many of them trusted the Bolshevik propaganda that told them that Polish would return to take their individual plots of land. Moreover, armed units under the command of local leaders did not want to submit themselves to the orders of the regular army.

At the same time, the way Polish army behaved influenced the response of Ukrainians. Polish commanders were reluctant to hand over power to the Ukrainians. Most officers had memories of the war against Ukrainians in Galicia and those that were under the influence of the nationalism of national democrats did not see the point of an alliance with Petlyura. Piłsudski wrote the following to prime minister Leopold Skulski: „The army is becoming a burden as it irritates locals and induces hostile feelings.”

However, the main reasons for the failure of the campaign were the tactical errors that the Polish military commanders made besides the fact that the Ukrainian units were too loosely organized. In June 1920, the army of the People’s Republic of Ukraine consisted of 21 000 privates and officers. Due to the inefficiency of public administration, there was no general mobilization in the liberated territories. This was also true of sic districts of Podolia that were controlled by Poland already before 25 April 1920. If such actions had been taken, there would have been 20 000 more soldiers in the army of the People’s Republic and these men would have been ready to fight by June.

During the retreat towards West, the Ukrainian army under the command of Mihailo Omelyanovich-Pavlenko defended the southern section of the front in the vicinity of Kamianets-Podilskyi (Polish: Kmienec Podolski). In August, he retreated behind River Dniester having orders for defending the 150kms long river section from the Romanian border to the district of Mykolaiv (Polish: Mikołajów (south of Lviv). In the meantime, the 6th Sich division retreated first to Volhynia and to the surroundings of Lublin as part of the Polish 3rd army. In late August 1920, Colonel Bezruchko led the defence of Zamość against the cavalry of Budyonny.

Borders between Poland and Soviet Russia as stipulated in the Peace Treaty of Riga. Most of Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. (Source: Historical Atlas for High School students at https://www.tankonyvkatalogus.hu/pdf/FI-504010903_2__teljes.pdf)

"The betrayal at Riga”

In the autumn of 1920, after the battle of Warsaw and the defeat of Bolsheviks near Neman there was a new chance for realizing the plans for confederation. The Red Army retreated in an unorganized way, the road tot he East was practically open. At the same time, Polish society was fed up with war and did not respond positively to the ambitious plans of the head of the state.

Decisions taken at the peace treaty negotiations at Riga determined the fate of the Polish-Ukrainian alliance. Already at the first session, on 21 September 1920, the chair of the Polish delegation, Jan Dąbski, recognized that representatives of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic were authorized the represent Ukraine. This meant the de facto termination of the treaty of Polish-Ukrainian alliance signed on 22 April. Eventually, military action ended on 18 October when the negotiations led to the truce agreement. 40 000 soldiers of the Ukrainian army continued to fight on its own until 21 November in Podolia. At that time, they pressed behind River Zbruch and were interned in Poland.

The Riga peace treaty signed on 18 March 1921, was a de facto defeat for Piłsudski’s plan for confederation. The fact that there was no independent Ukraine greatly undermined the significant military achievement. Marshal Piłsudski was aware that even if Poland won the war, they lost the peace and lost the cause of Ukraine as well. We have to see the statement that he made in the internment camp to the Ukrainian soldiers imprisoned there: “I am sorry, gentlemen, I’m terribly sorry. This should have happened differently.”