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Ukrainian War of Independence
Part of the Eastern Front of the World War
and Russian Civil War
A pro-Ukrainian People's Republic demonstration in Kiev's Sofia Square, 1917.
Date 8 November 1917 – 13 September 1919
(1 year, 10 months and 5 days)
Location Eastern Europe
Result Ukrainian victory; Treaty of Minsk
(See Aftermath)

  • Independence of Ukraine.
  • Belarus took control of parts of Vitebsk and Mogilev.
  • Bolsheviks took control of Crimea.
Flag of Ukrainian People's Republic 1917.svg UPR

Flag of the German Empire.svg Germany

Flag of the Ukrainian SSR 1919.svg UkrSSR
Flag of Russian SFSR (1918-1937).svg RSFSR

Black flag.svg RIAU
(until 1919)

Flag of the Ukranian State.svg Ukrainian State

Flag of Russia.svg Whites

Flag of the German Empire.svg Germany

Flag of Romania.svg Romania

  • Flag of the Moldavian Democratic Republic.svg Moldova

The Ukrainian War of Independence, a period of sustained warlike conflict, lasted from 1917 to 1919 and resulted in the establishment and development of a Ukrainian nation. The war consisted of a series of military conflicts between different governmental, political and military forces. Belligerents included Ukrainian nationalists, anarchists, Bolsheviks, the forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the White Russian Volunteer Army. They struggled for control of Ukraine after the February Revolution (March 1917) in the Russian Empire. The Entente forces of Romania also became involved. The struggle lasted from February 1917 to September 1919 and resulted in the establishment of an independent Ukraine.

The conflict is frequently viewed within the framework of the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922, as well as the closing stage of the Eastern Front of the World War of 1914–1918. The Treaty of Minsk was signed on 18 March 1920, dividing disputed territories between Ukraine, Belarus, and Soviet Russia. The war largely determined the Soviet border for the Interbellum.


During the 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.

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 and ruined the morale of its army, which caused the near-complete disintegration of the armed forces and the governing apparatus all over the vast Russian 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 favorable alternative. Nestor Makhno began his anarchist activity in the south of Ukraine by disarming deserting Russian soldiers and officers who crossed the Haychur River next to Huliaipole, while in the east in the industrial Donets Basin there were frequent strikes by Bolshevik-infiltrated trade unions.

Eastern Front of the World War in 1917

After the Russian revolution

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 – initially also called the "Ukrainian People's Republic". Hostilities against the Central Rada government in Kiev began immediately. Under these circumstances, the Rada declared Ukrainian independence on 22 January 1918 and broke ties with Russia.

The Rada had a limited armed force at its disposal (the Ukrainian People's Army) and was hard-pressed by the Kharkov government which received men and resources from the Russian Soviet Republic. As a result, the Bolsheviks quickly overran Poltava, Aleksandrovsk (now Zaporizhia), and Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipro) by January 1918. Across Ukraine, local Bolsheviks also formed the Odessa and Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic; 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 9 February 1918. This forced the Central Rada to evacuate to Zhytomyr. In the meantime, the Romanians took over Bessarabia. Most remaining Russian Imperial 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.


Hetmanate established, 1918

Territories claimed by the UNR before the monarchy is created
(February 1918 article from The New York Times)

File:Europe map 1919.jpg

Europe in 1919 after the treaties of Brest Litovsk

File:Map of Ukraine (postcard 1919).jpg

Ukraine according to an old postage stamp from 1919.

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 9 February 1918) in return for desperately needed food supplies which Ukraine would provide to the Germans. The Imperial German and Austro-Hungarian armies then drove the Bolsheviks out of Ukraine, taking Kiev on 1 March. Two days later, the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which formally ended hostilities on the Eastern Front of the World War and left Ukraine in a German sphere of influence. The Ukrainian People's Army took control of the Donets Basin in April 1918. Also in April 1918 Crimea was cleared of Bolshevik forces by Ukrainian troops and the Imperial German Army. On 13 March 1918 Ukrainian troops and the Austro-Hungarian Army secured Odessa. On 5 April 1918 the German army took control of Yekaterinoslav, and 3 days later Kharkov. By April 1918 all Bolshevik gains in Ukraine were lost; this was due to the apathy of the locals and the then-inferior fighting skills of the Red Army compared to their Austro-Hungarian and German counterparts.

Yet disturbances continued throughout Eastern Ukraine, where local Bolsheviks, peasant self-defense groups known as "green armies", and the anarchist Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine refused to subordinate to Germany. Former Imperial Russian Army General Pavlo Skoropadsky led a successful German-backed coup against the Rada on 29 April. He proclaimed the conservative Ukrainian State (also known as the "Hetmanate") with himself as monarch, and reversed many of the socialist policies of the former government. The new government had close ties to Berlin, but Skoropadsky never declared war on any of the 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 territory of the Hetmanate enjoyed relative peace until August 1918; when the Central Powers made advances on the Western Front, Germany withdrew men from Ukraine. By November Skoropadsky could no longer rely on Germany's support and his opponents set up a rival body known as the Directorate organized by socialists.

Growing hostilities, 1918

Almost immediately after the western armistice, Lenin's government looked into ways to undermined their Brest-Litovsk Treaty – which Leon Trotsky described as "no war no peace" – and drew up plans to destabilize Ukraine and other countries of Eastern Europe that were formed under German protection. Simultaneously, the newly formed Belarus claimed the former tsarist province of Smolensk, which was populated by Belarusians and Russians. With German focus turning towards its conference with the Entente had also given hopes to an uprising in Germany itself, and in early-January 1919 an attempted Spartacist revolution was suppressed in Berlin and months later in Munich. The cause and purpose of Central Powers intervention was not entirely clear; German and Austrian military leaders quickly became disillusioned by internal quarrels within the anti-Bolshevik forces that prevented effective collaboration against Bolshevik pressures. Strong anti-foreigner feelings among Ukrainians convinced German officers that intervention in this climate of hostility was doomed without massive support.

By 14 December, troops from the Directorate of Ukraine overthrew Skoropadsky with some help from the Bolsheviks. German forces led by the Soldatenrat kept their neutrality during the two-week-long civil war, due to the peace negotiations in Lausanne. The Directorate retained the monarchy established by Skoropadsky. On 22 January 1919 the Directorate invited Archduke Wilhelm of Austria to become a sovereign of Ukraine. Emperor Charles I did not approve as it would lead into disagreement with Germans. However after negotiations in Switzerland ended, the Habsburgs hoped for Ukraine to be a politically self-sufficient ally in order to counter German power. After pledging loyalty to the Directorate in June 1919, Archduke Wilhelm left for Kamianets-Podilsky.

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 armored 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 Directorate. On 28 December 1918 the Central Committee of the Left UPSR officially declared the mobilization 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.

String of Bolshevik victories, 1919

File:Polish-Ukrainian and Polish-Soviet Wars early 1919.JPG

Ukraine–Soviet War in early 1919

On 7 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 16 January 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 River. On 3 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 6 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 4 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 6 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 front lines 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 2 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 Ukraine, 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 6 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 2 March Otaman Hryhoryev occupied Kherson and 12 March he was already in Mykolaiv.

German intervention and Conclusion, 1919

By June 1919, the war between the German's and Entente had been concluded. The most significant development of this period was the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne recognized the boundaries set by the Brest-Litovsk treaties. This was then followed by a joint offensive with German troops against the Bolsheviks. Soon after they lost Kiev the Bolsheviks sued for peace. The Ukrainians exhausted, the Germans constantly pressured by the Western governments, and with its own fears of Bolshevik uprisings, were willing to negotiate. The Soviets made two offers: one on 17 August and the other on 24 August. The Ukrainian delegation made a counter-offer on 28 August. On 31 August, the Soviets offered amendments to the Ukrainian offer, which were accepted. The Preliminary Treaty of Peace and Armistice Conditions between Ukraine on one side and Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia on the other was signed on 7 September, and the armistice went into effect on 13 September 1919. Ratification's were exchanged at Gomel on 26 September. Long negotiations of the final peace treaty ensued.


With the end of the Ukrainian–Soviet War and the defeat of General Wrangel in 1920, the Red Army could divert its regular troops into the Tambov region of central Russia to crush the anti-Bolshevik peasant uprising.

Peace negotiations

Due to their losses in and after the Battle of Kiev, the Soviets offered the Ukrainian peace delegation substantial territorial concessions in the contested borderland areas, closely resembling the borders by the UPR in 1918. Ukrainian resources were exhausted, however, and public opinion was opposed to a prolongation of the war. The Ukrainian Government was also pressured by the German government, and the negotiations were controlled by Petliura's National Unionists.

The National Unionists wanted only the territory that they viewed as 'ethnically Ukrainian' or possible to Ukrainianise. Despite the willingness of Soviet chief negotiator Adolf Joffe to concede almost all disputed territory, the National Unionists' ideology allowed the Soviets to regain certain territories. The Treaty of Minsk was signed on 18 March 1920, solidifying the disputed territories in between Belarus and Ukraine and the Soviet Union.


The peace treaty, which Polish exile's called an "act of cowardice", confirmed Poland's tsarist era borders with Belarus and Ukraine, which had explicitly been unspecified in the peace between Russia and the Central Powers. Polish authorities hoped to gain Ukrainian and Belarusian support in preserving Polish territory. Relations between Poland and its neighbors worsened when support never came: those who supported Leopold Skulski were angered by the betrayal of their neighbors, anger that grew stronger because of the assimilationist policies of Germany towards its minorities.


The treaty recognized the independence of Belarus, Ukraine giving a portion of its territory to Belarus along the Pripyat river. Both Poland and Belarus claimed the former Grodno Governorate, however Poland agreed to surrender it to Belarus. Though the Council of the Belarusian People's Republic was operating on its own, its policies were determined by Berlin.

See also