left A 1919 caricature entitled ‘World peace in Ukraine!’ shows Ukrainians in the centre, under attack from a Bolshevik (to the north), a Russian White Army soldier (to the east), and (to the west and south-west) a Polish soldier, a Hungarian (in pink uniform), and two Romanian soldiers.

Battlefield Ukraine: lessons from history

The roots of the current war in Ukraine are deeply entwined with the nation’s turbulent military history. Here, David Porter examines some of the most important episodes and events.


Ukraine has rarely had the luxury of secure borders: in the 16th and 17th centuries, much of its present territory was divided between Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and its protectorate, the Tatar Khanate of the Crimea. However, this period also saw the beginnings of a sense of Ukrainian national identity, as serfs escaping from Poland and Muscovy (Russia) took refuge in fortified camps (sichi) on islands in the Dnieper – the mighty 1,400-mile river that runs south towards the Black Sea. Under able leaders such as Przecław Lanckoron´ski, Ostap Dashkevych, and Dmytro Vyshnevetsky, these refugees gradually became a formidable military force, known as the Zaporozhian Cossacks. They were at least nominally Polish subjects, and initially supported Poland in its wars – especially against the Khanate of the Crimea, which launched frequent raids to seize slaves to trade with the rest of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. (Between 1500 and 1700, the Tatars took about 2 million slaves from Russia and Poland, and as late as 1769 a final major raid captured 20,000 Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian slaves.)

Cossack lancers charging Tatar raiders from the Khanate of the Crimea, as depicted in 1890 by the Polish painter Józef Brandt.

Although they were most famous for their light cavalry, the Cossacks raised equally good infantry, primarily armed with matchlock or flintlock muskets, along with two-handed berdiches (axes that served them as musket rests). Some infantry units, termed plastuni, were almost the equivalent of modern special forces, specialising in reconnaissance and ambush tactics. The Zaporozhian Cossacks were also skilled in amphibious operations in the Black Sea, using highly manoeuvrable, shallow-draft galleys known as chaiki (‘seagulls’), crewed by anything up to 70 men each. In 1615, they even raided the suburbs of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), before taking and looting the Crimean port of Kaffa (now Feodosia). Although similar raids were launched until well into the 1620s, they were gradually scaled down as the emphasis switched to land warfare against the Ottoman Empire and Muscovy.

Cossack forces played an important role in Polish victories, such as Khotyn (1621) and the Siege of Smolensk (1632/1633), but increasing tensions between the Catholic Poles and predominantly Orthodox Cossacks flared into open rebellion in 1648 under the leadership of the charismatic Bohdan Khmelnytsky. He made a triumphant entry into the ancient city of Kyiv on Christmas Day 1648, when he was hailed as ‘the Moses, saviour, redeemer, and liberator of the people from Polish captivity… the illustrious ruler of Rus’. (Rus was a widely accepted name for Ukraine until the 19th century.) Khmelnytsky established the Cossack Hetmanate, an embryonic Ukrainian state, and in February 1649, during negotiations with a Polish delegation, declared that he was the ‘sole autocrat of Rus’ and that he had ‘power in Ukraine, Podolia, and Volhynia… in his land and principality stretching as far as Lviv, Chełm, and Halych’.

It became clear to the Polish envoys that Khmelnytsky regarded himself no longer as simply a leader of the Zaporozhian Cossacks but as head of an independent state. Fighting dragged on for years, seriously weakening both sides, and eventually forcing Khmelnytsky to seek Russian support. The price was the transformation of the Hetmanate into a Russian protectorate by the Treaty of Pereiaslav (1654). Initially, Ukraine had considerable autonomy, but this was steadily eroded as the Hetmanate tore itself apart in a succession of civil wars between 1659 and 1686. Although Ukraine revived under Ivan Mazepa, who became Hetman (head of state) in 1687, his frustration with increasingly dictatorial Russian rule led him to back Charles XII of Sweden against Russia in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). This decision proved to be disastrous when Charles’ and Mazepa’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. Mazepa died in exile, and at least 900 Cossacks suspected of supporting his rebellion were executed on the orders of Peter the Great.

above Zaporozhian Cossack chaiki (‘seagulls’) in action against Ottoman galleys in the Black Sea, c.1636.
Zaporozhian Cossack chaiki (‘seagulls’) in action against Ottoman galleys in the Black Sea, c.1636.

Cossack uprising

The remainder of the 18th century saw the further erosion of Cossack autonomy and the incorporation of much of Central Ukraine into the Russian Empire. The Cossack Hetmanate was formally abolished in 1764; a final, major Cossack uprising, the Koliivshchyna, was suppressed in 1769; and, four years later, Russian troops destroyed the bastion known as the Zaporozhian Sich. Following Catherine the Great’s annexation of the Crimea in 1783, both it and Ukraine, now called Novorossiya, were opened up to Russian settlement. The western part of present-day Ukraine was ultimately divided between Russia and Austria during the final partition of Poland in 1795. Successive Tsars intensified the Russification of the region, suppressing the Ukrainian language, and attempting to destroy any sense of Ukrainian national identity.

In the Ukrainian regions of Galicia (also known as Halychyna) and Bukovina, which became part of the Habsburg Empire, the authorities adopted a markedly less repressive attitude (partly to minimise the risk of unrest from pan-Slav political movements). By 1910, there were more than four million speakers of Ruthenian (Ukrainian), which was recognised as one of the nine official languages of the Austro-Hungarian Army. On the outbreak of war in 1914, the main Galician political parties combined to create the Supreme Ukrainian Council, which organised the formation of a 2,500-strong volunteer unit, the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen (Ukrainski sichovi striltsi, or USS), to help defend Galicia against the anticipated Russian invasion. (A total of 3.5 million Ukrainians fought with the Imperial Russian Army, while 250,000 served in the Austro-Hungarian Army.)

left Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the charismatic 17th-century leader who established the Cossack Hetmanate, an embryonic Ukrainian state.
Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the charismatic 17th-century leader who established the Cossack Hetmanate, an embryonic Ukrainian state.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Tsarist regime, Ukrainian nationalists declared the autonomy of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in June 1917. Although this declaration was recognised by Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government in Moscow, tensions increased with Lenin’s seizure of power in the October Revolution. In December 1917, the Red Army invaded Ukraine, aided by Bolshevik uprisings in many towns and cities. Much of the country was rapidly overrun, and Kyiv was taken on 9 February 1918. On the same day, the Ukrainian People’s Republic signed the First Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Germany and Austria-Hungary recognised Ukrainian independence and promised military aid in exchange for trade agreements. (Both countries were desperately short of foodstuffs due to the Allied blockade and hoped to make up much of this shortfall from Ukrainian production.) German and Austro-Hungarian forces rapidly defeated the Russians, taking Kyiv on 1 March. Two days later, the Bolsheviks signed the Second Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which formally ended hostilities on the Eastern Front and left Ukraine as a German sphere of influence. On 13 March, Ukrainian and Austro-Hungarian troops took Odessa. In April, Ukrainian and German forces overran the Donbas region and Crimea, completing the reconquest of the country.

Intermittent fighting continued, however, in much of the countryside – where local Bolsheviks, peasant self-defence groups known as ‘green armies’, and the anarchist Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine refused to accept the authority of the government in Kyiv. The Germans were seriously alarmed by this instability and supported a coup by the former Imperial Russian Army General Pavlo Skoropadskyi, who became Hetman of Ukraine on 29 April 1918. The new government had close ties to Berlin, but Skoropadskyi avoided declaring war on any of the Allied powers, and also offered asylum for many refugees fleeing Bolshevik Russia. Despite sporadic harassment from the anarchists led by Nestor Makhno, commander of the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine, the Hetmanate enjoyed relative peace until November 1918, when the Central Powers were defeated and withdrew their forces from Ukraine. Skoropadskyi’s enemies quickly seized their opportunity, setting up a rival regime: the Directorate. After barely a month’s confused fighting, the Directorate’s troops took Kyiv on 19 December 1918, and Skoropadskyi was forced into exile in Germany.

In his 1891 painting The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the Ukrainian-born Russian artist Ilya Repin depicts the insulting Cossack response to an ultimatum issued by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV in 1676.

Savage resistance

Western Ukraine had been administered as the Austrian province of Galicia since the First Partition of Poland in 1772. The territory included Kraków, Poland’s ancient capital with a mainly Polish population – but, in Lemberg (Lviv) and eastern Galicia, Ukrainians made up approximately 65% of the population. In the chaos of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fighting broke out between Polish and Ukrainian forces in and around Lviv, leading to the province declaring itself independent as the West Ukrainian People’s Republic on 13 November 1918. This Polish-Ukrainian War dragged on until July 1919, when the better-equipped Polish troops finally overran Galicia, most of which was incorporated into Poland as the voivodeships (provinces) of Lwów, Stanisławów and Tarnopol.

Between January 1919 and November 1921, the remainder of Ukraine also became a battlefield as various Ukrainian factions, Polish, Soviet and White (anti-Soviet) Russian forces fought each other. An invasion by the Red Army’s 50,000-strong Ukrainian Front, launched in January 1919, overran much of the country within a couple of months, but the atrocity-prone Russian troops and Cheka (secret police) quickly gained a fearsome reputation and provoked savage resistance. They were responsible for thousands of killings across Ukraine, including: 2,000-3,000 in Kharkiv between February and June 1919, and another 1,000-2,000 when the city was retaken in December of that year; 2,200 in Odessa in May-August 1919, followed by a further 1,500-3,000 between February 1920 and February 1921; and at least 3,000 in Kyiv between February and August 1919.

left A 1919 caricature entitled ‘World peace in Ukraine!’ shows Ukrainians in the centre, under attack from a Bolshevik (to the north), a Russian White Army soldier (to the east), and (to the west and south-west) a Polish soldier, a Hungarian (in pink uniform), and two Romanian soldiers.
A 1919 caricature entitled ‘World peace in Ukraine!’ shows Ukrainians in the centre, under attack from a Bolshevik (to the north), a Russian White Army soldier (to the east), and (to the west and south-west) a Polish soldier, a Hungarian (in pink uniform), and two Romanian soldiers.

In early 1919, the new Ukrainian administration of Symon Petliura ordered a series of counter-attacks. Although these were initially successful, the fighting remained fluid for the rest of the year, with neither side able to win a decisive victory. By December, the Ukrainians had largely adopted guerrilla-warfare tactics, which proved to be highly effective, and their position was strengthened in April 1920 when Petliura and the Polish head of state, Józef Piłsudski, signed the Treaty of Warsaw. The treaty recognised Poland’s claim to Galicia in exchange for military support for Ukraine, and the well-equipped Polish 2nd, 3rd, and 6th Armies were decisive in defeating the Red Army. Kyiv was liberated on 7 May, but this was only a brief victory as the reinforced Red Army counter-attacked, retaking the city less than six weeks later, and rapidly over-running the rest of Ukraine as Polish troops were withdrawn to defend Warsaw against a major Soviet offensive. Petliura fled to Poland and continued to head the Ukrainian government-in-exile, initially from the city of Tarnów, before moving to Paris where he was assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1926. Although the Russians were heavily defeated by Polish forces in the Battle of Warsaw (12-25 August 1920; see MHM 131), this came too late to affect the situation in much of Ukraine, where resistance to the Red Army was confined to guerrilla warfare, which continued until November 1921.

In 1922, the new Communist Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR) was a founding member of the USSR, which initially attempted to gain popularity by a policy of Ukrainisation of local government. The process even extended to the Red Army: a School of Red Commanders (Shkola Chervonyh Starshyn) was established in the city of Kharkiv to train Ukrainian officers. However, there was still considerable anti-Soviet feeling, and news of Petliura’s assassination in the summer of 1926 sparked off numerous revolts in eastern Ukraine that were brutally suppressed. This repression was largely counter-productive and there were further uprisings in 1930 (more than 3,000 in March alone) protesting against the enforced collectivisation of agriculture. Stalin was particularly concerned at the explicitly nationalist aspects of the unrest: peasant insurgents carried banners proclaiming Vse ne vmerla Ukraina! (‘Ukraine still lives!’). The Soviet leader’s determination to crush this nationalism was a significant factor in the staging in 1932-1933 of the Holodomor, a deliberately created famine that killed an estimated 5,000,000 Ukrainians.

right A fleeting triumph: Józef Piłsudski, the Polish head of state, and Symon Petliura, the President of the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic, in newly liberated Kyiv, May 1920.
A fleeting triumph: Józef Piłsudski, the Polish head of state, and Symon Petliura, the President of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, in newly liberated Kyiv, May 1920.

In 1929, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded in Vienna. Initially, it concentrated on opposing the Polish occupation of Galicia, launching a series of attacks on Polish officials and government offices, but as news of the Holodomor spread, Soviet diplomats were also targeted. Stalin was concerned at the continuing unrest and, in 1937, he appointed his protégé Nikita Khrushchev as head of the Communist Party in Ukraine. Khrushchev’s repression provoked the very resistance that Stalin feared – a faction of the OUN, Stepan Bandera’s OUN-B, began preparations for an anti-Soviet uprising as early as 1939. However, the NKVD – the Soviet secret police agency, led by the ruthless and brutal Lavrentiy Beria – seriously damaged the organisation, arresting 4,400 members between October 1939 and December 1940. Despite this, by June 1941, the OUN-B had readied 20,000 men in western Ukraine. It was hardly surprising that, in the summer of 1941, the invading Germans were widely welcomed as liberators, especially after at least 9,000 Ukrainian political prisoners were murdered by the NKVD as they evacuated the region.

Soviet advances

Initial German assurances that they intended to establish a sovereign ‘Greater Ukraine’ meant that there was little resistance to the occupation until the autumn of 1942. (A significant number of Ukrainians, mainly from western Galicia and Volhynia, saw the Russians as the greatest threat to the country and volunteered for service with the Waffen-SS in sufficient numbers to form a new division in April 1943: 14. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS [Galizische Nr. 1].) However, increasing German repression throughout Ukraine had led to the formation of a military wing of the OUN, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), in October 1942. Although the UPA carried out limited operations against the Germans in 1942/1943, during this period it concentrated on attacks against Poles in the former Ukrainian provinces of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, in which at least 50,000 were killed.

As the Russians advanced into Ukraine in 1944, the UPA turned its efforts to fighting the Red Army and NKVD. In February 1944, UPA insurgents ambushed and mortally wounded General Nikolai Vatutin, the commander of the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front. Several weeks later, an NKVD battalion was annihilated by the UPA near Rivne. This resulted in a full-scale Soviet operation in the spring of 1944, involving 30,000 troops. Beria reported to the State Defence Committee of the USSR (effectively the Soviet War Cabinet) that in these operations 2,018 UPA fighters were killed and 1,570 captured for the loss of only 11 NKVD killed and 46 wounded. (It seems highly likely that Beria was doctoring the true figures in the hope of avoiding awkward questions from Stalin, as a captured UPA member stated that he had seen estimates of 200 UPA losses and 2,000 Soviet casualties.) By the autumn of 1944, UPA forces had set up a shadow government covering an area of 160,000 square kilometres with a population of more than 10,000,000.

In November 1944, Khrushchev ordered the first of several large-scale Soviet assaults on the UPA throughout Western Ukraine by NKVD combat units with artillery and armoured support. At this time, an NKVD division, eight NKVD brigades, and an NKVD cavalry regiment with a total strength of more than 26,000 men were operating in the region, while a further 3,000 reinforcements and three armoured trains were en route.

right Starved peasants in Kharkiv, 1933. They were among the estimated 5 million Ukrainian victims of the deliberately created famine known as the Holodomor.
Starved peasants in Kharkiv, 1933. They were among the estimated 5 million Ukrainian victims of the deliberately created famine known as the Holodomor.

In the following six months, the Soviets claimed to have inflicted almost 220,000 casualties on the UPA (89,000 killed, 91,000 captured, and 39,000 surrendered) for the loss of 12,000 killed, 6,000 wounded, and 2,600 missing in action. Despite heavy losses, as late as the summer of 1945, many battalion-strength UPA units continued to control and administer large areas of territory in Western Ukraine.

After the German surrender in May 1945, the Soviet authorities were able to concentrate their efforts on countering the insurgencies in Ukraine and the Baltic states. A major deportation programme began to destroy the UPA’s support among the local population: between 1944 and 1952, at least 182,000 and possibly as many as 500,000 Ukrainians were deported. This was coupled with mass arrests of suspected UPA informants or family members: in the same period, up to 600,000 people may have been arrested in Western Ukraine, with about one-third executed and the rest imprisoned or exiled.

Soviet forces ambushed and killed the UPA’s commander, Roman Shukhevych, near Lviv on 5 March 1950. Although sporadic UPA operations continued until the mid-1950s, Shukhevych’s death marked the beginning of the end of the UPA’s combat capability. Its last commander, Vasyl Kuk, was captured on 24 May 1954, and a Soviet report concluded that ‘the liquidation of armed units and OUN underground was accomplished by the beginning of 1956’.

Current conflict

Centuries-old enmities still have a drastic effect on Ukraine. Stalin’s post-war boundary alterations, which transferred Galicia to the Ukrainian SSR, eased long-standing tensions between Poland and Ukraine. However, while Khrushchev’s decision to incorporate the Crimea into the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 seemed unimportant at the time, it was to be a major factor in destabilising the region when the USSR collapsed. This was primarily due to the uncertain status of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. The largely Russian-populated eastern regions of the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) formed another potential flashpoint – but at first it seemed that negotiated settlements to these issues might be achievable as Ukraine officially declared itself an independent state on 24 August 1991.

That possibility vanished when Putin took de facto charge of Russia in 2000. His ‘world view’ – once described as that of ‘an imperialist of the old Soviet school’ – ruled out any meaningful compromise with a genuinely independent Ukraine. His attempt to recreate something akin to the old USSR led to the Russian seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and the war in Donbas, which began in 2014 and dragged on until it became part of the wider conflict following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. •

David Porter worked at the Ministry of Defence for 30 years, and is the author of 11 Second World War books, as well as numerous magazine articles.

All images: Wikimedia Commons