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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #137

There are two episodes in recent history in which the Russian Empire has collapsed. The second was the demise of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991. The first was the events of 1917, which began with the so-called “February Revolution” (which confusingly took place in March - Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time). Both these events provided opportunities for Ukraine to express its self-determination. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, an independent Ukraine was established in 1991 and it is for the integrity of those borders - established by Treaty between Russia and Ukraine in 1993 and guaranteed by the United States and the United Kingdom - that we are now fighting. In 1917 two short-lived Ukrainian states emerged out of the chaos of World War One and of the Russian Revolution. I thought I would trace a brief history of the two early twentieth century Ukrainian republics, because there might be some wisdom about how they emerged and the reasons they disappeared so rapidly that could assist us in understanding the historical challenges Ukraine has faced in maintaining her existence as a stable nation state.

For a lot of complex reasons principally associated with the chronic backwardness of the economic situation in Tsarist Russia, World War One was a catastrophe for the Russian Empire that until the beginning of the war occupied the entirety of what is now Ukraine apart from a region around the cities of Lviv, Ternopil and Stanislav that formed the easternmost provinces of Austria-Hungary. This region became a front line in World War One between Germany and Russia, as Germany declared war on Russia in 1914 as a result of Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia, Russia’s historical ally (although the true strength of that historical relationship is much disputed). Initially nationalism diverted the dissatisfaction with backward social conditions amongst the population of the Russian Empire; the Russian Empire was Europe’s last feudal monarchy and the rest of Europe had progressed far beyond the elementary conditions of subsistence farming over which the St Petersburg elites presided in the massive territories they governed.

The Russian Imperial Army proved itself wholly wanting in its military confrontation with Germany, that had the most advanced land army in Europe at the time. Russia lost her territories in Poland early in the war in 1915, and her enormous army was slaughtered in the face of superior German technology. Tsar Nicholas II announced he would take personal control over the army, leaving St Petersburg governed by his wife, who was deeply unpopular and the popular perception was that the country was being run by a monk called Rasputin who also served as her lover and who was assassinated in 1916. By the beginning of 1917 an extraordinary six million casualties had been incurred, and desertion rates in the region of 35,000 a month. Because Russian exports to Europe had been blocked by war, a famine loomed in Russia. A series of spontaneous street riots in St Petersburg began in March 1917; the Tsar abdicated; two simultaneous provisional governments emerged; Lenin returned from exile in April 1917; and a series of events played out that ultimately led to the October Revolution of 1917 in which the Bolsheviks seized political power in Russia, and the Russian Civil War (1917-1923).

As a result of the February Revolution, social agitators in Ukraine elected the Central Council of Ukraine in March 1917, a sort of protean parliament composed of representatives of peasants, soldiers, workers and intellectuals, which in June 1917 declared autonomy within Russia and in January 1918 declared independence from Russia that by this time was in foment. The borders of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, as it called itself, were essentially the territory of modern Ukraine minus the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, that declared independence (from Austria-Hungary, herself in collapse as her territories in the region had been largely occupied by the German Army during World War One) in November 1918. (The Ukrainian People’s Republic also did not include Crimea, which was ceded to Ukraine by Ukrainian-born Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1954).

The coat of arms of the Ukrainian People's Republic

The coat of arms of the West Ukrainian People's Republic

The Ukrainian People’s Republic didn’t last very long in this form; in April 1918 there was a coup d’état by the sometime Russian Imperial army officer of Ukrainian origin Skoropadskyi, who declared himself to be pro-German. In November 1918 the moderate social democratic Ukrainian military officer Symon Petliura seized power as Germany surrendered to the Triple Entente, and the Ukrainian People’s Republic then merged with the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in December 1918 and the unified Ukrainian state moved its capital to the small city of Kamianets-Podilskyi in southwestern Ukraine in early 1919, away from the various frontlines amidst the foment underway across Ukrainian territory, while the Bolshevik Soviets, who were determined not to let Ukraine escape from the newly formed Soviet Union, re-seized the Ukrainian territory formerly within the Russian Empire. As the Second Polish Republic emerged from the Peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919, what had been the Western Ukrainian Republic essentially agreed to merge into the Second Polish Republic to save itself from seizure by the Soviet Union. Thus Ukraine was once again partitioned in 1920 and absorbed into the Soviet Union and into Poland respectively.

This extremely brief history of the attempts by the Ukrainian people to form a Ukrainian state in the early part of the twentieth century reminds us of at least two important lessons when understanding the challenges of achieving sustainable Ukrainian statehood amidst the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. Firstly, it helps us understand that historically Russia has always conceived of Ukraine as a vassal state, at least in modern European history; and we are fighting Russia at the current time in order to maintain a new concept of European and international order in which borders are respected as instruments of international law and the 1993 treaty in which Russia agreed the territorial integrity of Ukraine (in exchange, incidentally, for Ukraine abandoning her stockpiles of nuclear weapons) must be respected as part of the international order. The United States and the United Kingdom guaranteed this arrangement, as Ukraine was left denuded of her nuclear weapons as part of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and therefore the West is morally and legally bound to defend the integrity of Ukraine and we are fighting to change the mindset in which Russia feels that this part of Europe can be rode roughshod over by her armies. It cannot. Those days are past. The European Union and Euro-Atlantic institutions existed as collective centres of political and military power precisely to prevent this sort of old-fashioned territorial aggression and disregard of borders and international law, and the West is using its power to maintain the status quo put in place after World War II to allow Europe to prosper within liberal, democratic values. It is essential that these peaceful values take primacy over military conquest, and Russia must be held to her legal commitments that she voluntarily entered into in 1993. Otherwise we are all at risk.

Secondly, we are reminded of the reported intentions of Moscow in the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to occupy Kyiv and reclaim the greater part of Ukrainian territory as a part of a new Russian Empire, and to leave a rump Ukrainian parastate based around the city of Lviv in the west of Ukraine as a European Union appendage. No doubt what the Russians had in mind was to re-partition Ukraine along the lines of her division between the two World Wars. This is precisely the sort of geographical reengineering - an attempt to turn back history - that has no place in the contemporary European order and we must fight it with all our might.


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