The Legitimisation of a War: Risky Game with Old Accounts

It was not until the Peace of Riga in 1921 that the struggle between Poland and Soviet Russia over Ukraine and Belarus came to an end.

There were no victors in the East at the end of the First World War. Both sides lost: Germans and Austrians on the one hand; Russians on the other. Then, something happened that nobody had foreseen when the war broke out in 1914: the three powers that had partitioned Poland in 1815 were all forced to disappear from the picture and the path was left clear for the restoration of the Polish state.

While in the West the boundaries could be defined more concretely with respect to defeated Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, the situation in the East remained far more complex and the influence of the Versailles peace treaty was almost non-existent. Here, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians had lived together in close proximity, with Jews as well, for centuries, yet armed force was still the dominant approach.

At the end of 1918, armed conflicts and skirmishes between Polish and Ukrainian troops erupted around Lviv in eastern Galicia, which had previously belonged to Austria; an early sign that the West’s peace agreement had little meaning in the East. The plea to respect ethnic boundaries was the sole rallying cry. However, it was the hour of daring men who felt called to perform great historical deeds. On the Polish side, Józef Piłsudski rose to the rank of unrivalled national hero. He was driven by the vision of enforcing historical borders in the East, deep into the vastness of the Tsarist empire that had vanished in the war. Russia consumed itself in a bloody civil war, and it was far from clear who would emerge the victor. In response to the emerging national sentiment in the Ukrainian and Belarusian populations, he supported the idea of a federation – a subsequent union of these countries with Poland in order to significantly hinder Russia’s influence.

The first clashes between the Polish armed forces and the Red Army took place in April 1919 in Vilnius, when the Red Army was driven out of the city, which at the time was primarily a matter of dispute between Poland and Lithuania. The Polish army then advanced further eastwards, inflicting serious defeats on the Red Army, and, in September 1919, reached a line 50 kilometres east of Minsk. In the South, the whole of western Ukraine was already under control. Since May 1919, hostilities against the units of the so-called Ukrainian People’s Republic of Symon Petlyura had ceased there. Implacable enemies had been united and rendered allies against the common adversary – Soviet Russia. In view of the balance of power, Petlyura quickly realised that the only way for him to achieve the independent Ukraine he aspired to was to conquer Kyiv rather than Lviv.

Piłsudski seemed to have moved a big step closer to his geopolitical dream of a Polish federation with a Belarus uncoupled from Russia and an independent Ukraine. In autumn 1919, however, the victorious Western powers still insisted on a Polish eastern border along the Bug River, in line with the dominant nationality of the population living there. Piłsudski now took advantage of the fact that Soviet Russia no longer had any allies in the West – a formidable situation for the success of his own plans. Later, historians would conclude that he probably would not have had a chance against Russia and its White armies.  

The Soviet side put forward serious peace proposals in the winter of 1919/20 and was willing to recognise an independent Poland in addition to making territorial concessions that went far beyond the expectations of the Western powers, but now – in relation to Belarus and Ukraine – referred for its part to the right of peoples to self-determination. Warsaw imposed harsh conditions that Moscow was unwilling to accept, and the fighting therefore resumed in the spring of 1920. Piłsudski travelled to Kyiv to give Petlyura the lead in creating an independent Ukraine. The manoeuvre was also successful from a military perspective since, on 7 May 1920, Polish troops moved into Kyiv.

The Polish leadership was counting on a peace treaty dictated to the Soviet side, but after the victory in the civil war that was already imminent, Moscow now threw everything against the front with Poland. Mikhail Tukhachevsky took over strategic leadership in the north, on Belarusian territory, while Budyonny’s infamous cavalry army fought in the south, in the Ukrainian expanses. The objective was clear: push the Polish troops far back to the west and take Warsaw. It took only a few days for Polish troops to be driven out of Kyiv again.

At the beginning of August 1920 the tables had turned, and the Red Army now stood at the gates of Warsaw; the capture of Poland’s capital city seemed to be only a matter of time. A Polish Soviet government was to be installed, presided over by Julian Marchlewski. Secretly, the Soviet leadership around Lenin expected the masses of workers and peasants in Poland, especially the poorer classes, to close ranks and collaborate. Piłsudski was backed by French advisors and troops, including a young officer named Charles de Gaulle; in this menacing situation, he and his leadership succeeded in stirring up a patriotic mood that proved decisive for the war, since fresh volunteer armies were available in sufficient numbers. Just as the Poles had failed a few months previously in Kyiv, now the Red Army failed at the threshold of Warsaw. The key turning point in the war occurred between 14 and 16 August 1920 – now, the Red Army was forced back east again. At the end of September 1920, the Polish troops even succeeded in breaking through in the direction of Minsk; the Soviet troops were beaten.

In the autumn of 1920, combat operations ceased and peace negotiations began. For Lenin, the exact border between the Soviet Union and Poland was now less important; it was more critical that Poland conceded the existence of Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus at the negotiating table, reversing, so to speak, Piłsudski’s strategic plans for a federation. A peace treaty between the two sides was signed in Riga on 18 March 1921. This officially marked the end of the First World War in the East. At the same time, it paved the way for the founding of the Soviet Union, which was officially created on 30 December 1922.

The Western victors still needed some time to officially accept the agreed demarcation of the border, because ethnic criteria had been completely swept aside. For Belarus, the agreement meant being partitioned into Polish and Soviet territories. The western part of Ukraine shifted to Poland. The loss of territory was compensated for by the administrative annexation of larger areas in the east, which had always been Russian territory in the Tsarist empire.

More than 100 years later, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has now resorted to wartime violence, with the incredible argument that Lenin and the Bolsheviks betrayed fundamental Russian interests by creating Soviet Ukraine. 

Originally published at Neues Deutschland (German)

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