The history of Ukraine is largely a history of war.
But when the story of war in Ukraine is told, it is frequently confined to the Crimean War of the mid-nineteenth century, and the siege of Sevastopol in World War Two.
Little is told of the bloodletting in Ukraine during the First World War, and given that this year marks a century since the outbreak of the First World War, it’ a sadly fitting time to revisit the story of Ukraine in World War 1, or as it’s variously known the Great War, the war to end all wars, or the forgotten world war.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, much of western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And most of eastern Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. The cultural, ethnic, and linguistic divide was much like it is today.
Once Russia went to war against the Central Powers — that is Austria-Hungary and Germany — Ukraine became first a territory of political rivalry and eventually a blood-soaked battleground.
One of the first actions taken by Austria-Hungary, in August 1914, was an effort to finance anti-Russian political forces in Western Ukraine.
But the divisions in Ukraine remained fairly stable until 1917 when soon after the revolution in Russia in February, Ukraine sought full autonomy. From here on out, the situation becomes very complicated, chaotic it’s fair to say.
The moderate revolutionary government in Russia, deeply wounded in the larger war, granted Ukraine full autonomy. But later that year, in October, the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd and reversed Russia’s commitment to Ukrainian independence. By December, fighting had once again broken out between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
Initially the Bolshevik army was unable to subdue the Ukrainians, and in early 1918, both the Central Powers and the Soviet government recognized Ukraine’s independence.
But fighting erupted once again between the Soviets and Ukrainian nationalists. This time Lenin’s forces proved strong, and in January 1918, the Bolsheviks marched into Kiev, Odessa and all of Ukraine.
Still that did not end it. By March 1918 the Russian government was so weak that it signed a separate peace treaty with Germany – the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk – and proje
That provided the Germans with an open door to all of Ukraine, and they quickly marched through it. They seized all of Ukraine, all the way to Crimea and Kharkov in the east.
But Germany’s army was collapsing. Its losses on the Western front forced it to withdraw from Ukraine, and the Soviets filled the vacuum. Fighting in Ukraine continued even after the armistice ended World War 1 in November. This time it was the forces of Poland in the west fighting — successfully at first – against the Soviet army. And both the Soviet and Polish armies opposing claims by Ukrainian parties to full independence.
Eventually the Soviets would prevail, establishing control of Ukraine essentially within today’s borders. But not before the world war loosed a vicious civil war that was fought principally in Ukraine. As just one example, anti-Jewish pogroms swept Ukraine in 1919 in what one historian called “some of the most brutal acts of persecution in the modern history of the Western world.”
Ukraine did not achieve full independence until after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. The seven decades of Soviet control saw many of the same tensions and conflicts that are fueling today’s Russian-Ukrainian rivalry.
Mike Shuster, a former Moscow bureau chief for National Public Radio, is executive producer of The Great War Project, which will be reporting about World War I with a century of perspective.
Source: Martin Gilbert, The First World War; W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory