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Ukrainian Centralna Rada`s military arrangements and organization of the defense of UPR against Bolshevik aggression at the end of 1917 – beginning of 1918

It is the sad reality that even to this day historians have only shed light on isolated events of the Ukrainian War of Independence of 1917-1921. A lot of century-old events are almost forgotten and their appreciations are very questionable. For instance, most of historians describes role of Ukrainian government in the creation of a national military forces at the end of 1917 – beginning of 1918 as an exceptionally destructive one. It is common to portray Ukrainian revolutionary parliament – Centralna Rada – as assembly of the very quixotical politicians who destroyed national army instead of organization military forces. Centralna Rada’s resolution for army’s demobilization in January, 1918 is considered to be a prime example of complete incompetence of the state rulers. Such accusations are extremely heavy in view of Bolshevik invasion against Ukraine People’s Republic. It is my hope, that introduction of archival documents and other origin materials will allow to correct these persisting stereotypes.

Mykhailo Kovalchuk,
Mykhailo Kovalchuk at the conference entitled Ukraine’s Century of Struggle to Security in Washington D.C. on 6 December 2017

First of all, only the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the transition of the superior military institutions under the command of the Ukrainian powers in November 1917 opened the doors for Ukrainian authorities to launch a full-fledged development of Ukrainian armed forces. The Ukraine People Republic’s military office was led by Symon Petliura – a famous Ukrainian journalist, political figure, and the former Head of the Ukrainian Military General Committee. Contrary to the calls to build a democratized military force that came from various elected military organizations, Petliura was aiming to build Ukrainian armed forces by establishing a chain of command and military order. His first decree (Nov 21, 1917), signed after taking his new post, abolished the long-standing tradition of electing the commanding officers. Some eight days later Petliura issued an order establishing the chain of command and “national military discipline” in the UPR’s armed forces. The soldiers were to execute officers’ orders as instructed. Officers on their end were to extend camaraderie to privates.

Claims about UPR’s government not taking the steps necessary to develop Ukraine’s armed forces and solely demobilizing the existing forces are false. On the contrary, over the course of November and December of 1917 Petliura initiated the establishment of new military units. For example, garrisons stationed in Kyiv became the core of the new Serdiuk division, named as a tribute to the 18th century Cossack guard. The first Serdiuk division was created in late November 1917 and consisted of four infantry regiments, artillery units, armour and field engineer subdivisions. On December 23, 1917, Petliura ordered the creation of a 2nd Serdiuk division composed of three infantry units, one scooter and one cavalry regiment as well as other military subdivisions of various types of arms. It should be noted that elections of commanding staff were not practiced in the Serdiuk units. In order to embed military discipline, the soldiers went through daily five-hour training. The widespread opinion about both Serdiuk divisions being disbanded by the UPR’s government shortly after their creation is false. As a matter of fact, Serdiuk divisions ceased their existence only after Ukrainian forces retreated from Kyiv in early February 1918. But, even than their remnants served as the backbone for a new military formation – Zaporizhskiy zagin.

In late 1917, creation of new military units was being conducted beyond Kyiv. On Petliura’s orders, three new reserve regiments were formed in the region lying east of the Dnipro River, stationed in cities of strategic importance – Kremenchug, Poltava, Kharkiv, and Chernihiv. The strongest Ukrainian military force in the Right-bank Ukraine was the former 34th Russian Army Corps under General Pavlo Skoropadsky. Both divisions were nearly exclusively Ukrainians, thus, on December 20th Petliura issued an order for the 34th Corps to be renamed the “1st Ukrainian Corps”. Eastern Ukraine had other military units formed mostly of Ukrainian soldiers. Petliura attempted retrieving them from the command of the remnants of the Russian Army. He also paid considerable attention to establishing military units in Southern and Southeastern Ukraine, namely in Kherson and Katerynoslav regions. In late December 1917, all forces stationed in the South-East were combined into three Ukrainian divisions. Every division was composed of four infantry regiments, along with artillery and cavalry subdivisions.

Accusations that Ukraine’s government did nothing to organize the defense against Soviet Russia’s invasion does not stand up to criticism either. According to archival documents, in mid-December 1917 UPR’s military leaders commenced preparations to resist Russian aggression. The 1st Ukrainian Corps received orders to protect the Southwestern front from any insubordinate troops acting on Russia’s orders. General Skoropadsky assumed full command of the troops in the Southwestern region. However, as Eastern and Southeastern Ukraine lay open to attack along the full length of the border between Ukraine and Russia, this region became the primary point of deployment for the military troops from Kyiv. Five regiments and two battalions were stationed in this region.

A crucial role in the defence of Left-bank Ukraine was placed on the 21st Army Corps. This military unit was comprised of Ukrainian soldiers and UPR’s military leadership assumed it to be subordinate to Ukrainian command. In the years preceding the war, the 21st Corps was stationed in Ukraine, however once World War One broke out, it was deployed to the Baltic region. Ukraine’s military leadership counted on the 21st Corps’ swift return to Ukraine, however they did not account for the fact that by then Soviets had established sufficient control over the territory in-between, cutting off the passage back to Ukraine. Several units of Ukrainian forces splintered off to try and make their way back, but they were intercepted, disarmed and some were disbanded. Information regarding pro-Ukrainian sentiment among the soldiers of the 21st Corps had also been exaggerated as only 44th division had a Ukrainian majority. Most soldiers were indifferent towards Ukrainian government’s fate and wanting nothing more than to make their way home. Some of them even came to support the Soviet regime. As a result, the 44th division remained in the Baltics when Ukrainian-Russian military confrontation began. UPR’s leaders were compelled to organize the defense of Left-bank Ukraine with forces they had immediately under their command.

Arrival of Soviet forces to Kharkiv in late December 1917 marked the escalation of a political opposition between Central Rada and the Soviet powers into a full-fledged military confrontation. At the same time, political squabbling resulted in Petliura being forced to resign from his post as the General Secretary of Military Affairs, landing another blow to Ukraine’s defense forces. Mykola Porsh became a new Secretary of Military Affairs. A very famous figure in Ukraine’s Social-Democratic Labour Party, Porsh was completely inexperienced in military decision-making. Thus, he passed command of the defense forces over to the 1st Serdiuk Division’s commander Colonel Yuriy Kapkan.

The newly appointed commander attempted to stop the advancement of Soviet troops from Kharkiv deeper into the territory of Ukraine. For example, on his orders, some Serdjuk regiments were transferred to the Left-bank Ukraine. At the same time measures were being taken to protect the Right-bank Ukraine from Soviet troops’ assault from the North. The most reliable and combat-ready troops were positioned around the perimeter of Kyiv to ensure the best possible defense against the Bolsheviks.

Soon enough it became obvious that Ukrainian troops’ combat capacity did not match that of the volunteering Soviet Red Guard. The vast majority of Ukrainian soldiers had no political aspirations and were primarily concerned with safe return to their homes, often seeking to be decommissioned from the army. Two regiments were disbanded by the Ukrainian authorities due to soldiers’ refusal to participate in regular drills. The fatigue of being stuck in a political limbo and extended military service were wearing out the soldiers and further contributed to increasing the rates of desertion. Many soldiers became disappointed in the Central Rada due its failure to implement social reforms. Thus, even the supporters of Ukraine’s government became ambivalent to the appeals to defend homeland against the Bolshevik invasion. For instance, soldiers of 156th division in effect refused to support UPR’s government in its fight against the Bolsheviks. One by one, regiments of the Kyiv garrison proclaimed neutrality while several units openly supported Soviet authorities. Whole regiments of the 1st Ukrainian Corps refused to take orders from Ukrainian headquarters and withdrew from the front lines.

Colonel Kapkan tried to bring in fresh units to defend against Soviet troops. His intention was to recruit Ukrainian soldiers from the former Russian Southwestern front. On January 10 he ordered the 4th Ukrainian Division to move from the Right-bank Ukraine to Bakhmach and Bilgorod. At the same time Kapkan planned on transferring three divisions to the Left-bank Ukraine. The 5th Ukrainian division received orders to occupy the northern stretch of the Right-bank Ukraine, protecting this region from Russian invasion from the Belarus side. Two infantry regiments from 1st Ukrainian corps received the similar orders.

But nearly all of these orders died on the vine. For example, the 9th and 10th cavalry divisions remained in the Right-bank Ukraine. Instead of fighting the Bolsheviks, all the soldiers wanted was to be decommissioned. The 5th Ukrainian division acceded to relocate into the rear only to have some downtime. Subdivisions of the 1st Ukrainian Corps disobeyed orders and never moved to the Northern stretch of the border. Some troops of the 4th Ukrainian Division had been indoctrinated and withdrew their support for the Ukrainian government. Instead of moving to Left-bank they gradually demobilized. The 137th Division that made its way from Belarus was completely unfit for combat, with a majority of soldiers looking to make their way home rather than to fight the Bolshevik offensive.

This disintegration of the army pushed Ukrainian leaders to implement complete restructuring of the military forces on a volunteer basis. Soldiers’ aversion to remaining in military service made demobilization inevitable. Ridding the army of those unwilling to fight was expected to reduce the head-count but bring significant improvement to the troops’ combat readiness. It was deemed that smaller units of volunteer forces could be sufficient to defend Ukraine because Soviet detachments were not numerous either. Such a measure seemed completely reasonable for many officers and members of the Ukrainian military apparatus. As a report from a Ukrainian rada (an elective military committee) reads: “It is the opinion of all the commanding staff that there is an urgent need to create paid mobile squads and attacking battalions. The rest of Ukrainian idlers should be disbanded”.

On January 8, 1918 Porsh announced the plan of the army’s reorganization for the first time. He proposed to disband units of the so-called “old army”. Ukrainian government instructed the Office of Military Affairs “to start an organization of a volunteer army” at once. On January 16 the Central Rada debated a bill drafted by the military department about organization of a volunteer army. After the discussion the Ukrainian revolutionary parliament approved the creation of a people’s army for the purpose “of protection native land against foreign assault”.

A prevalent opinion among historians has been that the Central Rada forced demobilization of all of the old army’s soldiers including those who wanted to keep defending Ukraine from the Soviet invasion. Close study of archival documents proves that this was not the case. The reality was that volunteers had the permission to remain in military service. It should be noted that a similar approach was common among governments that rose out of the ashes of the Russian Empire. For instance, Soviet authorities had started demobilization even before the UPR’s government did. While the Central Rada was moving forward with the creation of a new type of army, Soviet authorities had already demobilized soldiers who had served for a period of 3 years and made the armed forces aware of the plan to “transition from a regular standing army towards universal arming of people”. In early 1918 both Bolsheviks and their antagonists relied solely on volunteer troops. Ideological adversaries of Bolsheviks among the ranks of professional military who tried to create military forces in Southern Russia even marked the voluntary nature of the army by its very name. However, the total numbers of volunteers who wanted to stay in military service of one or another government was limited.

Ukrainian leaders, however, made some disastrous mistakes during the reorganization of the military. According to the law passed by the Central Rada, the volunteer army was to be called “citizen militia”. The term “militia” obviously was introduced by the prime-minister Volodymyr Vynnychenko and other UPR leaders who were convinced socialists. They considered a regular standing army to be a tool for “class struggle” and didn’t want to preserve this institution at all. The term “militia” was traditionally used to describe law enforcement formations as opposed to military forces. So law contained not only resolution about voluntary recruiting principle but also confusion about terms and conceptions. The role of volunteers who chose to stay in military service was basically reduced by government to becoming training instructors for the population. The details of their status were left completely unclear. While a number of military leaders agreed that the army’s reorganization on a volunteer basis was a necessity, none of them supported transforming military forces into a militia. That is why the law drew sharp criticism from the overwhelming majority of officers and soldiers who supported the Ukrainian government. One of the officers in the Bohdan Khmelnitsky regiment of the Serdiuk Division later recalled that for his brothers-in-arms, the law establishing a new order of military affairs came completely by surprise. The dismantling of the regular standing army pushed many Bolshevik antagonists willing to continue the fight away from supporting the government. All of this resulted in the original purpose of the military reform being undermined and its potential being completely negated.

Regardless of the controversial nature of the law passed by the Centralna Rada, the subsequent course of events justified the transition to principles of voluntarism for the military organization. It is precisely the volunteer troops who had borne the brunt of the military actions against the Soviet forces in January and February 1918. Such units as Haidamackiy kish (meaning “corps”), Sich riflemen battalion, Zaporizkiy zagin (meaning “regiment”), and Free Cossacks, showed remarkable battle capacity and became a reliable military force for the Ukrainian government.

Thus, the government’s decision to demobilize the regular army in January 1918 was more reasonable than present-day historians often consider it to be. Contrary to popular belief, in late 1917 Ukrainian authorities had made sufficient efforts to create a combat-ready armed force. Petliura put a lot of effort into organizing the defense against the Bolshevik’s invasion. Even his successor in the military office tried to take every step necessary to establish an effective defense and the troops brought in to fight the Bolsheviks considerably exceeded their foe in numbers. But all of these attempts failed as the vast majority of Ukrainian soldiers refused to support the government. The main reason for this lay in the political sphere. But all of this made the reorganization of the army unavoidable. In other words, Ukraine’s defense failed not because of the demobilization of the army. Rather, it was the army’s inability to provide effective defense of Ukraine that entailed its demobilization.

Transition to a volunteer army was a step in the right direction allowing UPR’s government to form a smaller but more efficient military force at its disposal. However, Ukrainian leaders turned a military reform into an experiment of implementation of socialist ideas. This awkward attempt to replace the regular army with the “people’s militia” showed the disregard of Ukrainian leaders for the armed forces and pushed many professional military staff to withdraw their support for the government. With rare exceptions, this policy did not raise the Central Rada’s popularity among soldiers either, and only complicated the fight against Soviet aggression in the beginning of 1918.


Mykhailo Kovalchuk,
Senior Researcher, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

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