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Ukraine’s History Is Filled with War, Blood and Death

Ukraine
Ukraine Historical Map. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

If Russia launches a war against Ukraine, it will be far from the first time even in recent memory that the country has known violence. Many parts of the world suffered horribly from war in the 20th century, but Ukraine has surely witnessed more than its fair share of warfare over the last 110 years.

In World War I, Ukraine was the site of several major battles, most notably the Battle of Galicia in 1914, the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, and the Kerensky Offensive of 1917. At Galicia (fought in what is now western Ukraine) Russian forces tore the heart out of the armies of Austria-Hungary, restoring the line after the disastrous defeat at Tanneberg. The Brusilov Offensive cut deep into German and Austrian lines, displaying in full for the first time the fire and movement tactics that have come to characterize modern warfare for the last century. The failed Kerensky Offensive represented the last gasp of Russia’s provisional government, paving the way for the Bolshevik Revolution. Overall, counting only the major battles the armies of the combatants suffered nearly three million casualties in Ukraine.

The end of World War I did not end the fighting. As discussed in an earlier column, German, Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian forces of armies of both the White and Red varieties swept over Ukraine in the two years after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk formally ended fighting in the east. The Soviet-Polish War inflicted some half a million casualties on all sides, with much of the fighting taking place within modern Ukrainian borders. At the same time, a complex war between the Bolsheviks, Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel’s White Russians, and Ukrainian anarchists burned in the southern half of the country, culminating in the escape by sea of a reside of Wrangel’s forces from Crimea.

These battles would only be exceeded by the horrors of the Second World War. German troops focused mostly on western parts of Poland during their invasion of September 1939, leaving the east (areas which would eventually become part of Ukraine) to the Soviets. The Red Army crossed the border on September 17 and rapidly rolled up the country, although not without violence. Far more violent were the events of late June 1941, when the Wehrmacht and its allies launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine.

Several of the most important early battles of Operation Barbarossa took place in Ukraine. The first week saw a massive tank battle at Brody, in which the Germans destroyed some 800 Soviet tanks at the loss of 200 of their own.  In July the Wehrmacht annihilated two Soviet armies at the Battle of Uman, resulting in 20,000 German casualties against more than 200,000 Red Army. This opened the door to Kyiv, which was besieged in mid-September. Some 600,000 Soviet troops were killed or captured when the pocket surrendered in late September. In October another Soviet army including over 100,000 troops was surrounded and captured near the Sea of Azov. Kharkiv and the Donbas fell in October. Most of the prisoners taken by the Germans would die of starvation in forced labor camps.

The grim course of the war on the Eastern Front meant that every place the Germans had taken would need to be retaken by the Soviets. Kharkiv changed hands several times, with the Soviets finally gaining permanent control in August 1943. A massive offensive along the Dnieper in late 1943 reclaimed much of the rest of Ukraine, including Kyiv. The final German evacuation of Ukraine came on October 28, 1944.

All of these wars had a dreadful impact on civilians. German occupation practices were horrific, with outright massacres of the Jewish population accompanied by general policies of starvation. Estimates of the total number of dead exceed 7 million, more than those killed in Germany itself. Although the devastation of World War I was less deliberate, the use of Ukraine as a breadbasket by both Russia and the Central Powers had a devastating effect on the local population. This is of course to say nothing of the Holodomor, the famine that gripped Ukraine in 1932-3 and that killed several million.

And of course, Ukraine’s travails did not end with World War II. From 1945 until 1990 Ukraine knew the uncertain peace of Soviet rule. Independence was accomplished with minimal violence until 2014 when a revolution in Kyiv inspired a Russian invasion of Ukraine’s east and south. That war, which continues in some form until this very day, has by most estimates killed nearly 15000 people.

Ukraine

Russian T-90 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine

Russian President Putin with Russian Military Forces. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

It is tempting to conclude that some geographic spaces are prone to witness great battles, but in fact, politics and technology set the terms by which geography matters. The corridor between New Jersey and central Virginia saw bitter combat over the course of nearly 250 years from 1620 until 1870 but has remained almost completely at peace since 1865. The Rhine, which witnessed catastrophic if periodic warfare for centuries, has been at peace since 1945. There is real hope, thus, that Ukraine’s future may be less violent than Ukraine’s past, notwithstanding the massive foreign army sitting upon its borders.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Commentar

    February 16, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    No mention of ukraine would be complete without dstory on the battle of Brody July 1944 where a German SS division (14th SS) made up of ukrainian fascist soldiers were hit but the red army.

    In 1944, the Red Army mounted the Lviv-Sandomierz offensive and hotly chased the Germans from ukraine to poland, and the german 13th army corps got badly mauled.

    The 13th was reinforced by the 14th SS division,,and ordered to made a stand at brody but the red army dashed forward to the town of Busk, about 20-30 km west of Brody and thus bottled up the 13th. In a fight lasting several days, the red army killed 25,000 fascist soldiers, including 8,000 Ukrainians and took 15,000 prisoners.

    Some of the ukrainian soldiers escaped and later surrendered to the allies (Brits) at war’s end and the Soviet union demanded their extradition for serious war crimes but the allies ignored the request.

  2. Alex

    February 16, 2022 at 11:32 pm

    Stop writing nonsense. You are absolutely not familiar with the history of the formation of Ukraine. The name Ukraine never existed, there were so-called outskirts of the principality, which were inhabited by representatives of the so-called triune people of the Little Russians. The triune people included Great Russians, Little Russians and Belarusians. All of them were called Russ. Absolutely all the territories of Ukraine are nothing more than gifts from Russian princes and tsars, and later gifts from the communists. That’s what Ukraine is today.

  3. Artem

    February 17, 2022 at 12:39 pm

    Lmao Alex, that’s entirely made up, you should instead reevaluate the history and origins of the Moscow state. I don’t really know what you mean by “Triun people” that sounds like something you were too stupid to properly understand and are now regurgitating in a completely different context. Fact of the Matter is there’s no “Russia” that was a rebranding of Moscowiy which has nothing to do with Rus and everything to do with Mongolia, from it’s opressive governance structure down to treating it’s subjects like cattle – Ukraine in this sense is a European successor to the Rus principalities

  4. Alex

    February 18, 2022 at 10:23 am

    Artyom, if you don’t even know what the concept of the triune Russian people is, then I won’t even communicate with ignoramuses in history. You roll your version of Ukrainian history, written at the end of the 20th century by Ukrainian Nazis, into a tube and you yourself know where to shove it.

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