The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukrainians have fought for independence for more than a century

The stubborn reality thwarting Vladimir Putin’s fictions

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pays his respects at the funeral of Leonid Kravchuk, independent Ukraine's first president, in Kyiv on May 17. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)
7 min

In February, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian people, arguing that Ukraine was a fiction. Carved from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, he claimed it was actually part of Russia, with its people rejecting the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty.

He was wrong. As the Baltic republics issued multiple declarations of independence in 1991, and the Soviet Union was in the throes of disintegration, the Ukrainian parliament — under pressure from Moscow to remain part of a post-Soviet union of states — held a vote on independence on Aug. 24, 1991. The results were staggering, with 346 MPs voting in favor, five abstaining and a mere two voting against.

Three months later, on Dec. 1, 1991, Ukraine held a countrywide referendum on independence. With an 84 percent turnout of eligible voters, the result surprised even the most optimistic of Ukrainian leaders: over 90 percent voted for independence. On the same day, the people of Ukraine chose Leonid Kravchuk to be the country’s first president in an election in which all six candidates campaigned for independence. In this astonishing display of near unanimity, the government and people of Ukraine spoke loudly and clearly in favor of a clean break from Russia.

The emergence of a sovereign Ukraine in 1991 was the culmination of a century-long struggle for independence. And it reminds us that Ukrainian national identity has been deeply felt for more than a century.

The first Ukrainian declarations of independence took place during and immediately after World War I. The Central Rada — a coordinating body of Ukrainian political and cultural organizations in Kyiv — proclaimed independence for Ukraine on Jan. 22, 1918. The emotional tone of the proclamation, penned by the Rada’s head, historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, was unmistakable. “The Ukrainian People’s Republic hereby becomes an independent, free, and sovereign state of the Ukrainian people, subject to no one.”

Following the declaration, the Ukrainian government sent 400 irregular fighters 100 miles northeast to the town of Kruty to halt the advance of Russian troops. The 27 Ukrainian fighters who were killed in that battle are regarded as the first martyrs in defense of Ukrainian independence.

Having formally declared statehood, representatives of the Ukrainian People’s Republic signed a Treaty of Peace with the Central Powers in Brest-Litovsk on Feb. 9, 1918. In doing so, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey formally recognized Ukrainian independence and committed to securing its frontiers. Within days of the treaty, the armies of the Central Powers rolled into Ukraine, driving the Bolsheviks out of Kyiv on March 2, 1918. The following day, at the peak of German military power in Eastern Europe in World War I, the Central Powers signed a second peace treaty in Brest-Litovsk, this time with representatives of the Bolshevik government headed by Leon Trotsky, forcing Russia to recognize the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

Between March and November 1918, a sovereign, independent Ukraine with its capital in Kyiv functioned for the first time. But with the defeat of the Central Powers and the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, the victorious allies declared the treaties of Brest-Litovsk invalid. In an instant, the recognition that Ukrainians had received from two European great powers — Germany and Austria-Hungary — was withdrawn and the eight-month-old Ukrainian People’s Republic had to fend for itself without the means to do so.

At the same time, amid the collapse of Austria-Hungary, an empire that included Lviv and East Galicia, the last Habsburg viceroy in Lviv handed over the city’s control to Ukrainians in Lviv. Under the leadership of the prominent lawyer Yevhen Petrushevych, they announced the creation of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. At Lviv’s town hall, Ukrainian forces raised the national flag, seized government buildings, the main railway station, telephone and telegraph services and the post office.

The move caused grave concern in reborn Poland, whose head of state and commander in chief, Jozef Pilsudski, regarded Lviv as Polish. Pilsudski’s troops advanced on Lviv, expelling the Ukrainian armed forces on Nov. 21, 1918. As the Ukrainian fighters were routed farther east by the Poles, forcing the West Ukrainian government to relocate, representatives of the two Ukrainian republics agreed to merge, proclaiming a de facto single, undivided Ukraine.

But as the Russian Civil War raged on — a conflict between the Bolshevik Red Army and the anti-Bolshevik White Army in which both opposed Ukrainian independence — hopes for Ukrainian sovereignty became increasingly dim. Ukrainian and Polish leaders came to a political and military agreement in April 1920 with the Treaty of Warsaw, in which Poland formally recognized the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Ukraine formally recognized Polish sovereignty over East Galicia and western Volynia.

Polish and Ukrainian troops immediately joined in a military campaign to defend Kyiv against Russia. And on May 7, 1920, they did just that. “At a time when the Polish army fights a common enemy side by side with the brave Ukrainian troops,” Pilsudski cabled his Ukrainian counterpart, Gen. Symon Petliura, “this successful joint struggle between the Ukrainian Republic and Poland will bring forth lasting prosperity to both nations.” Pilsudski assured the Ukrainian people that Polish troops would withdraw once the Ukrainian government and armed forces could defend themselves against Russian aggression. He emphasized that the Polish armed forces had come not as conquerors but as allies.

But the Red Army counterattacked one month later, forcing the Polish and Ukrainian armies into retreat. By August 1920, the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw only to be repelled by a robust Polish counteroffensive. When the armies of Poland and Bolshevik Russia signed an armistice in October 1920, the resultant Treaty of Riga partitioned Ukraine between the two countries. The struggle for Ukrainian statehood had failed. In 1922, the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Union, which included the constituent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

But, even then, Ukrainians around the world still marked Jan. 22 — the day in 1918 that the Ukrainian People’s Republic was declared — as Independence Day. That changed on Aug. 24, 1991, when 98 percent of Ukrainian parliamentarians voted for separation from Russia. Subsequently Ukrainians have celebrated that day as Independence Day.

Today, when Ukraine faces an existential crisis in its war with Russia, Poland has not only taken in more refugees than any other country but is also the largest contributor of military aid to Ukraine next to the United States. That sentiment goes back more than a century, when in 1920, modern Poland’s founding father, Pilsudski, championed Ukrainian independence and put his country’s troops in harm’s way to support the Ukrainian cause. Then, when Western democracies hotly condemned Poland for provoking Russia in its defense of Kyiv, Pilsudski sternly replied with a warning to the West: Without an independent Ukraine, he said, Europe will never be secure.

It is not surprising that 71 years later, in December 1991, when the then-57-year-old Kravchuk became independent Ukraine’s first president, he is said to have remarked: “If only Pilsudski were alive today!” Kravchuk, who served as president until 1994, remained in the life of the nation until his death last month and was a supporter of President Volodymyr Zelensky during the 2019 presidential elections. Kravchuk, who had fallen into a coma, regained consciousness shortly before his death. At that time, he issued a final opinion to the world: “Ukraine must be in NATO,” he said. “There is no other option for Ukraine because today it is defending its land from Russian aggression.”