Why Ukraine lost a hundred years ago and why It can and should win today

13 June, 10:41 AM

I always add to the well-known saying: “History is the teacher of life”:  a strict teacher who repeats unlearned lessons to inattentive students.

And the lessons of defeat are even more valuable than victories – because they can help us avoid mistakes.

So why did the Ukrainian state collapse a hundred years ago?

Let’s quickly reject the simple answers. Because simple answers to complex questions are simply wrong.

Ukrainians are not worse than other nations which also rebuilt their states on the ruins of empires after the First World War. We are no less zealous than Poles, Lithuanians, or Finns. No less sacrificial.  

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The political elite of Ukrainians was not slow or indecisive, as some say. We were second after the Finns to declare independence. The challenges faced by Ukrainians were more serious than those of our neighbors.

But I do not call for idealizing our politicians of that time or the general state of Ukrainian society. Mistakes played a significant role in their defeat.

So let us try to understand the objective and subjective reasons for the fall of the Ukrainian state, born out of the 1917-1921 revolution. To understand what mistakes we must not repeat.

Let’s start with the objective circumstances, which were almost impossible to influence.

The national consciousness of Ukrainians gradually grew along with the national movement of the 19th century. This was the potential that leaders had to deal with.

By the beginning of the revolution, the movement had already entered the political stage of development. That is, its main spokesman was not only poets, writers, and artists. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ukrainian political parties were formed.

The Revolutionary Ukrainian Party, led by Mykola Mikhnovsky, outlined in 1900 its main task – to create an independent Ukrainian state. It defined its direction for the next century.

But the low level of education or its complete absence, the catastrophic economic situation of a large mass of Ukrainians left them behind in the process of national self-awareness or even active participation in the national movement.

Another objective problem was too little awareness of us in the world. At that time, there was no political emigration that could talk about Ukrainians. It began to form just after its defeat.

And those of our compatriots who left their homeland earlier because of poverty and moved to Europe or America, fought for their survival abroad. Their first public association started to appear. Ukrainians in the world were still far from being lobbyists for the Ukrainian national movement.

And finally, the last and most important problem was a large number of powerful enemies. Those who created the Ukrainian state in the early 20th century were opposed by:

  • The Russian Bolsheviks – the strongest enemy who also counted on the support of some Ukrainians;
  • Military formations of the so-called “White Russia”, which was supported by some European states;
  • The restored Polish state also enlisted the help of other Europeans.

None of the other nations that won their independence had to face such strong, multifaceted and large-scale external aggression.

And now let’s talk about the mistakes that could have been avoided.

First of all, insufficient attention to the development of the armed forces. The creators of the Ukrainian army not only did not have the necessary support from the political elite – they were forced to prove the need for the army.

Politicians believed that after the bloody First World War, all nations would refuse to resolve issues using force, and Ukraine would be the first in this process. These romantic ideas cost Ukrainians dearly.

The lost time and potential of the first months of the revolution were difficult to make up. And it was not possible to “get together in the middle” with the aggressor, so we had to form an army after a full-scale invasion.

The leaders’ belief in the possibility of reaching an agreement with Russia was a gross mistake. It didn’t matter if it was “red” or “white” Russia. None of them were going to put up with the existence of an independent Ukraine.

An even more dangerous delusion was that many Ukrainians believed that this war for independence did not concern them. They believed that their lives would not change much from the victory or defeat of either side.

That it was possible to sit quietly and imperceptibly in a “house on fire”. The decades following this showed that the occupiers will come to the last house and take whatever they want. Including your life.

But the most important mistake was the inability of Ukrainian politicians to distinguish political rivals from enemies of the state. Fierce discussions about different visions of Ukraine’s future were inevitable and quite natural. The problem became that at some point, these disputes became more important than confronting the enemy.

This mistake was very costly to everyone – Hrushevsky, Petliura, Vynnychenko, Skoropadsky, Makhno – they rethought this only in exile. Ukrainians who remained in their homeland paid even more for this mistake – decades of bloody repression awaited them.

And now let’s compare this with today’s Ukraine, to understand why we can win this war with Russia.

The vast majority of Ukrainians today consider themselves Ukrainians. Thus, there are almost no issues with national self-awareness that our predecessors faced.

They don’t just know about Ukraine. We are a state whose independence and integrity are recognized by almost all countries of the world. The Ukrainian diaspora works effectively in many of them. The struggle of Ukrainians for freedom is one of the main topics of the world media.

For the first time in our history, we receive not only economic but also military assistance, including offensive weapons.

The degree of Russian aggression today and a hundred years ago is roughly comparable. But we are dealing with only one enemy, even if he attacks from the territories of two countries. And against this enemy is the whole civilized world. And so, it is easier for us than for our ancestors.

As for the mistakes of the past, which we cannot repeat, the situation is worse here. Society and government began to realize the importance of the army only after the start of the war in Russia in 2014. Having wasted two decades of independence on wasting its military potential.

But even after the start of the war, Ukrainians weren’t consistent. In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky won, claiming that the war could not be ended by military means. And most Ukrainians believed this was possible.

And so they agreed that the priority of state policy was the construction and repair of roads, not the development of the army and the purchase of weapons.

A new wave of aggression in 2022, which reached Kyiv, changed the situation. Parliament began to allocate more resources to the Armed Forces. The President spoke about the Ukrainian army as the main guarantor of independence.

Most Ukrainians are actively involved in the war – in the Armed Forces, the Territorial Defence, and volunteers. A well-known proverb sounds different now: “I’ll meet the enemy first as my house is on the edge.”

But what about the main political problem of a century ago – the inability of political leaders to cooperate? Unfortunately, the further away from the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, the less confident they are that they have learned this lesson.

Do Ukrainian politicians really understand that they can have friends, allies, competitors, rivals, and opponents? But our enemy outside the country, in Russia, is waging a war against us all.

Competitors, rivals, opponents may see a different Ukraine in the future. Enemies simply do not see a future for us. They can pretend to be allies or even friends, formulate tempting proposals to fight opponents, but we must not forget – their goal is to destroy our state.

And so comparing Ukraine a hundred years ago and today, we have better objective circumstances for victory. And even better conditions for overcoming subjective obstacles. We have a chance for our children to read about our era. Unlike our predecessors, we know what defeat in the war with Russia means. We know that peace can cost more than a war.

After all, we have learned our lessons, haven’t we?

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