Soon after the Bolsheviks seized control in immense, troubled Russia in November 1917 and moved towards negotiating peace with the Central Powers, the former Russian state of Ukraine declares its total independence.
One of pre-war Russia’s most prosperous areas, the vast, flat Ukraine (the name can be translated as at the border or borderland) was one of the major wheat-producing regions of Europe as well as rich with mineral resources, including vast deposits of iron and coal. The majority of Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian empire after the second partition of Poland in 1793, while the remaining section—the principality of Galicia—remained part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was a key battleground on World War I’s Eastern Front.
Immediately following the overthrow of the czar in February 1917, Ukraine set up a provisional government and proclaimed itself a republic within the structure of a federated Russia. After Vladimir Lenin and his radical Bolsheviks rose to power in November, Ukraine—like its fellow former Russian property, Finland—took one step further, declaring its complete independence in January 1918.
But Ukraine’s Rada government, formed after the secession, had serious difficulty imposing its rule on the people in the face of Bolshevik opposition and counter-revolutionary activity within the country. Seeing Ukraine as an ideal and much-needed source of food for their hunger-plagued people, Germany and Austria brought in troops to preserve order, forcing the Russian troops occupying the country to leave under the terms of the treaty at Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918, and virtually annexing the region, while supposedly recognizing Ukrainian independence. In the words of Wilhelm Groener, a German army commander in Kiev, The [Ukrainian] administrative structure is in total disorder, completely incompetent and in no way ready for quick results.It would be in our interests to treat the Ukrainian government as a cover’ and for us to do the rest ourselves.
The defeat of the Central Powers and the signing of the armistice in November 1918 forced Germany and Austria to withdraw from Ukraine. At the same time, with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, an independent West Ukrainian republic was proclaimed in the Galician city of Lviv. The two Ukrainian states proclaimed their union in early 1919, but independence was short-lived, as they immediately found themselves in a three-way struggle against troops from both Poland and Russia. The Ukrainian government briefly allied themselves with Poland, but could not withstand the Soviet assault. In 1922, Ukraine became one of the original constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.); it would not regain its independence until the U.S.S.R.’s collapse in 1991.