Kiev Offensive (1920)

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The 1920 Kiev Offensive (or Kiev Operation), sometimes considered to have started the Soviet-Polish War, was an attempt by the newly re-emerged Poland, led by Józef Piłsudski, to seize former Polish lands, -central and eastern Ukraine, torn in the warring among various factions, both domestic and foreign, from Soviet control.

The stated goal of the operation was to create a formally independent Ukraine, Some Ukrainians greeted the Polish and allied Ukrainian forces as liberators. although Ukrainians fought for both sides of the conflict.

Киев 1914-1921 / Kiev (Kyiv) 1914-1921

A major military operation, this campaign was conducted from April to June 1920 by the Polish Army in alliance with the forces of the Ukrainian People's Republic under the exiled Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura, opposed by the Soviets who claimed those territories for the Ukrainian SSR. Initially successful for the Polish army, which captured Kiev on May 7, 1920, the campaign was dramatically reversed.


The government of the Ukrainian People's Republic, with mounting attacks on its territory since early 1919, had lost control over most of Ukraine, which was controlled by several disparate powers:

  • Denikin's Whites,
  • the Red Army and pro-Soviet formations,
  • the Makhnovist Partisan Army claiming significant territory, the Kingdom of Romania in the southwest,
  • Poland, and
  • various bands lacking any political ideology.

The city of Kiev had undergone numerous recent changes of government. The Ukrainian People's Republic was established in 1917; a Bolshevik uprising was suppressed in January 1918.

The Red Army took it in February 1918, followed by the Army of the German Empire in March; Ukrainian forces retook the city in December. During February 1919 the Red Army regained control; in August it was taken first by Symon Petlura's men and then by Denikin's army. The Soviets regained control in December 1919.

At the time of the offensive, the forces of the exiled Ukrainian leader Petlura, who formally represented the Ukrainian People's Republic, controlled only a small sliver of land near the Polish border. Under these circumstances, Petlura saw no choice but to accept Piłsudski's offer to join the alliance with Poland despite many unresolved territorial conflicts between these two nations; on April 21, 1920 they signed the Treaty of Warsaw.

In exchange for agreeing to a border along the Zbruch River, Petlura was promised military help in regaining the Soviet-controlled territories with Kiev, where he would again assume the authority of the Ukrainian People's Republic (UNR).

For the Petlura's acceptance of the Poland's territorial advances it obtained from defeating the West Ukrainian People's Republic (WUNR), a Ukrainian statehood attempt in Volhynia and Eastern part of Galicia, largely Ukrainian populated but with significant Polish minority, Petlura was promised military help in regaining the Soviet-controlled territories with Kiev, where he would again assume the authority of the Ukrainian People's Republic. The treaty was followed by a formal alliance signed by Petlura and Piłsudski on April 24. On the same day, Poland and UPR forces began the Kiev Operation, aimed at securing the Ukrainian territory for the Petlura's government thus creating a buffer for Poland that would separate it from Russia.

Киев до 1917 г. в открытках / Old Kiev (Kyiv) postcards

Following the formal restoration of Ukrainian independence, the Ukrainian state was then supposed to subordinate its military and economy to Warsaw through joining the Polish-led "Międzymorze" federation of East-Central European states, as Piłsudski wanted Ukraine to be a buffer between Poland and Russia rather than seeing Ukraine again dominated by Russia right at the Polish border. Separate provisions in the treaty guaranteed the rights of the Polish and Ukrainian minorities within both states and obliged each side not to conclude any international agreements against each other.

As the treaty legitimized the Polish control over the territory that the Ukrainians viewed as rightfully theirs, the alliance received a dire reception from many Ukrainian leaders, ranging from Mykhailo Hrushevsky former chairman of the Tsentralna Rada, to Yevhen Petrushevych, the leader of the West Ukrainian People's Republic that was forced into exile after Polish-Ukrainian War. However, such objections were brushed aside.

The initial expedition in which 65,000 Polish and 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers took part started on April 24, 1920. The military goal was to outflank the Soviet forces and destroy them in a single battle. After winning the battle in the South, the Polish General Staff planned a speedy withdrawal of the 3rd Army and strengthening of the northern front where Piłsudski expected the main battle with the Red Army to take place. The Polish southern flank was to be held by Polish-allied Ukrainian forces under a friendly government in Ukraine. On May 7, Polish and Ukrainian soldiers entered Kiev.


Polish advance

Pilsudski's forces were divided into three armies. Arranged from north to south, they were the 3rd, 2nd and 6th, with Petliura's forces attached to the 6th army. Facing them were the Soviet 12th and 14th armies led by Alexander Ilyich Yegorov. Pilsudski struck on April 25, and captured Zhytomyr the following day. Within a week, the Soviet 12th army was largely destroyed. In the south, the Polish 6th Army and Petliura's forces pushed the Soviet 14th army out of central Ukraine as they quickly marched eastward through Vinnytsia. The combined Polish-Ukrainian forces entered Kiev on May 7, encountering only token resistance. On May 9 the Polish troops celebrated the capture of Kiev with the victory parade on Kreschatyk, the city's main street. Following this parade, however, all Polish forces were withdrawn from the city and control was given to the Ukrainian 6th division under the control of Petlura's Ukrainian government.

On April 26, in his "Call to the People of Ukraine", Piłsudski assured that "the Polish army would only stay as long as necessary until a legal Ukrainian government took control over its own territory". Many Ukrainians were both anti-Polish and anti-Bolshevik, and were suspicious of the Poles. The Soviet propaganda also had the effect of encouraging negative Ukrainian sentiment towards the Polish operation and Polish-Ukrainian history in general.

The success of the joint Polish-Ukrainian political campaign depended on the creation of a strong Ukrainian army capable of defeating the Soviets in Ukraine. While initially successful, the campaign ultimately failed. The local population was tired of hostilities after several years of war and the Ukrainian Army never exceeded two divisions largely due to the ambivalent attitude of Ukrainians towards the alliance. Petliura was only able to recruit 20,000–30,000 additional soldiers into his army, a number insufficient to hold back the Soviet forces.

However the Bolshevik army, although having suffered some defeats, avoided total destruction. The Polish offensive stopped at Kiev and only a small bridgehead was established on the eastern bank of the Dnieper.

Soviet counterattack

The Polish-Ukrainian military thrust soon met the Red Army counterattack. On May 24, 1920 the Polish-Ukrainian forces encountered the highly respected First Cavalry Army of Semyon Budionny. Two days later, Budionny's cavalry, with two major units from the Russian 12th Army, began an assault on the Polish forces centered around Kiev. After a week of heavy fighting south of the city, the Russian assault was repulsed and the front line restored. On June 3, 1920 another Russian assault began north of the city.

Meanwhile, Polish military intelligence was aware of Russian preparations for a counteroffensive, and Polish commander-in-chief Józef Piłsudski ordered the commander of Polish forces on the Ukrainian Front, General Antoni Listowski, to prepare for a strategic withdrawal. From the perspective of staff maps in Warsaw, it was clear that the recently created Polish Army was too weak to withstand both the offensive in the southern, Ukrainian sector and the spring offensive being prepared by the Bolsheviks in Belarus and north of the Pripyat Marshes. However, the commander of the Polish 3rd Army in the vicinity of Kiev, General Edward Rydz-Śmigły, was seeking a way to repulse the upcoming Russian assault rather than withdraw, and even proposed to the General Staff regrouping all his forces at Kiev and defending there until relieved. His plan was turned down by Piłsudski, who knew that no relief force could be prepared any time soon. He repeated his order to withdraw the Polish 3rd and 6th Armies from the Kiev area.

Polish retreat

Repeated attacks by the Budionny's 1st Cavalry Army eventually broke the Polish Ukrainian front on June 5 and on June 10 Polish armies were retreating along the entire front. On June 13 Kiev was evacuated and left to the Soviets.

As the withdrawal was started too late, the forces of Rydz found themselves in an extremely difficult situation. Russian Golikov's and Yakir's Groups, as well as the 1st Cavalry Army managed to capture several strategically important positions behind the Polish lines and the risk of the Polish armies being surrounded and defeated became high. However, mostly due to lack of reconnaissance, poor command and conflicts within the staff of the South-Western Front, the Polish-Ukrainian units managed to withdraw in order and relatively unscathed. Such an outcome of the operation was equally unexpected by both sides. Although the Poles withdrew to their initial positions, they remained tied down in Ukraine and lacked sufficient strength to support the Polish Northern Front and strengthen defenses at the Auta River during the decisive battle that was soon to take place there. On the other hand, the Bolshevik objectives were not accomplished either and the Russian forces had to remain in Ukraine and got tied down with heavy fighting for the area of the city of Lwów.


In the aftermath of the defeat in Ukraine, the Polish government of Leopold Skulski resigned on the June 9, and a political crisis gripped Polish government for most of June. Bolshevik and later Soviet propaganda used the Kiev Offensive to portray the Polish government as imperialist aggressors.


The mutual accusations by both parties of the conflict in violations of the basic rules of the war conduct were rampant and full of exaggerations. Norman Davies writes that "Polish and Soviet newspapers of that time competed in which could produce a more terrifying portrait of their opponent." Soviet propaganda claimed that Poles destroyed much of Kiev's infrastructure, including the passenger and cargo railway stations, and other purely civilian objects crucial for the city functioning, such as the electric power station, the city sewerage and water supply systems as well as monuments such as St Volodymyr's Cathedral. The Poles denied that they committed any such acts of vandalism, claiming that the only deliberate damage they carried out during their evacuation was blowing up Kiev bridges across the Dnieper River, for strictly military reasons. The cathedral was not, in fact, destroyed. According to some Ukrainian sources, incidents of more controversial and not warranted by the military needs destruction in the city by the retreating Polish army have also occurred.

Accusations were made against the Soviet side as well. Richard Watt writes that the Soviet advance into Ukraine was characterized by mass killing of civilians and the burning of entire villages, especially by Budyonny's cossacks, designed to instill a sense of fear in the Ukrainian population. Norman Davies notes that on June 7 – two days after breaking Polish frontline – Budionny's 1st Army destroyed the bridges in Zhytomyr, wrecked the train station and burned various buildings; on the same day it burned a hospital in Berdychiv, with 600 patients and Red Cross nuns, and that such terror tactics were common for Budionny's Cossacks. According to The Black Book of Communism, in the pacification of Ukraine that began during the Soviet counteroffensive in 1920 and which would not end until 1922 the Soviets would take tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives.

Isaac Babel, a war correspondent embedded with the Red Army, in his diary wrote down supposed atrocities committed by the Polish troops and their allies, as well as the murders of the Polish POWs by the Red Army troops and looting of the civilian population by Budyonny's Red Cossacks. Babel's writings became so known that Budionny himself protested against "defamation" of his troops.

Order of battle

The following is the Order of Battle of Polish and Bolshevik forces taking part in the struggles in Ukraine, as of April 25, 1920. It should be noted that the command structure of both sides changed during the operation. Also, the Russian forces were joined by Budennyi's 1st Cavalry Army in the latter part of the operation, while a large part of the Polish forces was withdrawn by then to Belarus.

Among Polish Airforce was the 7th Kościuszko Squadron.


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    Name Born / Since / At Died Languages
    1Feliks JachmanFeliks Jachman05.11.190000.00.1940pl
    2Henryk JurczyńskiHenryk Jurczyński19.05.190000.00.1940pl
    3Łukasz KralczyńskiŁukasz Kralczyński19.10.189600.00.1940pl
    4Tadeusz Bolesław KomorowskiTadeusz Bolesław Komorowski17.02.189600.00.1940pl
    5Stefan Stanisław GawrońStefan Stanisław Gawroń06.08.189200.00.1940pl
    6Gracjan ŁapczyńskiGracjan Łapczyński06.01.189200.00.1940pl
    7Julian StachiewiczJulian Stachiewicz26.07.189020.09.1934en, pl
    8Edward Rydz-ŚmigłyEdward Rydz-Śmigły11.03.188602.12.1941de, ee, en, fr, lv, pl, ru, ua
    9Semyon BudyonnySemyon Budyonny25.04.188326.10.1973de, en, fr, lt, lv, pl, ru, ua
    10Bolesław Wieniawa-DługoszowskiBolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski22.07.188101.07.1942de, en, pl, ru, ua
    11Symon PetliuraSymon Petliura23.05.187925.05.1926de, en, lt, lv, pl, ru
    12Wacław Iwaszkiewicz-RudoszańskiWacław Iwaszkiewicz-Rudoszański26.08.187125.11.1922de, en, pl, ru
    13Józef PiłsudskiJózef Piłsudski05.12.186712.05.1935de, ee, en, fr, lt, lv, pl, ru, ua
    14Antoni ListowskiAntoni Listowski29.03.186513.09.1927en, pl, ru