Poland Secures Independence

In the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921, the Soviet Union attempted to expand westward, using Poland as a stepping-stone to bring communism to eastern and central Europe, while the Poles, in addition to protecting their borders, attempted to win full national sovereignty. Poland was successful, and the Treaty of Riga brought formal recognition of Polish independence.

Summary of Event

Although some experts argue that the Polish-Soviet War (also known as the Russo-Polish War) of 1919-1921 was avoidable, maintaining peace would have required both parties to demonstrate considerable levels of faith and good will—both of which were in short supply at the time. The Soviet Union in 1919 was in the midst of a civil war that featured a vast array of enemies, many supported by France. France was also aligned with the Poles, and the Bolsheviks were therefore suspicious of Poland’s warlord, Józef Piłsudski, believing him to be part of what they saw as a “capitalist cabal” striving for Soviet destruction. The Poles, for their part, had experienced more than one hundred years of domination and repressed revolutions at the hands of Russia. They had no reason to trust Soviet leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin to break with tradition and allow Poland peacefully to regain its independence. The mutual suspicion, growing nationalism, and divergent political and economic systems of Poland and the Soviet Union combined with their territorial disputes to make war all but inevitable. Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921)[Polish Soviet War]
Riga, Treaty of (1921)
Peace of Riga (1921)
[kw]Poland Secures Independence (Mar. 18, 1921)
[kw]Independence, Poland Secures (Mar. 18, 1921)
Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921)[Polish Soviet War]
Riga, Treaty of (1921)
Peace of Riga (1921)
[g]Poland;Mar. 18, 1921: Poland Secures Independence[05400]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 18, 1921: Poland Secures Independence[05400]
[c]Independence movements;Mar. 18, 1921: Poland Secures Independence[05400]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 18, 1921: Poland Secures Independence[05400]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 18, 1921: Poland Secures Independence[05400]
Piłsudski, Józef
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Polish-Soviet War[Polish Soviet War]
Tukhachevsky, Mikhail
Budenny, Semyon Mikhaylovich
Sikorski, Władysław
Grabski, Władysław[Grabski, Wladyslaw]

The intensity and scope of the conflict once it began was much greater than all the other border wars of 1918-1921. This was due mainly to the aspirations of Piłsudski. As de facto ruler of Poland in 1918-1919, he shaped his nation’s military and diplomatic strategies in an effort to create a Polish-dominated confederation of anti-Russian states. Success for this plan required an independent Ukraine, which in all probability would mean the end of the Bolshevik revolution. Claiming that “Poland will be great, or she will not exist,” Piłsudski opted for an aggressive posture that soon collided with Lenin’s desire for pro-Communist states in Hungary and Germany.

First blood went to the Soviets during their successful assault on Wilno on January 5, 1919. By February, they crossed the Shchara (Szczara) River and captured Pinsk. As all parties discovered in this war, however, rapid victory often led to equally rapid defeat. Piłsudski personally directed a Polish counterattack that recaptured Wilno on April 20, 1920.

These operations were typical of the entire conflict, which eyewitness Marjan Kukiel described as “a war of movement” in which “swiftness of movement, suddenness of concentration, the tactics of surprise—were the dominating factors.” Such movement-centered tactics were significantly different from the tactics employed in the recently concluded World War I. The tactics of the Polish-Soviet War were largely mandated by the theater’s large size and the relatively small armies involved in the conflict. Neither side deployed more than 300,000 troops, and these varied in quality. Some were elite formations, but others were disgruntled conscripts or peasants armed with scythes.

Success during the Polish-Soviet War typically went to the side that could smash through a thinly held enemy screen to capture a rail junction or supply center. A perfect example of such tactics can be seen in the March 5, 1919, Polish invasion of the Ukraine. Six weeks into the campaign, after the capture of the key rail center of Kalinkovichi, Piłsudski pushed a motley collection of Poles, Ukrainians, and Tatars deep into enemy territory. On May 8, Kiev fell, and the Poles halted to regroup.

The Poles had outrun their supply lines. Moreover, although their casualties in the May campaign were light—only 450 total—the Polish troops found they were stretched along a one-thousand-kilometer front. In addition, the Ukrainian response to Piłsudski’s overtures, asking them to join his federation and, more important, form a combined national army, was lukewarm. The Polish plan began to stall.

It was then the Soviet Union’s turn to mount an offensive, which began on May 18 at Zinovievsk (Elisavetgrad; now Kirovohrad). The Konarmiya (cavalry army), a sixteen-thousand-man elite Bolshevik strike force, slashed into Poland’s worn-out infantry. Directed by the flamboyant Semyon Mikhaylovich Budenny and moving at the then-incredible speed of 120 kilometers per day, Soviet horsemen soon threatened to encircle Kiev. General Edward Smigly-Rydz, the local Polish commander, saw retreat as his only option. Thus ended the Ukrainian campaign. As one veteran put it, “We ran all the way to Kiev, and we ran all the way back.”

The Bolsheviks acted to capitalize on their victory in the Ukraine. Directed by Mikhail Tukhachevsky, 160,000 Soviet troops assaulted General Stanisław Szeptycki’s First, Fourth, and Seventh Armies near Wilno. Piłsudski attempted to transfer reserves to support Szeptycki, but Budenny’s sharp attacks completely disrupted the flow of reinforcements. By early July, twenty-three Soviet divisions faced thirteen Polish divisions. On July 2, Tukhachevsky issued his orders of the day, which included the exhortation, “To the West! Our time has come. To Wilno, Minsk, and Warsaw—march.”

Tukhachevsky’s July offensive smashed through Polish lines and caused a near rout of the entire front. The Soviets seemed to be, in the words of Piłsudski, “advancing like a monstrous storm cloud which nothing can hinder.” Only the huge Ukrainian swamp known as the Polesye, or the Pripet Marshes, prevented a link-up of Tukhachevsky with Budenny.

The Red Army’s twin successes—turning back the Polish advance at Kiev and then driving through and collapsing the Polish front—came at the worst possible time for the Poles. In addition to their obvious, grave military repercussions, the Soviet victories complicated the Europe-wide boundary settlements then being discussed at Spa, Belgium. There, on July 10, Prime Minister Władysław Grabski agreed to accept the Curzon line, a British-devised border between Poland and Russia. The Curzon line was very unfavorable to Polish interests, but Poland’s pressing need for Western support forced Grabski’s acceptance. The proposal worked out at Spa was then telegraphed to Moscow as part of a general armistice package.

Soviet reactions were completely different. With cavalry screens only 170 kilometers from Warsaw, Lenin labeled the deal a “swindle” and convinced the Politburo to reject any peace plans and instead to “probe Europe with the bayonets of the Red Army.” This response set the stage for the campaign’s decisive battle, which the Poles would later call the “Miracle of the Vistula.”

Elements of geography, luck, and genius played important roles in this so-called miracle. The Polesye, the largest swamp in Europe, utterly hindered east-west movement across the Soviet-Polish border. Large military units could not travel there. The swamp resulted in the creation of two separate Soviet armies with two different goals and only the most tenuous of communication links between them. Tukhachevsky’s forces continued moving toward Warsaw, but Budenny’s Cossack units pulled the southern command toward Lwów. Poor direction from Moscow, combined with the commanders’ attitude that the war was almost won, allowed for this dispersal of Soviet strength. The Poles, on the other hand, concentrated their best formations near Warsaw.

Both Soviet groupings faced serious problems—their rapid advances outran supply lines, while desertions and casualties eroded the Soviets’ numerical advantage. The Poles, on the other hand, were retreating into their home territory, where they had their own ample supply centers, a superior rail network, and newly raised reinforcements. By August, 1920, each side had about 200,000 troops in the Warsaw sector.

Polish forces were ready to counterattack, but they were uncertain as to how and where their resistance should be organized. Everyone in the Polish command had a plan, including General Maxime Weygand, Weygand, Maxime who had been sent by France to save the day. Piłsudski, needing munitions much more than advice, disregarded Weygand’s call for a stabilized front followed by a slow buildup and, finally, a renewed offensive. Instead, influenced by his studies of Napoleon I, Piłsudski opted to strike the Soviets fast and hard. His target was Tukhachevsky’s weakly defended southern flank.

Polish concentrations began on August 6 and centered along the Vistula and Wieprz Rivers near Dęblin. Urgent appeals from the capital, by then under attack, caused offensive action against the Soviets to begin on August 16. Instant success was the result, with Polish divisions advancing thirty kilometers by day’s end. Piłsudski could not believe his plans were working this well. “I thought that I was dreaming,” he later wrote, but by August 18 he realized that his “dream” was Tukhachevsky’s nightmare.

Hit from the rear as they attacked Warsaw’s defenses, the Soviet forces disintegrated into a mob of columns rapidly fleeing eastward. They left behind 140,000 casualties. In September, Tukhachevsky pulled together reinforcements and escapees from Warsaw and attempted to make a stand on the Neman River. Piłsudski’s response was a holding action along the front, followed by flank attacks. Success again went to the Poles, who by September 25 drove off their Soviet opponents. The next day, in the Battle of the Shchara, Poland captured fifty thousand enemy soldiers.

News from the south was almost as spectacular. Between August 30 and September 2, 1920, in the hills between Zamość and Komarów, General Władysław Sikorski conducted a series of ambush battles that resulted in the rout of the Konarmiya. Sikorski’s campaign caused the entire southern front to collapse, as Soviet troops ran back to the Ukraine with Polish and Ukrainian forces in close pursuit. By month’s end, Sikorski had elements of his army patrolling the Zbruch River.

At this point, both nations were ready for serious peace negotiations. Despite repeated victories, Poland was bankrupt. The Soviets were just as drained and still facing dangerous opposition domestically from the White and Green anti-Bolshevik factions. An armistice was signed on October 12, 1920, and it went into effect on October 18. The peace was finalized in the Treaty of Riga on March 18, 1921. While the provisions of the treaty were far short of Piłsudski’s goals, they did give Poland sovereignty over extensive lands east of the Curzon line.


Poland’s defeat of the Red Army in the Polish-Soviet War secured the nation’s independence and expanded its territory. It also prevented the Bolsheviks from assisting procommunist forces in Germany and Hungary. Thus, the war altered the balance of power in eastern Europe and established Poland temporarily as a bulwark against the spread of the Communist revolution. It also secured Piłsudski’s near-mythical status as Poland’s savior. For the Soviets, failure in the war brought a temporary end to any overt efforts to export the Communist revolution abroad. The Soviet government turned its attention inward, consolidating its power and strengthening the organs of the state. Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921)[Polish Soviet War]
Riga, Treaty of (1921)
Peace of Riga (1921)

Further Reading

  • Babel, Isaac. 1920 Diary. Edited by Carol Avins and translated by H. T. Willetts. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. Provides a firsthand account of the Polish-Soviet war from the Bolshevik point of view.
  • Davis, Norman. White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920. London: McDonald, 1972. Still the best English account of the war.
  • Drobnicki, John A. “The Russo-Polish War, 1919-1920: A Bibliography of Materials in English.” The Polish Review 42, no. 1 (1997): 95-104. An invaluable research reference, listing all major resources in English available through 1997.

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