Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 15.10.2017
October 14 is the Day of the Defender of Ukraine. It is the day of the founding of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1942. It was declared a national holiday in 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine, and it has become a day to commemorate all the defenders of Ukraine. Ukrainians have had to come to the defence of their homeland in almost every generation for over a millennium.
Three generations of defenders in particular stir the emotions and the patriotic feelings of Ukrainians. The first is the Sich Riflemen, who were active during and after the First World War when Ukraine suffered Polish and Russian occupation. The second is the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which was active during and after the Second World War when Ukraine suffered German and Russian occupation. The third is the volunteer battalions which have been active since 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine in Crimea and Donbas. As is natural in a country now engaged in a war for national salvation, Ukrainians feel the most immediate attachment to the volunteer battalions who a currently fighting in the trenches of Donetsk and Luhansk regions against the invaders from Muscovy.
The Sich Riflemen were formed from soldiers who had served in the Austro-Hungarian army. They were one of the first military units of the Ukrainian People’s Republic which was declared on 7 November 1917. A famous ad hoc unit of the Sich Riflemen was made up of cadet auxiliaries from the Bohdan Khmelnytskyi military school in Kyiv. They fought the Bolshevik Russian invaders in the Battle of Kruty on 30 January 1918. Of 500 boys who engaged the Russians in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, only half survived the battle. The Sich Riflemen as a whole numbered about 25,000 at their peak. They defended Ukraine from Polish and Russian invaders from 1917 until they were disbanded on 6 December 1919 (although some continued to fight in smaller detachments until 1921). The Sich Riflemen and independent Ukraine were abandoned by the Western allies, who broke the promises they made at Versailles.
The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the “UPA”) was the military wing the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) faction headed by Stepan Bandera. The goal of the OUN was the re-establishment of an independent Ukrainian state, and the mission of the UPA was armed resistance against Russian, German, Polish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovakian occupiers of Ukraine. The UPA fought as a regular army until 1947, and fought as a guerrilla army into the late 1950s. At its peak, as many as 200,000 soldiers made up the UPA. Like the “Forest Brothers” in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the UPA had very minor, clandestine support from the United States in its anti-Soviet struggle, but the Ukrainian fighters were essentially on their own against Stalin and the invading Russians. Independence for Ukraine was even more short-lived in this period than in the time of the Sich Riflemen. On 15 March 1939, in Khust, Zakarpatia region, Carpatho-Ukraine was declared to be an independent state, but Hungary invaded and destroyed it in a day. Stepan Bandera and the OUN declared independence on 30 June 1941 in Lviv, but he and the rest of the OUN leadership were arrested by the Nazi Germans days later. The UPA fought for a country that existed in the hearts of the Ukrainian people. Many UPA veterans would live to see the formal re-establishment of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. A few have lived long enough to see the effective emergence of an independent Ukraine following the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 and the fight for national salvation from the Russian invaders from 2014 onwards.
Russia invaded Ukraine yet again on 20 February 2014. This is the date on the medal Putin gave to the Russian “Spetsnaz” who started the invasion in Crimea, and it is also the date when most of the “Heavenly Hundred” Ukrainian patriots were shot by snipers in and around Independence Square in Kyiv at the culmination of the Revolution of Dignity. The spectacularly corrupt Yanukovych fled Kyiv and fled his duties as president, the Ukrainian armed forces were in a badly weakened state, and the victors of EuroMaidan were concentrating on the continuity of constitutional government when Russia invaded Ukraine. In overwhelming numbers, patriotic Ukrainians who had served in the “sotnyas” (the companies, or “hundreds”) at EuroMaidan rushed to join volunteer battalions to halt the Russian invasion that was progressing rapidly through Crimea and advancing on Donbas in eastern Ukraine. These military formations, at first, were not even under the auspices of the Ukrainian armed forces.
Starting in March 2014, 32 of what are now called territorial defence battalions were formed. Some other battalions now fall under the National Guard of Ukraine; the first units of these paraded on 6 April 2014. These volunteer soldiers are supported by volunteer helpers, who raise money and provide supplies. The help from allies is insignificant, as once again Western leadership has left Ukraine to fight alone. The self-sufficient volunteer battalions saved Ukraine and saved Europe from the Russian invaders, at a time when the regular force of the Ukrainian army was weak, badly-equipped, demoralized, and led by Russia-compromised officers. With very little military training, EuroMaidan activists became Ukraine defenders, and saved the day for Ukraine and Europe. Since the initial stages of the Russian invasion in 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces have been able to rebuild, re-equip, and recruit to become a formidable fighting army of a quarter million men and women. The volunteer battalions bought the regular army the time to do that, and earned their place in the pantheon of great defenders of Ukraine.
With each invasion by Muscovy of Ukraine, the Russians gain a temporary conquest but establish the permanent enmity of the Ukrainian people towards them. The Bolshevik invasion of 1917-1918, and then the Holodomor of 1932-1933, and then the Soviet invasion of 1939 followed by the Soviet re-invasion of 1944, and then the Russian invasion of 2014 – all of this is seared into the national consciousness of Ukraine. With each foreign incursion, a new generation of Defender of Ukraine rises up. Ukrainians, other Europeans, and other Westerners give them honour and respect on the Day of the Defender of Ukraine.