Poland has rarely been thought of as a military power of any degree of
effectiveness. In fact, Dave Barry, in his travel guide, refers to it as
the screen door of Europe, his rationale being that it was forever being
slammed by invading armies going one way or the other who forgot to wipe
their feet. However, in the Russo-Polish war, they managed to avoid being
conquered, and in fact won a fairly solid and very important victory against what would
become a major world superpower, if one that was kind of busy with other
things at the time.
Poland had declared its independence from foreign domination in 1918 in accordance with Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen point plan
and had declared Jozef Pilsudski, a leading figure in the fight for Polish independence, its military and de facto head of state, at least once he was let loose from a German prison. It had little time to
get its affairs in order before being involved in what at least some
historians consider to be six different wars, concurrently, from
1918-1922. One of these was their conflict with the fledgling
U.S.S.R. from about 1919-1920. As is often the case with wars, hostilities
had been building up for quite some time before the war between the two
countries. Russia was fairly upset about its inability to hold Lithuania
against both German and Polish intervention (although at different
times) in 1919. The Poles had their eye on the Ukraine as a possible
target for expansion and had made overtures to a Ukrainian nationalist leader, Symon Petlyura, although they did not form an alliance with him
until after the war had started. Russia also was going through a fairly
intense expansionist stage during this period as well, and there is talk
in the historical literature about them wanting to establish a monstrous
Soviet empire all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Gauging from their
activity during the war, they probably had at least some hope of making
Poland into another S.S.R., since it could have served as an important
jumping-off point from which they hoped to invade the rest of Europe.
Actual starting dates of the war vary, but it’s probably accurate to say that with the Soviet execution of Operation Target Wisla on January 12, 1919, the war was more or less under way. This operation was intended to capture Warsaw, from which the Bolsheviks hoped to start an uprising in Germany and thereby begin spreading Communism westward. They didn’t get Warsaw, but they did succeed in really pissing Pilsudski off. He ordered the Polish army to attack the Russians on February 9, and they began to engage the enemy by the twelfth at Bereza Kartuska. In the course of their counteroffensive, the Poles took back the predominantly Polish cities of Minsk, Wilno (which the Lithuanians had inherited from Russia with their independence), the area around Cieszyn (which the Czechs had similarly taken from the Russians), and Lwow.
On April 25, 1920 the Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petlyura and the Polish state entered into alliance with one another. Petlyura must have been in dire straits to sign an alliance with a power that fully and explicitly intended to annex the country for which he sought independence, but both nations knew that without help they would easily fall to the might of the Red Army. The Ukraine wound up falling anyway, though, and Polish forces mounted an offensive into the Ukraine to annex as much as possible, intending to capture Kiev at least. They recognized that the Russians were busy fighting nearly everyone else in the world at the time and therefore exploited this advantage. They also didn't invade in the winter, unlike certain other failed offensives into Russia throughout history. For some reason, this angered the allied powers, although the sources are closedmouthed as to why. However, when the Polish offensive petered out and the Red Army pushed them back as far as Warsaw by August, this unspecified anger may easily have been the reason the allies all but ignored Polish pleas for help. Of course, the allies were fairly busy trying not to be overrun in other places by the Russians at the time, so that may also have factored into the decision. A small “advising force” was, however, sent to Warsaw under the command of French general Maxime Weygand. The Poles were none too enthusiastic about being besieged by the Russians and therefore wasted no time launching their own counteroffensive.
This counteroffensive, known by romantically inclined military historians as the Miracle of the Vistula, succeeded. In fact, it drove the Bolsheviks out so fast that the Polish managed to capture a few chunks of the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belorussia before the Russians were able to get turned back around. After this began the lengthy peace process. The Allied Supreme Council proposed a settlement which came to be known as the Curzon line, after the British diplomat who proposed the plan to the Russians. It had been originally proposed in December of 1919, and reproposed with alterations later on, but it met with indifference the first time and rejection the second by both Poland and Russia. When the final peace treaty, the Treaty of Riga, was signed in March of 1921, it reflected the Polish victory and thus ceded an additional 52,000 square miles of land east of the Curzon line to Poland. This included the aforementioned chunks of formerly Russian territories, a fact that did nothing to endear Poland to any of them, although the Ukraine maintained a certain measure of affection for its old ally, even though it had lost its short-lived independence in the war.
This war, which few people know about, was nevertheless extremely important. Without Poland’s victory, the whole of Europe, still weakened by World War I as well as the worst flu epidemic in history, could have been plunged back into war against a new expansionist power. This really wouldn’t have been good for anybody, and definitely would have changed world history as we know it to the point of unrecognizability. As the Russian general Tukhachevsky said, “Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to worldwide conflagration.” The whole world can rejoice that the Poles managed to block that road, I think.