The Forgotten (and Bloody) History of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was perhaps the only underground movement in World War Two to fight against both the Axis and the Allies.

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was perhaps the only underground movement in World War Two to fight against both the Axis and the Allies.

THINGS ARE HEATING UP IN UKRAINE. With the collapse of the Moscow-friendly presidency of Victor Yanukovych following months of popular unrest, the Russian military now appears poised for what may turn into an armed confrontation in the former Soviet Republic.

The worsening crisis stems from a long-standing dispute in Ukraine between reformers who would like to see the country forge closer links with Europe and those who would see Kiev more aligned with Moscow.

In many ways, the growing unrest is part of a recurring theme in Ukrainian history: The age-old tug-of-war between east and west.

And while Russians, Poles, Austrians, Ottomans and Germans have all vied for control of the region since the Middle Ages, the Ukrainians themselves have long struggled to free their nation from its overbearing neighbours.

Such was the cause of the Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya (UPA). Also known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the group was one of the Second World War’s most peculiar resistance movements in that it received no support from the Allies and battled both Soviets and Nazis alike.

Meet the Ukrainian Insurgent Army
The UPA emerged in 1942 as one of several partisan armies in German-occupied Ukraine. At its peak, the faction claimed nearly a quarter of a million followers.[1] Fiercely nationalist, the group’s raison d’être was to establish a free and independent Ukrainian homeland. While it directed much of its energy to combatting the Axis invaders, the UPA always kept its eye on what it considered the real enemy: the communists. And as the fortunes of war on the Eastern Front shifted in favour of the Soviets, the faction suspended hostilities against the Germans to fight off the resurgent Red Army. The movement also orchestrated a fearsome campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting western Ukraine’s Polish minority whom they considered also to be among their people’s historic enemies. After the war, the UPA would be the last European resistance group to lay down its weapons. In fact, it continued its struggle against the Soviets well into the 1950s. The Ukrainian insurrection would eventually claim more than 35,000 Soviet lives, making it twice as costly to the U.S.S.R. than the Afghanistan War. [2]

A UPA propaganda poster.

A UPA propaganda poster.

The Early Years
The UPA formed as an outgrowth of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a political confederation that came together in the 1920s to free the nation from Soviet and Polish control. A militant wing formed in 1942 after the Red Army left Ukraine to the Nazis following Hitler’s surprise invasion of the U.S.S.R. Established as a de facto national army for what many hoped would one day be an independent Ukraine, organizers initially sought diplomatic recognition and autonomy from the Axis invaders. Although Ukraine’s nationalists were certainly wary of the Nazis, they hated Moscow even more.

For its part, Berlin cared little about the UPA’s politics, which were staunchly anti-communist, and set out to destroy them along with the various Soviet-backed partisan armies that were springing up throughout Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Like other underground armies, UPA formations were equipped with mostly small arms, although the force maintained a few batteries of field guns, a pair of liberated Soviet fighter planes and an assortment of light armoured vehicles. It even boasted a captured tank. [3]

While the UPA avoided open battle with the Axis, it did strike at Nazi formations that harassed Ukrainian civilians. In fact, the movement fought a number of actions against the Germans throughout 1943, eventually killing as many as 3,000 enemy soldiers. [4] Despite this, UPA commanders held their forces in reserve for what they saw as the inevitable showdown with the Soviets.

The Next War
By 1944, with the Red Army pushing westward into Axis-controlled territory, Nazi commanders in Ukraine sought a truce with the UPA. Berlin even began to transfer captured Soviet arms and equipment to the group and swapped intelligence with them – anything to forestall the advancing Russians.

Yet despite their burning hostility towards the Soviets, UPA commanders avoided outright confrontation with the vanguard of the Red Army, choosing instead to lie in wait to attack rear-echelon authorities as they reestablished political control over newly “liberated” Ukraine.

UPA forces targeted state police and paramilitary units along with any Ukrainians they considered pro-Soviet. Moscow painted the faction as fanatical Nazi-friendly holdouts and hunted them without mercy.

By the summer of 1944, the Russians detached a force of 30,000 NKVD troops to Volyn to quell a large-scale UPA uprising there. Some estimates peg Soviet losses at 2,000. [5] By the end of the summer, the UPA had driven the enemy out of vast portions of western Ukraine. The movement was at the height of its power, controlling a jurisdiction roughly the size of England with a population of 10 million citizens. This independence would be short lived however.

Before the end of 1944, Moscow mounted a second, considerably larger offensive consisting of 20 infantry divisions supported by tanks and artillery. By the spring of 1945, resistance had been effectively crushed — an estimated 90,000 UPA fighters were dead and a comparable number had been captured. For their part, the Soviets lost 12,000 troops in the campaign but were again in control of western Ukraine.[6] To further pacify the region, Moscow arrested and deported as many as a half a million Ukrainians between 1944 and 1946, resettling them at gunpoint to Siberia.

Largely destroyed as an army after 1945, the UPA went deep underground and was forced to shift to terrorist tactics: kidnapping, assassination, ambush and sporadic acts of sabotage. By 1946, the insurgency, which had been whittled down to fewer than 5,000 members, had succeeded in killing thousands of Soviet officials and Ukrainians considered to pro-communist.[7]

The End of the UPA
Following two years of brutal crackdowns, Moscow adopted a more nuanced approach to ending the insurgency.

By 1947, it officially abandoned its policy of mass arrests and deportations in Ukraine and instead offered amnesty to any UPA fighters who renounced their allegiance to the movement. Communist officials also cut into UPA recruitment with a charm offensive aimed at ordinary Ukrainians. The Soviets invested in local infrastructure and even publically denounced their own security officials who carried out the earlier state terror campaign.

Meanwhile, state police agents infiltrated UPA cells and began to break up the organization from within. By the early 1950s, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army had been effectively eradicated. By mid-decade it was a distant memory.

War Criminals?
While many Ukrainians think of the UPA as sort of heroic David to the evil Soviet Goliath, behind the mythology of resistance lurks a bloody (even genocidal) legacy that many nationalists have tried to forget. Ukrainian Insurgent Army troops were behind a gruesome campaign aimed at exterminating ethnic Poles living in western Ukraine. Beginning in 1943 and through to the end of the Second World War, UPA forces murdered an estimated 100,000 civilians in the regions of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.[8] Elements of the faction also clashed with the Polish underground and after the war the group even tangled with the reconstituted Polish army. Many defenders of the UPA complain that the movement is often unfairly criticized for its abuses, citing widespread Polish persecution of Ukrainians in the interwar period. Yet others point out that the UPA unabashedly participated in the mass slaughter of Jews living in the region.[9]

The UPA banner can still be seen in the streets of Kiev.

The UPA banner can still be seen in the streets of Kiev.

Remembering the UPA
While still damned by Russians as counter-revolutionaries, fascists and terrorists, the UPA is widely and openly acclaimed inside Ukraine. Since national independence in 1992, there have been calls to formally commemorate and even compensate surviving members of the movement in much the same way other Second World War veterans are honoured. Many ethnic Russians in Ukraine have resisted such attempts however; they remember the UPA as fanatical thugs. In addition, the group’s bloody massacres of Poles have long been a sore point between Kiev and Warsaw, one that has only recently started to be reconciled. Despite this, many Ukrainians celebrate the resistance and its leaders. Parades marking the anniversary of the army’s formation occur annually in Ukraine, UPA merchandise is available online and one of the group’s founders, Roman Shukhevych, was posthumously made a national hero of in 2007.

Most recently, the UPA was invoked by anti-government demonstrators throughout Ukraine in late 2013, with protestors waving not only the blue and yellow national flag, but also the red and black UPA standard.

If Russian troops invade Ukraine, will the UPA rise again?


10 comments for “The Forgotten (and Bloody) History of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army

  1. Van Doyle
    5 May, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Maybe if we forgot about which nationality we are and started thinking of our selves as humans, we could make our world better. There are no freedom fighters, only men with guns.

  2. Kowalski
    24 November, 2014 at 3:54 am

    UPA are bastards, I hope the russians will finish them.
    Greetings from Poland

    • 15 April, 2016 at 11:22 pm

      How quickly you forget, stalin signed an agreement with hitler in 1939 thereby starting World War Two by invading (together) Poland and partitioning Poland yet again. Stalin, put in writing, that he and Russia were the greatest nazi collaborators of all time. The UPA fought against both of these dictators. Greetings from Ukraine.

      • Anna
        5 June, 2016 at 3:56 pm

        The only thing that UPA liberated the Poles from is their lives, by axing them in the back.
        (ref. Directive of Dmytro Kryachkivsky, from June 1943)

  3. 29 November, 2014 at 11:35 am

    UPA are heroes, our home-grown Ukrainian Resistance. Remember that history is written by the victors & slanted in their favor. Greetings from the Lemkos.

    • adekoon
      18 April, 2015 at 7:09 am

      How can you regard them as heroes they slaughtered thousands of innocent Polish people living in Ukraine. No wonder they sided with Nazis in the end – they were similiar. The Nazis thought Germans were the master race, UPA thought Ukrainians were.

      • 18 April, 2015 at 10:15 am

        I suggest you read Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” for deeper insights. Poles also killed Ukrainians & blame was spread around to the most expedient scapegoat. The Communists manipulated both the Polish & Ukrainian Soviet governments to further their own goals, one of which was to break up the “trouble-making” Lemko strongholds. Operation Vistula sound familiar? The region had been repeatedly buffeted by invading armies. The Germans were briefly hailed as a possible antidote to Stalin, but those hopes were quickly dashed once the locals saw the true nature of the Nazis. Read up on Stepan Bandera, who was captured & imprisoned by the Germans, & then later assassinated by the Soviets, so he must not have been a hero to either side, was he? However, his goal was a unified Ukraine, not a nation chopped up by all the adjacent ones who wanted a piece of her. Slava Bandera!

        • Tania
          16 April, 2016 at 4:46 pm

          Thanks for speaking the truth!

      30 September, 2017 at 6:26 pm


  4. Veritas
    5 January, 2015 at 12:29 am

    I believe you missed the most important issue here. Soviet counter insurrgency tactics. The Russians have fought scores of these wars and won all of them except for Afghanistan yet the tactics employed by the Soviets are ignored. The Sovisets did not always employ ham fisted tactics but destroyed the cells through tactics copied from the Germans and also employed by the French in Algeria. Some of these campaigns go to the 1920s and are worthy of study.

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