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10 December, 2012  ▪  Yaroslav Stolitsky

The Battle of Batih Won Independence for Cossack Ukraine in 1652

The union between Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the Tatars, signed in early 1648, was intended to secure significant military successes, but relationships between the parties were far from straitforward

The Cossacks realized that the support of the Crimean khan greatly boosted their chances in a confrontation with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the same time, the Tatars were careful not to make their ally too strong in line with their policy of keeping a balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe. They charged a high fee for their services and were allowed to plunder captured lands and take locals into captivity. In one example of Tatar policy, the khan forced Khmelnytsky to sign a treaty with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth near Zboriv in August 1649, because he personally benefited from it.


Until the end of 1651, the purpose of the Ukrainian hetman was to create a Cossack autonomy within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The extent of the autonomy, i.e., its rights and the size of the self-governing territory, were a matter of dispute. However, the hetman pursued a different objective the following year. It is hard to be certain what exactly caused this change of policy. The Cossack officers, who had filled their pockets during the military campaign, viewed political freedoms and autonomy as necessary. It can be surmised that part of the Cossacks, primarily officers, saw their future within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but wanted to have wide-ranging political rights similar to those enjoyed by the Polish nobility. Cossack officers also expected that these rights would protect their trade interests. In the first years of the national liberation uprising led by Khmelnytsky, Cossack officers drove out the privileged group of Polish landlords and nobility from along the Dnieper River but saw no point in continuing warfare, because that would also involve Tatars who periodically plundered Ukrainian lands. This was also the thinking of some Ukrainian noblemen who joined the Cossack camp. These people enjoyed class privileges even before the uprising and were unwilling to lose them over a breakup with the Polish king.

At this juncture, Khmelnytsky began to build plans for a personal dynasty. His authority among the Cossacks had boosted his family’s standing, but he also needed to have a political institute that would guarantee his control over the territory freed from Polish rule. The position of Khmelnytsky’s family and Cossack officers was jeopardized by Polish landlords who had lost their property and wanted to restore it at any cost. The situation was greatly aggravated by the Cossack defeat in the Battle of Berestechko in June 1651. The hetman would have been under serious threat if the permissible number of registered Cossacks had been halved (to 20,000) and the territory he controlled limited to Kyiv Voivodeship only.

Since the beginning of the uprising, Khmelnytsky held vague negotiations with Moscow whose content and purpose was unclear. His diplomatic initiatives were interpreted in different ways in the Kremlin. Tsar Alexis of Russia was generally guided by an "easy-pickings" principle and believed that the Cossacks were to carry the ball in the fight against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. When the hetman’s position was strong, Moscow would lend a helping hand in a war against the Poles. But when the Cossacks were weak, the Russian tsar resisted any involvement.

In light of this, the best political decision for the hetman in the complicated international situation of that time was to forge a union with Moldavia. This would give Khmelnytsky considerable advantages, most importantly recognition of an independent Cossack state by a neighbouring monarch. A marriage between Tymish, Khmelnytsky’s son, and Ruxandra, daughter of Moldavian Hospodar Vasile Lupu, was to strengthen the positions of the hetman’s family among the Cossacks and legitimize its right to power in the eyes of European rulers. In practice, this dynastic union was meant to signify Moldavia’s subjugation to Ukraine.

The decisive moment for Khmelnytsky’s new plan came when a sejm session in Warsaw failed to take place in spring 1652. As a result, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth failed to ratify the Treaty of Bila Tserkva and did not take the renewed Cossack threat seriously enough. The Polish Hetman Marcin Kalinowski informed Warsaw as early as in late 1651 about Khmelnytsky’s plans to march on Moldavia and conclude a dynastic marriage. Consequently, Polish troops were sent to block the road for the Cossack forces.

Another crisis in Ukrainian-Polish relations led to the Battle of Batih on 1-2 June 1652. The Polish camp was extremely poorly prepared. The troops had an unskilled commander in Kalinowski, and an atmosphere of fatality reigned among them. This caused panic which led to an even more crushing defeat. Like his predecessor Mikolaj Potocki, the inept Polish hetman was unable to do anything to improve the situation. On 2 June, the Polish troops were completely defeated and many taken captive. A relative small number were killed.


Dramatic events followed the next day. Khmelnytsky purchased the Polish captives from the Tatars (for 50,000 thaler, according to some sources) and later had them executed. Casualties are hard to estimate. Historians offer the ballpark figure of nearly 3,000-5,000 people who included not only the military elite but also ordinary soldiers and household servants. Contemporary studies have shown that some of the captives were hidden, and thus saved, by the Crimean Tatars.

Executing captives was uncommon even for the cruel wars of that time. Memories of the massacre survived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for decades. They always evoked anger, as testified by John III Sobieski in his recollections of the death of his elder brother Marek. Historians offer different arguments to explain Khmelnytsky’s decision: revenge for Berestechko and the suppression of Cossack uprisings or a desire to keep the Tatars, a crucial element for the hetman’s future actions, on his side.

However, two other factors were even more important. The bloody massacre symbolized Khmelnytsky’s complete breakaway from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He showed that there was no place for the Cossack state there. Second, he wanted to showcase his power. Previously weakened, the hetman now demonstrated that he would not tolerate enemies. It should be kept in mind that at the time, moderate Cossack officers still saw their future as a privileged class in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Khmelnytsky planned to set up a powerful polity and used the massacre to prove his resoluteness in what could be seen as a threat to possible dissenters. His actions also sent an unequivocal message to Moldavian landlords: nothing would stop the hetman in his plans.

Khmelnytsky’s raid on the neighbouring principality was initially successful. The Cossacks captured Iasi, Tymish married Ruxandra, and the union of Ukraine and Moldavia became an important entity on the map of Eastern Europe. However, another war erupted in spring 1653 when a broad coalition involving the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Wallachia and the Principality of Transylvania declared war on Lupu and Tymish Khmelnytsky. Bohdan Khmelnytsky was hesitant to go to Moldavia again, and the Cossacks capitulated in Suchava on 9 October 1653, after Tymish’s death. As the idea of a Ukrainian-Moldavian state and Khmelnytsky dynasty no longer made sense, the hetman was forced to finalize his negotiations with Moscow, which led to the Treaty of Pereiaslav.

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