The End of the Prague Spring – Fifty Years On


On the night of the 20th-21st August 1968, Soviet paratroopers and spetsnaz soldiers seized Ruzyne airport outside Prague, proceeding subsequently to take over key points in the Czechoslovak capital. The following day, 22 Soviet Army divisions – augmented by contingents from four other ‘fraternal’ Warsaw Pact states (Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary and Poland) – invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia. The aim of Operation Danube was to snuff out the ‘Prague Spring’, the gradual liberalisation of the country authorised by the leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCS), led by Alexander Dubcek, which caused considerable alarm not only in Moscow, but also in Budapest, East Berlin, Sofia and Warsaw.

In military terms, Operation Danube was successful. The Czechoslovak People’s Army (CPA) was ordered by the Minister of Defence, General Martin Dzur, to stay in its barracks, and the only resistance Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops faced was passive in nature, coming from crowds of protesting Czech and Slovak civilians. Danube crushed the ‘Prague Spring’ and contributed to the eventual ouster of Dubcek, followed by the ‘normalisation’ of Czechoslovakia imposed by the hard-line and slavishly pro-Soviet leadership of Gustav Husak. But politically, Danube was a disaster. The Warsaw Pact’s military intervention was bitterly resented by the majority of Czechs and Slovaks, and even inspired a brief (and highly courageous) public protest by dissidents in Moscow’s Red Square. In the Western world, the ‘Prague Spring’ was seen in positive terms, as it apparently signified gradual and evolutionary change behind the Iron Curtain, with political reform in Eastern bloc countries complementing détente between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Its suppression at gunpoint inspired widespread disgust best expressed in W. H. Auden’s poem ‘The Ogre’, which implicitly attacked the Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies in the Soviet Politburo.

Fifty years on, much has changed. The independent and democratic states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic have both been NATO partners for nearly twenty years, and are also EU member states. But looking back at Operation Danube there are some quite striking parallels between the processes that led Brezhnev to approve intervention in August 1968, and more recent acts of Russian policy, not least with reference to Ukraine.

The first of these concerns political paranoia. Hardliners in Moscow (notably the KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov) feared that political reform in Czechoslovakia could inspire further unrest across the USSR’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe as a whole. Petro Shelest, the head of the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet Communist Party (and also a rival to Brezhnev), concluded that Czechoslovak liberalisation might encourage demands for political change within the Soviet Union itself, including in his own republic (see pp.273-368 here). In this respect, I am struck by Timothy Snyder’s observation that Vladimir Putin’s real fear with Ukraine was not its potential partnership with the Western powers, but the fact that a country full of Russian speakers had overthrown their kleptocratic regime in a popular revolution, setting an uncomfortable precedent for his own Presidency. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia was essentially a sign of weakness, as it showed that in the USSR and other bloc states Communist authority was based not on political legitimacy, but the threat of state violence. State-inspired appeals to Russian patriotism aside, much the same can be said of Putin’s regime in Russia right now.

The second refers to the recent debates about ‘hybrid war’ and the so-called ‘Gerasimov doctrine’. As I have noted in a previous post, there are significant parallels between the takeover of Crimea in February-March 2014 and the suppression of the ‘Prague Spring’. Czechoslovakia – which was itself a loyal member of the Warsaw Pact – did not expect to be invaded by its allies, any more than Ukraine anticipated aggression from the Russians. The takeover of key positions in Prague by Soviet airborne and spetsnaz troops on the 20th-21st August 1968 was mirrored by the deployment of the ‘little green men’ across the Crimean Peninsula around 46 years later. And in both cases, the aggressors relied on local allies to help them achieve their objectives. The CPCS, the CPA, and the secret police (StB) had its fair share of pro-Soviet collaborators who were as alarmed by Dubcek’s liberalisation as Brezhnev and his Politburo were, and who willingly collaborated with the invaders.

The third relates to the impact of the intervention on NATO, which at the time was in a state of crisis due to transatlantic tensions over the Vietnam War, France’s withdrawal from the military structure of the Atlantic Alliance (March 1966), and an ill-judged decision by Britain’s Labour government to threaten the withdrawal of British troops from West Germany if the latter did not do more to offset their foreign exchange costs. The invasion of Czechoslovakia created alarm in NATO’s Brussels headquarters, with officials wondering if the USSR would intervene militarily not only in Yugoslavia – under the ‘non-aligned’ leadership of Tito – but also Romania, whose despotic leader Nicolae Ceaucescu became something of a darling in Western capitals for condemning Operation Danube. The Czechoslovak crisis led to a suspension of quarrelling within NATO, and a greater focus on collective security against the Warsaw Pact threat. Time will tell as to whether the Ukrainian conflict will have achieved the same, particularly given the peculiar approach the current US President has adopted towards relations with Russia.

The fourth relates to the unintended consequences of the Soviet-led intervention. Operation Danube was something of a debacle even though it faced no armed resistance. As Vojtech Mastny writes (see p.168 in attached link):

‘[The] invaders had a hard time. The locals were quick to remove road signs and were not helpful about giving directions. Soldiers went hungry because food trains were late. Helicopters landed in the wrong places, the advancing columns failed to secure food depots, tanks and trucks got caught in bottlenecks. In combat conditions, much of the [Warsaw Pact] war machine would have run out of fuel very quickly, becoming a sitting duck for air interdiction by the enemy. This was the army supposed to be capable of reaching the Rhine in a week!’

Although in the aftermath of the invasion the USSR had its own garrison stationed on Czechoslovak soil, this became a strategic necessity for Moscow due to the erosion of morale within the CPA following the invasion. The fact that (according to Mastny) Hungarian and Polish troops committed to Danube had to be sent home because of discontent within their ranks also showed that the problems of alliance solidarity within the Warsaw Pact did not just apply to Czechoslovakia. Above all, the crushing of the ‘Prague Spring’ inspired the declaration of the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ in November 1968, in which the then-General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party stressed that the USSR would reserve the right to use military force to prevent the overthrow of ‘fraternal socialist’ regimes by internal revolt. The application of this doctrine in Afghanistan 11 years later was to have momentous – and ultimately catastrophic – consequences for the Soviet empire.

21 years after the ‘Prague Spring’, Czechoslovakia experienced its ‘Velvet Revolution’ as Communist power in the Eastern bloc collapsed in the face of popular protests. Ultimately, Operation Danube served only to delay by two decades the disintegration of a discredited system that could only govern at the point of a bayonet.

Image: Czech protesters pass a burning Soviet tank in Prague, shortly after the Warsaw Pact intervention, via Wikimedia.

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