Prague Spring: A History of Russian Aggression

Prague Spring: A History of Russian Aggression

By Maj. John Yanikov, U.S. Army, U.S. Strategic Command

Russia’s history has a pattern of repeating itself. The current crisis over Ukraine with Russia as the aggressor is not new. Russia’s actions over history, going back to the Cold War, have been patterned on intimidation, influence, coercion and rapid military intervention. During the Cold War, Russia had success intimidating neighboring states by coercing their actions to maintain compliance. Today, Russia replicates some of the same methods used by the Soviet Union during its 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. If international action is not taken to successfully deter Russia, history could repeat itself.

Soviet Aggression against Prague

The Warsaw Pact was a Soviet-led defense treaty organization established in May 1955. The treaty was intended to balance against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and to secure Soviet control over its satellite states. For example, the Soviets used the Warsaw Pact as an instrument to repress Czechoslovakia’s uprising during the Prague Spring of 1968.

The Prague Spring was a temporary period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubček in 1968. Dubček was elected as the first secretary of the Communist Party in January 1968 ousting Soviet-backed hardliner Antonin Novotný. Immediately following the election, Dubček delivered a famous speech at the 20th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s Victory February. He denounced traditional socialism, reduced censorship and declared the party’s mission was to build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations. Shortly after the speech, Dubček implemented the Action Programme, which expanded intellectual and cultural freedoms that decentralized the economy, democratized the political arena, imposed restrictions on the secret police, and gave the civil liberties of freedom of speech, press and travel reforms to the citizens of Czechoslovakia, according to S.K. Nayudu in his book, “When the Elephant Swallowed the Hedgehog: The Prague Spring & Indo-Soviet Relations.”

The Action Programme was different from traditional socialism — it was fundamentally democratic. In their online historical research Prague Spring, Alpha History authors Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson tell us that Czechoslovakia adopted its own form of unique socialism, dubbed “socialism with a human face,” instead of blindly following Soviet policies. This became known as the Prague Spring. All of these popular liberalizing reforms galvanized demands for mass democratization in Czechoslovakia. The new law also rippled through the Soviet bloc.

The Soviet Union deemed this new socialism as a threat to its control and hegemony, and used Warsaw Pact authorities to invade and occupy Czechoslovakia. The Soviets held multiple conferences with the Warsaw Five (USSR, Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Bulgaria) and Prague trying to find a consensus to rectify the now radical Czechoslovakia. Initially, the Soviets planned a coup to rapidly change Prague’s political leadership. After failed attempts to raise support to overthrow Dubček, the Soviets were left with no other choice besides military intervention. After another unsuccessful meeting with Dubček, who stood fast in the face of Soviet intimidation, the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held a three-day meeting, where the consensus of the group was military intervention, according to Nayudu.

As a final effort on August 3, 1968, the Soviets, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia met in Bratislava, where they all signed the Bratislava Declaration. This declaration affirmed their support to socialist ideologies and declared their resolve against “bourgeois” ideology and antisocialist enemies, according to Anna Spysz in her online article, “Springtime for Prague.” This declaration would allow military intervention against a Warsaw Pact state if it was determined that there was a bourgeois system in place.

After the Warsaw Pact meeting, in preparation for the invasion, the Soviets engaged in an information campaign to raise support for the USSR, discredit Dubček and support Soviet intervention. Simultaneously, Soviet military forces moved throughout the Soviet bloc to build up forces along the border of Czechoslovakia to demonstrate their intent as the final attempt to coerce Prague.

On August 20, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and brutally ended the Prague Spring. The Soviets moved in rapidly and occupied critical pieces of infrastructure to prevent the Czech military from mobilizing. In less than 24 hours, Prague was taken. The Soviets dominated all of Czechoslovakia with more than 200,000 soldiers and 5,000 tanks occupying the country, and took Dubček into custody. The Soviets were not met with military opposition, but rather by ordinary civilians protesting the occupation. The protestors met the invaders at every corner to disrupt their occupation, cause confusion and protect key nodes of communication that were broadcasting news of the wrongful Soviet invasion.

According to Spysz, 72 Czechoslovakian civilians were killed and about 700 injured in the aftermath of the rapid invasion. Dubček and select members of his political regime were moved to Moscow where they stood trial. Dubček was released and returned to Prague where he continued to lead before the Soviets replaced him with Gustáv Husák, who reversed Dubček’s reforms.

Russia-Ukraine Crisis

The current situation in Ukraine holds parallels to the Prague Spring. Czechoslovakia launched liberal reforms after the peaceful removal of Novotný, followed by a Soviet invasion. Similarly, in today’s Russia-Ukraine crisis, tensions stem from the Ukrainian parliament’s vote to dismiss the Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych from office on February 22, 2014. Following the change of leadership, Russia believed the new government to be illegitimate and, in fear of losing its control over Ukraine, Russia invaded Crimea. Though Russia did not seize all of Ukraine, it announced the annexation of Crimea (a claim not recognized by most of the world) and maintains a military presence there today. Russia also directly and militarily supported a separatist effort in parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine, many believe he is setting conditions for even more expansion, possibly trying to establish the old Soviet sphere of influence. According to Jonathan Masters’ article, “Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia,” for the Council on Foreign Relations, Ukraine is and will always be of historical importance to Russia. Russia refers to Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities” and on par in terms of cultural influence with Moscow and St. Petersburg. Ukraine was the cornerstone of the Soviet Union and a bulwark against the United States and NATO as the second-most powerful of the 15 Soviet republic states during the Cold War. Ukraine also was the main hub for agricultural production throughout the Cold War, and its location on the Black Sea remains strategically important to Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the fifth time that Russia or the Soviet Union has used military force to impose an authoritarian regime on a rapidly developing democratic nation (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Afghanistan 1979, Ukraine 2014).

Since January 2022, Russia’s disinformation campaign has been seeding the information environment with misinformation, creating a false narrative to increase pressure on Kyiv and justify their invasion of Ukraine. Russia is targeting the Russian diaspora, Ukrainian sympathizers, the Russian populace and Europe to establish both internal and external support prior to an invasion. Most of the misinformation is focused on fictitious atrocities against ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, which purport to provide Russia with legal justification to invade the neighboring nation. The same misinformation narratives were used to justify the invasion and occupation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia’s military, like the German army during World War II, prefers to use blitzkrieg type tactics when invading, though recently these tactics have been unsuccessful. Russia collaborated with neighboring state Belarus to conduct bilateral military exercises to cut off routes to the north of Ukraine. This led to three of the four Ukrainian borders being surrounded, followed by an invasion by the Russian military. As Russian military forces continue to move across the northern and eastern borders of Ukraine and from the south in Crimea, an envelopment of Kyiv is most likely an attempt to take the entire country.

Russia’s actions as an international bully, constantly intimidating neighboring states that change political alignment away from Moscow, has a pattern of repeating itself. The current crisis over Ukraine, with Russia as the aggressor, is not new. Using history as a tool shows Russian predictability as they continue to press with their brutal invasion of Ukraine. Similar to 1968 when the Soviets invaded Prague, Russia continues their invasion of Ukraine using many of the same methods that worked before.