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Warsaw Pact and The Prague Spring

In 1968 an acute crisis in the Soviet alliance system suddenly overwhelmed the slowly festering problem of Romania. The Prague Spring represented a more serious challenge than that posed by Romania because it occurred in an area more crucial to Soviet security. The domestic liberalization program of the Czechoslovak communist regime led by Alexander Dubcek threatened to generate popular demands for similar changes in the other East European countries and even parts of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union believed it necessary to forestall the spread of liberalization and to assert its right to enforce the boundaries of ideological permissibility in Eastern Europe. However, domestic change in Czechoslovakia also began to affect defense and foreign policy, just as it had in Hungary in 1956, despite Dubcek's declared intention to keep Czechoslovakia within the Warsaw Pact. This worrying development was an important factor in the Soviet decision to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968 -- one that Western analysts have generally overlooked.

The new political climate of the Prague Spring and the lifting of press censorship brought into the open a longstanding debate within the Czechoslovak military establishment over the nature of the Warsaw Pact and Czechoslovakia's membership in it. In the mid-1960s, this debate centered on Soviet domination of the NSWP countries and of the Warsaw Pact and its command structure. Czechoslovakia had supported Romania in its opposition to Soviet calls for greater military integration and backed its demands for a genuine East European role in alliance decision making at PCC meetings.

In 1968 high-ranking Czechoslovak officers and staff members at the Klement Gottwald Military Academy began to discuss the need for a truly independent national defense strategy based on Czechoslovakia's national interests rather than the Soviet security interests that always prevailed in the Warsaw Pact. The fundamental premise of such an independent military policy was that an all-European collective security system, mutual nonaggression agreements among European states, the withdrawal of all troops from foreign countries, and a Central European nuclear-free zone could guarantee the country's security against outside aggression better than its membership in the Warsaw Pact.

Although the Soviet Union had advocated these same arrangements in the 1950s, Czechoslovakia was clearly out of step with the Soviet line in 1968. Czechoslovakia threatened to complicate Soviet military strategy in Central Europe by becoming a neutral country dividing the Warsaw Pact into two parts along its front with NATO.

The concepts underpinning this developing Czechoslovak national defense strategy were formalized in the Gottwald Academy Memorandum circulated to the general (main) staffs of the other Warsaw Pact armies. The Gottwald Memorandum received a favorable response from Poland, Hungary, and Romania. In a televised news conference, at the height of the 1968 crisis, the chief of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia's military department, Lieutenant General Vaclav Prchlik, denounced the Warsaw Pact as an unequal alliance and declared that the Czechoslovak Army was prepared to defend the country's sovereignty by force, if necessary. In the end, the Soviet Union intervened to prevent the Czechoslovak Army from fully developing the military capabilities to implement its newly announced independent defense strategy, which could have guaranteed national independence in the political and economic spheres.

The August 1968 invasion preempted the possibility of the Czechoslovak Army's mounting a credible deterrent against future Soviet interventions. The Soviet decision in favor of intervention focused, in large measure, on ensuring its ability to maintain physical control of its wayward ally in the future.

In contrast to its rapid, bloody suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Soviet Union engaged in a lengthy campaign of military coercion against Czechoslovakia. In 1968 the Soviet Union conducted more joint Warsaw Pact exercises than in any other year since the maneuvers began in the early 1960s. The Soviet Union used these exercises to mask preparations for, and threaten, a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that would occur unless Dubcek complied with Soviet demands and abandoned his political liberalization program. Massive Warsaw Pact rear services and communications exercises in July and August enabled the Soviet General Staff to execute its plan for the invasion without alerting Western governments. Under the pretext of exercises, Soviet and NSWP divisions were brought up to full strength, reservists were called up, and civilian transportation resources were requisitioned. The cover that these exercises provided allowed the Soviet Union to deploy forces along Czechoslovakia's borders in Poland and East Germany and to demonstrate to the Czechoslovak leadership its readiness to intervene.

On August 20, a force consisting of twenty-three Soviet Army divisions invaded Czechoslovakia. Token NSWP contingents, including one Hungarian, two East German, and two Polish divisions, along with one Bulgarian brigade, also took part in the invasion. In the wake of its invasion, the Soviet Union installed a more compliant communist party leadership and concluded a status-of-forces agreement with Czechoslovakia, which established a permanent Soviet presence in that country for the first time. Five Soviet Army divisions remained in Czechoslovakia to protect the country from future "imperialist threats." These troops became the Central Group of Forces (CGF) and added to Soviet strength directly bordering NATO. The Czechoslovak Army, having failed to oppose the Soviet intervention and defend the country's sovereignty, suffered a tremendous loss of prestige after 1968. At Soviet direction, reliable Czechoslovak authorities conducted a purge and political re-education campaign in the Czechoslovak Army and cut its size. After 1968 the Soviet Union closed and reorganized the Klement Gottwald Military Academy. With its one-time junior partner now proven unreliable, the Soviet Union turned to Poland as its principal East European ally.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia showed the hollowness of the Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe in both its political and its military aspects. The Soviet Union did not convene the PCC to invoke the Warsaw Pact during the 1968 crisis because a formal PCC session would have revealed a deep rift in the Soviet alliance and given Czechoslovakia an international platform from which it could have defended its reform program. The Soviet Union did not allow NSWP officers to direct the Warsaw Pact exercises that preceded the intervention in Czechoslovakia, and Soviet Army officers commanded all multinational exercises during the crisis. While the intervention force was mobilized and deployed under the Warsaw Pact's commander in chief, the Soviet General Staff transferred full operational command of the invasion to the commander in chief of the Soviet ground forces, Army General I. G. Pavlovskii. Despite the participation of numerous East European army units, the invasion of Czechoslovakia was not in any sense a multilateral action. The Soviet invasion force carried out all important operations on Czechoslovakia's territory. Moreover, the Soviet Union quickly withdrew all NSWP troops from Czechoslovakia to forestall the possibility of their ideological contamination. NSWP participation served primarily to make the invasion appear to be a multinational operation and to deflect direct international criticism of the Soviet Union.

While the participation of four NSWP armies in the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia demonstrated considerable Warsaw Pact cohesion, the invasion also served to erode it. The invasion of Czechoslovakia proved that the Warsaw Pact's internal mission of keeping orthodox East European communist party regimes in power -- and less orthodox ones in line -- was more important than the external mission of defending its member states against external aggression. The Soviet Union was unable to conceal the fact that the alliance served as the ultimate mechanism for its control of Eastern Europe. Formulated in response to the crisis in Czechoslovakia, the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine declared that the East European countries had "limited" sovereignty to be exercised only as long as it did not damage the interests of the "socialist commonwealth" as a whole. Since the Soviet Union defined the interests of the "socialist commonwealth," it could force its NSWP allies to respect its overwhelming security interest in keeping Eastern Europe as its buffer zone.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:53:35 ZULU