Fifty years ago, on 21 August 1968, troops from five Warsaw Pact countries entered Czechoslovakia.
On the night of 20 August 1968, the troops from the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of Bulgaria, People's Republic of Hungary, the German Democratic Republic and the Polish People's Republic entered Czechoslovakia with the aim to "defend the socialist cause" in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, prevent the loss of power by the Czechoslovak Communist Party as well as the possible withdrawal of the country from the Warsaw Pact.
By the end of the 1960s, Czechoslovak society faced a range of problems, which had no solution within the framework of the Soviet-style socialist system. Its economy suffered from the disproportionate development of industries and the loss of traditional sales markets. There were virtually no democratic freedoms, while national sovereignty was limited. The demand for radical democratization was growing in Czechoslovak society.
In January 1968, President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Antonin Novotny was dismissed and replaced by Alexander Dubcek, a member of the party's liberal wing. Ludvik Svoboda was elected president of Czechoslovakia. In April, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia published a new program which envisaged a democratic renewal of socialism and limited economic reforms.
Initially, the leadership of the USSR did not interfere in the Czechoslovak Communist Party's internal issues but the key features of the proclaimed "new model" of socialist society, including the synthesis of a planned and market economy and democratization of political life in the country, contradicted the Soviet interpretation of the Marxist-Leninist ideology and raised concern among the USSR leaders. Moreover, the possibility of "chain reaction" in neighboring socialist countries the Czechoslovak "experiment" was also disapproved by East German, Polish and Bulgarian leadership.
From a geopolitical perspective, the Soviet Union faced a dangerous situation in one of the key countries of Eastern Europe since the withdrawal of Czechoslovakia from the Warsaw Pact could potentially undermine military security in the region.
The Soviet leadership viewed the use of force as the last resort but in the spring of 1968 it decided to start preparing its troops for an operation in Czechoslovakia.
Before the deployment of Warsaw Pact troops to Czechoslovakia, there were multiple attempts to have a political dialogue at inter-party meetings, mutual visits of government delegations as well as multilateral meetings of leaders of the socialist countries.
The final decision to deploy troops to Czechoslovakia was taken at a meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union's Communist Party on August 16, 1968 and approved at a meeting of the Warsaw Pact countries' leaders in Moscow on August 18 following an appeal from a group of party and state leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to the leadership of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries asking to provide international assistance.
The preparation of troops started on August 17-18. On the eve of the invasion, Marshal of the Soviet Union Andrei Grechko informed Czechoslovak Defense Minister Martin Dzur about the upcoming operation and warned against the resistance from the Czechoslovak armed forces. The so-called Operation Danube started late on August 20.
Both ground forces and airborne troops were deployed to the country. The paratroopers were tasked with taking control of key state and party buildings in Prague and Brno. About 300,000 troops participated in the operation.
Within 36 hours since the start of the Operation Danube, the Warsaw Pact troops took control over the territory of Czechoslovakia.
The Czechoslovak army showed practically no resistance in accordance with Dzur's order but people expressed their resistance through symbolic barricades, underground radio stations and distribution of leaflets.
Despite the fact that the leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party were arrested and brought to Moscow, the Soviet leadership failed to achieve its goal to create a "revolutionary government" in Czechoslovakia comprised of officials loyal to the Soviet Union. The Czechoslovak society strongly opposed the foreign forces' presence in the country.
At the UN Security Council on August 21, a group of countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Denmark and Paraguay, requested to discuss the Czechoslovak issue at the UN General Assembly with the aim to achieve the withdrawal of the Warsaw Pact troops from Czechoslovakia. Hungary and the Soviet Union voted against the request.
The situation in Czechoslovakia was also discussed in the Permanent Council of NATO. The Warsaw Pact intervention was also condemned by Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, and China, pushing the Soviet Union and its allies to seek the way out of the situation.
The arrested Czechoslovak leaders returned to their home country in late August. In September, as the situation in Czechoslovakia began to stabilize, the Warsaw Pact troops were moved from many Czechoslovak cities.
On October 16, the governments of the USSR and Czechoslovakia signed an agreement on a temporary deployment of Soviet troops on the territory of Czechoslovakia "to ensure the security" of the socialist countries.
Operation Danube resulted in the death of 11 Soviet troops and injuries of 87 others. A total of 94 Czechoslovak citizens were killed and 345 injured between August 21 and December 17. The operation also led to an interruption of political and economic reforms in the country.
In December 1989, the leaders of Bulgaria, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, Poland and the Soviet Union recognized that the decision to deploy the allied troops to Czechoslovakia as a mistake as well as an unreasonable interference in the sovereign state's internal affairs.