Russia’s Flashback To 1968

Forty years ago this week, on the night of Aug. 20-21, 1968, thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Warsaw Pact soldiers entered Czechoslovakia. The goal of the invasion was straightforward: to prevent a Soviet satellite from carrying out democratic reforms that, had they been allowed to succeed, could have threatened the legitimacy of the governments of other Soviet satellites and, indeed, of the Soviet Union itself.

Superficially, it has to be said, the events of August 1968 do bear some resemblance to the events of August 2008, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has observed. For yes, not only are tanks with Russian commanders again rolling over the territory of another sovereign country, the invaders’ intentions are in some ways similar: Once again, Russians are punishing a former satellite whose reforms, if successful, could challenge their own political system.

True, Russia is no longer Soviet. But its ruling clique, led by former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, remains steeped in the paranoid, highly controlled, conspiracy-obsessed culture of the old KGB. Putin and his entourage are not communists, but neither do they believe in free markets or free societies. Instead, all important decisions must be made in Moscow, by a small, unelected group of people who know how to resist sabotage organized from abroad. Events cannot be allowed to just happen; they must be controlled and manipulated. Elections cannot just take place; their outcomes must be determined in advance.

The Russian state’s open hostility toward not only Georgia but also Ukraine and the Baltic states is, in this sense, partly ideological. Genuine elections have taken place in those countries; people who have not been preselected by a ruling oligarchy do sometimes gain wealth or power. Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution even involved street demonstrations that helped unseat more oligarchic regimes. Thus it is not pure nationalism, or mere traditional great-power arrogance, that makes the Russian leadership disdainful of Georgia and Ukraine: It is also, at some level, fear that similar voter revolutions could someday challenge Russia’s leaders, too.

Nevertheless, the word “superficial” is worth repeating: As I’ve written before, I don’t really like historical analogies, which can conceal as much as they reveal. For one, the ethnic conflict that sparked the Georgian president’s foolhardy response and the Russian invasion two weeks ago has been twisted and manipulated, but it nevertheless involves real people. Any long-term solution to the current crisis has to find some accommodation for the South Ossetians whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed in the exchange of fire.

More important, the international situation is utterly different. Despite some misty-eyed memories of alleged Cold War decisiveness, we did not, back in 1968, have the will or the ability to help the victims of Soviet expansionism. Our only real response to the Soviet invasion was a bit of public spluttering. Most of Europe was still recovering from the “events of 1968,” the student uprisings celebrated across the continent this year in a haze of post-radical nostalgia.

Today’s Russian leaders, despite the paranoia they learned in KGB training, have far more profound relationships with Western institutions, not only the Group of Eight and the Council of Europe but also with the Western banks and companies that invest their money and manage their property. Today’s Europe is theoretically better prepared to engage Russia, too, though it has not been engaged until now. After the invasion, I wrote that the West, which failed for many years to address the security vacuum in the Caucasus, would have no influence over Russia, and in the short term this has proved true. Despite a cease-fire brokered by France, Russian troops are withdrawing very slowly, if at all; we have no military means to force them and should not pretend otherwise.

But if this becomes a long-term conflict, if the Russian military remains in Georgia proper, if this turns out to be only the first of several incursions into other neighboring states, there are relationships we have and meaningful levers we can use, whether over Russian membership in international institutions or Russian leaders’ luxury apartments in Paris — if, of course, we are willing to use them. The critical question now is whether the West is prepared to behave like the West, to speak with one voice and create a common transatlantic policy. In recent years, Russia has preferred to deal with Western countries and their leaders one by one. Just last week, an affiliate of Gazprom, the Russian state-dominated gas company, added a former Finnish prime minister to its payroll — which already includes former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. If we hang together instead of allowing Gazprom to pick us all off separately, there is at least a chance that this mini-chill won’t last another 40 years, too.

Scroll to Top