Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia
The general dissatisfaction within the Czechoslovak military became increasingly evident. In 1966 Czechoslovakia, following the lead of Romania, rejected the Soviet Union's call for more military integration within the Warsaw Pact and sought greater input in planning and strategy for the Warsaw Pact's non-Soviet members. At the same time, plans to effect great structural changes in Czechoslovak military organizations were under discussion. All these debates heated up in 1968 during the period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring, when CSLA commanders put forward plans to democratize the armed forces, plans that included limiting the role of the party. National military doctrine became an even greater issue when two important documents were released: the Action Program of the Ministry of Defense and the Memorandum of the Klement Gottwald Military Political Academy. These documents stated that Czechoslovakia should base its defense strategy on its own geopolitical interests and that the threat from the West had been overstated. Although the regime of Alexander Dubcek, the party first secretary (title changed to general secretary in 1971), was careful to reassure the Soviet Union that Czechoslovakia would remain committed to the Warsaw Pact, Moscow felt challenged by these developments, which undoubtedly played a major role in the decision to invade in August 1968.
On August 20, 1968, Warsaw Pact forces--including troops from Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union--invaded Czechoslovakia. Approximately 500,000 troops, mostly from the Soviet Union, poured across the borders in a blitzkrieg-like advance.
The invasion was meticulously planned and coordinated, as the operation leading to the capture of Prague's Ruzyne International Airport in the early hours of the invasion demonstrated. A special flight from Moscow, which had prior clearance, arrived just as the Warsaw Pact troops began crossing the borders. The aircraft carried more than 100 plainclothes agents, who quickly secured the airport and prepared the way for a huge airlift. Giant An-12 aircraft began arriving at the rate of one per minute, unloading Soviet airborne troops equipped with artillery and light tanks. As the operation at the airport continued, columns of tanks and motorized rifle troops headed toward Prague and other major centers, meeting no resistance.
By dawn on August 21, 1968, Czechoslovakia was an occupied country. During the day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs "with the endorsement of the President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and on behalf of the Government of the Republic" transmitted to the governments of the invading countries "a resolute protest with the requirement that the illegal occupation of Czechoslovakia be stopped without delay and all armed troops be withdrawn." That evening in a nationwide radio broadcast President Svoboda stated that the Warsaw Pact forces had entered the country "without the consent of the constitutional organs of the state," thus officially denying the Soviet claim that they had been invited into the country to preserve socialism. The people of Czechoslovakia generally resented the presence of foreign troops. They demonstrated their objections in mass gatherings in the streets and by various acts of passive resistance. The invading troops could see that they had not been invited into and were not wanted in Czechoslovakia.
One of the priority missions of the Warsaw Pact forces during the early stages of the invasion was to neutralize the Czechoslovak armed forces. That mission proved to be easy because Czechoslovak authorities had confined the armed forces to their barracks. In effect, the Czechoslovak forces were prisoners in their own barracks although, on orders from the Warsaw Pact command, they had not been disarmed. At the end of three weeks, the Soviet units that had surrounded Czechoslovak military installations were pulled back, but the suspicions that had been aroused among the troops on both sides were not easily dispelled. Czechoslovak military spokesmen tried to depict their forces as the same strong, efficient organization that had previously manned the westernmost wall of the Warsaw Pact, but obvious doubts had been raised in the minds of authorities in the other countries. Czechoslovaks, in turn, wondered about allies who could so suddenly become invaders.
It was not until October 16 that agreement was reached for the partial withdrawal of the Warsaw Pact armies. The Soviet Union made a big show over the agreement, sending Premier Aleksei Kosygin to Prague as leader of a high-level delegation to observe the ceremony. Czechoslovak joy was tempered by the knowledge that a sizable army of occupation would remain after the bulk of the invading force had departed. The Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian, and Polish troops were ordered to leave the country, but Soviet units were to remain in what was referred to as "temporary stationing." In the agreement, Czechoslovakia retained responsibility for defense of its western borders, but Soviet troops were to be garrisoned in the interior of the country. As events transpired, however, the major Soviet headquarters and four of its five ground divisions were deployed in the Czech Socialist Republic, where they remained in mid-1987.