Ukraine 2022: Flashback to Crimea 1993? Prague Spring 1968?

By Dan Drollette Jr | February 23, 2022

office worker and tank Prague Spring 68 August 21, 1968, in Wenceslas Square, Prague, Czechoslovakia, when Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invaded, ending the progressive era known as the Prague Spring. Photograph by Vladimir Lammer/Courtesy Czech Center of New York

Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian troops to separatist areas of Eastern Ukraine as euphemistic “peacekeepers,” with somewhere between 150,000 and 190,000 Russian troops ranged along the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Ukraine borders. The United States and its European allies have announced significant economic sanctions on Russian financial entities in attempts to forestall further invasion. The world waits to see whether Russia will embark on the first major military attack in Europe in decades.

Back in 1993, however, the news cycle was dominated by an entirely different concern: How could the old Soviet Union best be divided, as many of its socialist republics sought to become independent countries and the Cold War dissolved before the world’s eyes? With Ukraine as an independent country, should the Black Sea port of Sevastopol—home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet—go to Ukraine or Russia? What should be done with the huge arsenal of nuclear missiles that remained on Ukrainian soil, whose presence made that country the third-largest nuclear state in the world? And what would the relations be like between the Russia and Ukraine—would they be two separate but equal democracies, or something else?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists covered the breakup of the Soviet Union in detail as it happened. Three seemingly apropos articles from that coverage—and a fourth suddenly relevant piece on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to quash the Prague Spring—are presented below, as a reminder that East-West relations have ranged from bad to better to relatively good over time. And might range again.

 

The view from Kiev In this 1993 Bulletin article, the chief Kiev (now Kyiv) correspondent for the magazine Literaturnaya Gazeta, Sergei Kiselyov, wrote: “Russia’s plan to capture the ships and the naval base at Sevastopol has resembled that of a stalker who has studied his victim’s precise route and has been waiting patiently for her in a dark alley.” In that same piece, Kiselyov also said that he found his fellow Ukrainians pessimistic about the future, because Russia would always hold the trump cards: Not only did Russia have a much larger economy and field a much larger army, it also had the ability to cut off supplies of oil and gas to Ukraine.

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The view from Moscow The Russian author Sergei Leskov wrote in the Bulletin of the enormous symbolic power of Crimea (and by extension, of Ukraine) to his fellow Russians. Crimea was the place where Russian forces endured an epic siege from combined British, French, and allied forces in the mid-19th century during the Crimean War; where Tolstoy served in the front lines; where Chekhov wrote many of his stories; and where the Czar’s ministers and later Communist apparatchiks frolicked. Leskov quoted a local professor: “As it is, we have given up a lot of what is ours to our friends and neighbors, who sell us out at the first opportunity. It’s time to get back what we have scattered. The bigger the country, the better… I personally have one feeling left—that of patriotism.”

No way to run an army Ukraine’s eastern and western regions are markedly different. The east-west divide could be detected as the country was becoming independent even in the hazing of new conscripts for the Ukrainian army: “[In] eastern Ukraine, recruits from western Ukraine are beaten for being banderovtsy (a derogatory term for a Ukrainian), and in the west, recruits from the east are beaten for being moskali (a derogatory term for a Russian),” wrote Oleg Strekal, a staff writer for the Ukraine bureau of the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Anxiety in Bonn: German Fears After Czechoslovakia Not long after the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, Cornell University’s Steven Muller opined that “[t]he Russian intervention was not intended as an aggressive move against the West but rather as a defensive measure against a protectorate that seemed to be getting out of hand”—which could be one interpretation of what has been happening these days in regard to Russia and Ukraine. In his 1969 article, Muller went on to say that the occupation of Czechoslovakia by hundreds of thousands of Soviet and allied Warsaw Pact troops (accompanied by tanks) “came as a great shock to everyone in the West. It evoked a great outcry of anger, revulsion and disappointment, but this sank down almost immediately to frustrated mutterings of helpless resignation… The Soviet Union made clear that it would resort to naked force to prevent liberalization in Eastern Europe.”

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