DECIN, Czech Republic (Reuters) - Vera Machutova woke one August night in 1968 to the thunder of Soviet tanks surging through this Czech city on the East German frontier.
With the invasion on the night of August 20-21, Moscow crushed the Prague Spring, a bid by Czechoslovak reformists to establish “socialism with a human face.” At a cost of at least 108 lives, it put its Warsaw Pact ally back on a hardline path, where it stayed until the 1989 Velvet Revolution toppled one-party rule.
Forty years later, with the Czech Republic now a democracy within NATO and the European Union, Machutova is troubled by the conflict in Georgia, whose army was routed last week by Russian forces that pushed deep inside its territory.
What is similar, she said, is the clear message from Moscow that it will not accept a dramatic political shift in a country in sees as part of its sphere of influence — what Russia calls its “near abroad.”
“It was a huge blow for us, and it changed everything. If it wasn’t for the Russians, our lives would have been completely different,” said Machutova, now 61. “And in Georgia, it’s basically the same. They are invading another country.”
The two invasions differ on many points, not least because Georgia, an eager ally of the West, made the first move in the latest crisis by trying to retake its breakaway, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia by force on August 7.
But some in the West see the crisis as a throwback to the Cold War, one that analysts say has actually been building for years but nevertheless caught Washington flat-footed and shone a spotlight on the weakness of the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
“Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week.
“This is no longer 1968.”
Forty years ago, Moscow justified its intervention as “fraternal help” to Czechoslovakia. In Georgia, it said it was forced to come to the aid of Russian nationals under attack in South Ossetia.
In nearly two decades since the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the West’s influence has slowly crept into the Kremlin’s former empire.
Now half a dozen of Moscow’s former closest allies and its three erstwhile Baltic republics have abandoned their former Soviet overlords in favor of EU and NATO membership.
Svante Cornell, Research Director for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, said Russia sees those events — NATO expansion, revolutions leading to pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine, and plans for a U.S.-based missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic — as unacceptable threats.
Emboldened by an oil-fuelled economic boom and resurgent nationalism under ex-President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and with the United States struggling with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an economic crisis, Moscow is clawing back.
Now the prospects of Georgia joining NATO — a main goal of its president, Mikheil Saakashvili — are very much in doubt, as are those of Georgia’s close ally Ukraine.
After almost two decades of engagement with the West, Moscow appears to have reverted to a “sphere of influence” world-view in which it tries to exert dominion over its less powerful neighbors.
“The Putin doctrine has been very much about rolling back the Ukrainian and Georgian revolutions and getting back to a position of malleable, semi-authoritarian governments that the Russians are able to control,” said Cornell.
“That’s the aim in Georgia, regime change. Even if they stop their tanks miles from Tbilisi, they want Saakashvili out.”
That idea is nothing new to Vera Sekerkova, 64, who recalls how Russians stormed the printing house she worked at in 1968 to stop the Czechs from printing “counter-revolutionary” material.
She and another pensioner, who refused to give her name, said they felt their country may never fully be safe.
“These Russians, they just fight, fight and fight and they just don’t listen to reason,” the woman said.
Other states in the region have long warned of a resurgent Moscow, which under Putin has repeatedly punished its former vassal states with trade sanctions or by cutting off supplies of oil and natural gas when they respond to wooing from the West.
“Maybe now the world knows better what Russia is like,” said teacher Rein Adamson, 42, from Estonia. A poll showed 83 percent of people in the NATO country saw Moscow’s invasion of Georgia as a danger to Russia’s other neighbors.
The Czechs and Poles have tried to huddle further under the Western military umbrella by agreeing to host parts of a U.S.-backed anti-missile shield.
Although Washington says the Czech radar site and Polish interceptor missiles are to ward against attacks from countries like Iran — and not Russia — many people in those states see them as a way to protect against the Kremlin’s sway.
That was evident last week, when after months of delays, Washington and Warsaw quickly sealed a deal that included a plan to boost Poland’s air defenses — prompting a threat from Moscow that it could aim its nuclear arsenal at its former ally.
The Georgia conflict has also changed the minds of some Poles originally against the plan, with a survey showing on Monday 50 percent now agreed with it, versus a minority before.
But Margot Light, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, said former Warsaw Pact countries were “deluded” if they thought doing favors for Washington was a bulletproof vest against Moscow’s influence.
The West’s response of hand-wringing and rhetoric over Georgia was evidence of NATO’s limitations, she said.
“It’s incredible to think the United States would risk a direct military confrontation with Russia for Poland or another country in the region,” Light said.
“Georgia has actually illustrated that.”
Additional reporting by Robert Muller and Patrick Lannin, editing by Mark Trevelyan