The collapse of the post-Cold War order in Europe has sent politicians delving into history books to explain a crisis which seems to have burst out of nowhere. The president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, has compared the incursion of Russian troops into his country to the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, and the overthrow of the Hungarian government in 1956.
His supporters have likened the situation to Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, while the arrival of a couple of US cargo aircraft in Georgia has been upgraded to rival the 1948 airlift to Soviet-blockaded Berlin, one of the key confrontations of the Cold War. None of these parallels has evoked so much controversy as Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, evoking the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which overthrew the modernising communist regime of Alexander Dubcek and put a bloody end to the so-called "Prague Spring".
"Russia needs to leave Georgia at once," Ms Rice said on a visit to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, on Friday. "This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbour and overthrew its government." The sight of Russian troops riding around Georgia on armoured vehicles certainly recalls the events of 1968, when the Kremlin and four of its allies entered Czechoslovakia on the night of Aug 20-21, took over the airport and installed a pro-Moscow government.
That invasion was called an act of "fraternal solidarity". The Kremlin's term for its current action in Georgia is "peace enforcement". The 40th anniversary is being marked in Prague with conferences and debates about freedom. The Czech government, however, is split over the comparison between Georgia and 1968. The Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, has been happy to revive Cold War ghosts. "Russian tanks on the streets of Georgian towns remind those of us who experienced it of the 1968 invasion," Mr Topolanek wrote in the Daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. "The question whether we will or will not belong to the sphere of Russian influence is timely even today."
But the president, Vaclav Klaus, has rejected any parallel, absolving the Russians of blame and accusing Mr Saakashvili of starting the crisis. The Georgian leader's role was "fatal", he said. The disarray among Czechs as they remember their anniversary only underscores dangers of seeking guidance from the past. According to Michael Howard, a military historian and professor emeritus at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, "Anybody who says that history teaches lessons knows no history and less logic. History is a sort of ragbag you can pick from to justify whatever you want."
While the professor rejects parallels between today's events and the past, he still believes that history can provide a clue to the processes which drive Russia. In the 19th century, Russian expanded deep into the Balkans, but was pushed back and lost everything and collapsed in the First World War. It recovered those losses in the Second World War, but lost them in the 1980s. It is now trying to push out again. "Russia is a borderless state which is continually expanding and being stopped and then being pushed back. Like all states with no natural frontiers, it tends to expand because it feels that if it does not expand, it is going to get threatened." This analysis provides little comfort for Nato, which was meeting in Brussels yesterday to respond to the crisis. Its key problem is finding ways to overcome splits over relations with Russia at a time when the alliance is overstretched in Afghanistan and hobbled by George W Bush's lame duck status as an outgoing president. For the Russians things are clearer. The Kremlin has been saying for the past year that the US monopoly on global power is over. Washington can no longer do what it pleases, such as invading Iraq, but will have to take into account other countries, such as Russia. Western values and interests must now "compete" with Russian values and interests, according to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. The world has reached a new stage "where the relative importance of the US role has been decreasing, as has already happened in recent decades in the global economy and trade," he said in a recent speech. In order to stop being treated like a "third-rate power" - as Dmitry Medvedev, the president, has said - Russia is now speaking and acting in ways which have often been dismissed as bizarre or counterproductive in the West. One of these actions was to resume strategic bomber flights over northern Europe which had been stopped after the end of the Cold War. A second was the leak on Sunday that Russia was considering arming its Baltic Fleet with nuclear warheads for the first time since the Cold War. This leak was a clear response to the placing of US anti-missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic, supposedly designed to protect the United States from "rogue states" such as North Korea, but seen by Russia as a provocative installation close to its borders. Western defence experts have dismissed nuclear rearming as an empty gesture, since Russian presumably does not want to start a new world war. Such statements are clearly designed to show that Russia is a power that cannot be ignored. But it is hard to see how such assertiveness will win Moscow any new friends to support Russian "values". "The lack of allies - indeed the driving away of many former partners in the former Soviet space - is an important result of Russian diplomacy and foreign policy to date," Andrew Monaghan, of the Nato defence college in Rome, wrote in an analysis published just before the Georgia conflict. "If and how Moscow will resolve this paradox between assertion and attraction is a key question in the near term." The calendar has clearly not flipped back to 1968, when Russian military power extended right into the heart of central Europe. But nor is it showing 1989, when Russian power was crumbling. Recalling these dates ultimately shows that the West has yet to come to terms with the meaning of the Georgia crisis. It seems to prefer to hold on to comforting historical parallels rather than engage with an unsettling new reality. @email:firstname.lastname@example.org