Putin's rationale for invading Crimea sounds a lot like Reagan's for invading Grenada.
Some of the most interesting analyses of the situation in Crimea have been written on the blog of the former American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock. Matlock, who served Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, reminds Americans to empathize with Moscow about why Russian leaders might feel justified in violating Ukrainian sovereignty. "Russia would point out," he writes, that the United States violated Panamanian sovereignty to arrest Manuel Noriega, invaded Iraq on "spurious grounds," and has targeted individuals in at least six sovereign countries for assassination using drones. And don't forget, Matlock urges us, that in 1983 the United States "invaded Grenada to prevent American citizens from being taken hostage (even though they had not been taken hostage)."
Imagine the chuckle I had, then, a day later when the Reagan Presidential Library finally mailed me its response to a Freedom of Information Act request I had filed three years earlier for National Security Decision Directives 105 and 110A. The directives, signed by Reagan, described how and why the United States should invade Grenada.
On October 23, 1983, Reagan ordered that "The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in coordination with the Secretary of State and the Director of Central Intelligence [will] take control of Grenada, no later than dawn Tuesday, October 25, 1983." This military invasion was justified, according to NSDD 110A, because "recent violence and instability have created a situation which could seriously jeopardize the lives and safety of American citizens."
NSDD 105 spelled out other justifications for installing a Grenadian government that would be friendly to the United States: "A significant portion of our imported oil and U.S. commercial shipping transits through the sea lanes of the Eastern Caribbean. U.S. military logistic support and reinforcements essential for use in a Persian Gulf contingency must also pass through the region." Another Caribbean island under Soviet influence could, therefore, pose a "significant threat to our economic and security interests."
Reagan buttressed the military action with "a coordinated legislative and public affairs strategy" that would emphasize "the multi-lateral character of our actions"; "the human rights, abuses, and oppression of the current regime and the recent violence which potentially endangers U.S. lives"; and -- with no apparent irony -- "the democratic nature of the new government being installed."
In many ways, Russian President Putin seems to be reading from Reagan's 1983 script. His professed impetus for Crimea's annexation was the "anti-constructional takeover, an armed seizure of power" in Kiev. At a March 4 press conference he "retained the right to use all available means to protect" the Russian-speaking population in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. He has justified the annexation by stating: "We have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO's navy would be right there in this city of Russia's military glory [Sevastopol], and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia."
Similarly, Reagan's authorization of "appropriate covert and deception measures ... to mislead the present Grenadian regime and the Cubans concerning our true intentions" mirrors Putin's use of subterfuge in Crimea -- namely the flagless, balaclava-clad, unidentified commandos who quickly and surreptitiously claimed key Crimean airports, bases, and other strategic points.
The U.S. invasion of Grenada does differ from today's Crimea situation in several ways. For one, the Organization of the Eastern Caribbean States did formally request U.S. help in removing "the outlaw regime on Grenada." (Britain, Canada, and the U.N. General Assembly criticized the invasion.) Additionally, a coalition of allied Caribbean military forces did participate in the attack. Russia has acted unilaterally, failing to secure political support from even Belarus. Russia has threatened to cut energy exports, whereas the United States feared a potential blockade in 1983. And, of course, the United States did not annex Grenada after successfully installing a pro-American government.
Obviously, the revelations included in Reagan's order to invade Grenada in no way constitute legal, political, or moral justification for the Russian annexation of Crimea. These declassified documents do, however, provide historical context for Amb. Matlock's observations on the fickleness of great-power calls for respecting the sovereignty of other nations. After all, it was then-Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko who called the American violation of Grenadian sovereignty a "piratical act of terrorism and a challenge to the entire world."*
However altruistically motivated the United States claims its foreign interventions to be, even short-term military actions set decades-long precedents that our adversaries use to claim that they, too, must invade sovereign nations to protect their interests.
*Correction, Mar. 28, 2014: This article originally misstated the office held by Andrei Gromyko in 1983. He was Soviet minister of foreign affairs, not ambassador to the United States. (Return to reading.)