The Bush Administration said Wednesday that it does not support demands for an independent Azerbaijan and reaffirmed U.S. backing for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in his efforts to halt fighting between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, asked whether the Administration favors independence for the Azerbaijan republic, told reporters: "Since 1933, we have recognized the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union."
Officials said that Tutwiler's terse statement was intended as a diplomatic way to convey opposition to Azerbaijani demands for secession and to reaffirm U.S. support for Gorbachev.
"If our choice comes down to whether to shore up Gorbachev or let the situation collapse into chaos and anarchy . . . we'd rather shore up Gorbachev," a senior Administration official said.
Citing the prospect that several of the Soviet Union's Central Asian republics may seek independence from Moscow, the official asked: "Do we want a bunch of independent little states around the periphery of Russia, all at each other's throats? Do we want that? And if they become independent, what happens to the nuclear weapons that are based there?"
Tutwiler and other officials noted, however, that the Administration supports independence for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the three Baltic republics seized by the Red Army in 1940.
"We see a clear distinction between the Balts, who are trying to win their independence through negotiations within the Soviet constitution, and the Azerbaijanis, who are basically just rioting," one official explained. "There are some Azerbaijani organizations that are demanding independence, but they aren't doing it in a reasonable fashion."
Azerbaijan, a republic of 7 million people on the Soviet Union's southern border with Iran, has been in a state of virtual insurrection since Saturday, when riots erupted in the city of Baku on the Caspian Sea.
Gorbachev has dispatched thousands of peacekeeping troops to the area and authorized them to use their weapons when necessary. The Administration has responded with an unprecedented degree of support for a Soviet leader acting against his own citizens. "We understand the need to establish order in a situation where order has broken down," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said on Tuesday.
Most of the violence has been directed at the area's ethnic Armenian minority, but some Azerbaijani demonstrators have carried flags and signs demanding the republic's independence from Moscow.
However, Tutwiler and other officials played down the prospect of increased pressure for secession. "This is not about political people and trying to demonstrate," Tutwiler said. "This is an ethnic, age-old tension, age-old enemies, and people settling old scores."
No 'Crisis Mentality'
"So far," another official said, "it has not gone beyond the parameters of an ethnic conflict to become a political conflict directed against Moscow." Unless the Soviet military intervention touches off a full-scale revolt against Moscow, he said, "there's nothing that warrants a crisis mentality."
Still, officials said that Administration analysts have been scanning intelligence reports from Azerbaijan and other Soviet Asian republics to see whether their rising nationalistic movements could turn into a major challenge to Gorbachev.
Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia became Russian possessions in the early 19th Century, seized from Iran, then known as Persia, by the czars. After Communists seized power in Moscow in 1917, Armenia and Azerbaijan briefly achieved independence, but lost it when the Red Army re-established Russian power in 1920.
The United States refused to recognize the Moscow government for 16 years and even sent U.S. troops to Siberia to aid Russian forces trying to overthrow the Communist regime. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, accepting the boundaries of the country as they then existed.
"Five years from now, it may make sense for Azerbaijan to be independent," a senior official said. "The Soviet Union is, to some extent, an artificial construct. But if it falls apart, we may come to miss it"--because of the stability Soviet rule imposed on a fractious part of the world.
He noted that the Administration is concerned about the Soviet Union's ability to retain control of its nuclear weapons if revolts erupt in several republics. "I just don't believe that there's no way to launch those things without a guy in Moscow pushing the button," he said.
Other officials have noted that the Soviet Union has some tactical nuclear weapons--land mines and artillery shells--that are believed to have inadequate safeguards and thus could be used by a rebel force.
All Soviet nuclear weapons are guarded by special troops who are believed to be ethnic Russians, they said.
Times staff writers David Lauter and Robert C. Toth contributed to this report.