The Bush administration underestimated the gravity of the threat to the unity of the Soviet Union and to the political survival of President Mikhail Gorbachev inherent in the crisis in Azerbaijan.
A senior administration official earlier this month told reporters: "Azerbaijan is essentially a problem of preventing anarchy, and we believe that it will subside once Moscow figures out the necessary amount of force that it must apply to restore law and order."
But the troops Gorbachev sent to restore law and order were forced off the streets last week as almost 1 million Azerbaijanis filled the streets of the capital of Baku, mourning the death of scores of militants who were killed when Soviet troops tried to retake the city. Some Soviet soldiers then were killed by the inflamed Azerbaijanis.
U.S. diplomatic and intelligence agency officials had thought violence in Soviet Azerbaijan would not pose a long-range threat to Gorbachev but that the independence movement in distant Lithuania would pose such a threat.
"If Lithuania goes, the whole existence of the Soviet Union will be at stake," one high-ranking Bush administration official stated. Some experts outside the U.S. government, however, think that the situation in the southern republic is Gorbachev's worst crisis yet and that his dispatch of troops to Azerbaijan is his biggest gamble since coming to power in March 1985. Now it is Azerbaijan vowing to secede.
The connection between Lithuania at one end of the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan at the other end is closer than it would appear at first glance. The model for the anti-Moscow movement in Azerbaijan was the one in Lithuania. A ragtag bunch of journalists, intellectuals, poets and scientists banded together 14 months ago on the shores of the Caspian Sea to emulate the national democracy movement on the shores of the far-off Baltic Sea.
They called themselves the Popular Front of Azerbaijan and were initially scorned by the Kremlin. Their members since have taught Gorbachev a hard lesson. It is that in the post-Communist world there are other forces in addition to democracy that can move to the forefront.
The Popular Front has been tapping a rich nationalistic, cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic lode. Azerbaijan, like Lithuania, enjoyed a brief period of national independence during this century.
Large portions of what is now Soviet Azerbaijan were parts of what is now Iran until a still-disputed treaty in the last century. There is strong sentiment on both sides of the border for closer ties among the divided Azerbaijanis.
Stalin tried to solve this and other problems by annexing Iranian Azerbaijan. He was forced to withdraw his troops after President Harry Truman warned him of dire consequences at a time when the United States had an atomic monopoly. After Stalin pulled out, he drew down an iron curtain between Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijanis.
The people on both sides of the border are predominantly Shiite Moslems. And they all were strongly influenced by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He wanted to see Islamic Republics established throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan also has strong language and other ties with neighboring Turkey. The name "Turk" first was used in the sixth century by the Chinese to describe a fierce nomadic people whose territory stretched all the way from Mongolia to the Black Sea. Today, in that same vast area, there are some 100 million Turkic-speaking people.
Historically, the most important Turkic-speaking groups were the Seljuks and the Ottoman Turks. After they adopted Islam, they began migrating in large numbers to the Middle East and, in 1055, conquered Persia, which is now Iran.
Gorbachev has been talking about a "common European home." Azerbaijani heirs of adventurous Asiatic horsemen may well wonder if they will fit into such a home. They could be the first group to break out of the Soviet Union.