Ambassador Harry Gilmore: The United States will oppose a Russian sphere of influence
by Emil Sanamyan and Lusine Sarkisyan
Amb. Gilmore in his Virginia home. Armenian Reporter.
Harry Gilmore, former U.S. ambassador to Armenia (1993-95) spoke with the Armenian Reporter's Emil Sanamyan and Lusine Sarkisyan on September 16 about ongoing U.S.-Russian tension over Georgia and its implications, Turkey's position on the matter, and Armenia's latest effort to normalize relations with Turkey. Below are edited portions of that conversation.
Reporter: It seems like the Russian government is itching for some kind of a tussle with the United States. In addition to the Georgia operations, last week you saw Russia sending strategic bombers to Venezuela, and now it's sending its navy to the Caribbean.
Gilmore: Russia is being consciously more assertive. The analysis that I've seen from the people I trust most in terms of understanding Russia, from ambassadors to Russia there have been a stream of events that [aim to] defeat Russia's frustration.
I think historically Russia has a frustration of being encircled by the West and the outside world and not being a part of Western European institutions more broadly.
They particularly like to quote Winston Churchill, who at one point in the early days of the Soviet Union said he wanted to strangle the baby of Bolshevism in its cradle. I think even though the Communist period is over, the Cold War is over, I think that's still one part of Russian mentality and I think a number of events have fueled the Russian frustration about being a part of what they call the unipolar world and the desire to break out of that.
[That list of grievances includes most recently] the independence of Kosovo. [Russians] think about that as unjust action on the part of the West, and they felt that it set an unfortunate precedent; NATO expansion [into former Warsaw Pact and Soviet republics, even though] Russians felt there was an understanding that the NATO will not move eastward, particularly militarily.
They feel Russia has been taken advantage of and another aspect is the missile defense effort of the U.S. - an effort to defend against Iranian missile capabilities, but it was Poland and the Czech Republic that really bothered Russia.
I think all these things are part of the mindset, part of this clash in Georgia.
[At the same time,] I think we have a financial meltdown, a global financial crisis. Let's just say I think it's beyond the control of any one government and I think it's going to have a major impact on all of us.
What I hope is that it plays out that we all keep each other's interests in mind and Russia doesn't come off poorly, Russia doesn't suffer more.
I would like to see Russia come out of this with a deeper understanding of its connections with the global economy and need to be careful when you are such an important economic player with even brighter economic future.
Turkey and the Russia-Georgia war
Reporter: One of the striking developments last month was the Turkish government's position. On the day of Russians coming into Georgia, Turkish president Abdullah Gül was hosting the Iranian president, and talked to the Guardian about this Georgian situation being a lesson to the U.S. that it's not a unipolar situation any more, that it's a multipolar world now.
Considering this position, would it be valid to say that the U.S.-Turkish alliance no longer exists and that NATO membership no longer matters that much?
Gilmore: I don't think it's quite that traumatic, but certainly NATO has changed greatly: it's bigger, and the original core members of NATO now are only one piece of NATO. But I don't think NATO is out of business by any means.
The influence of NATO with regard to Georgia and Ukraine is something we need to watch very carefully because the question is will there be a consensus in NATO on whether to offer Georgia and Ukraine closer ties with NATO. I think that NATO has not gotten a consensus on that.
Reporter: Definitely not, but in terms of Turkey: In recent years, Turkey would typically be positioned somewhere between the U.S. and continental Europe, which has been skeptical about enlargement and confronting Russia. That would be a typical Turkish position. In this conflict, it seems that the Turkish position was much closer to Russia than any other NATO country; there was no Turkish criticism of Russia at all.
Gilmore: I'm not sure of that, I've watched that carefully and I'd put that out there as a question mark, an assertion to be explored. Has Turkey reacted differently, has Turkey been more understanding toward the Russian position?
I think Turks had given Georgians some assistance. The Turks are obviously very careful with Russia and the U.S. When U.S. [vessels] carried assistance up through the straits to the Black Sea, the Turks applied convention rules very carefully and didn't change these requirements, and the Russians, by the way, appreciated that.
With that being said, I have seen nothing since August 8 that suggests that Turks had changed their course on EU membership or changed any of their loyalty to NATO. Given the special nature of Turkey, the Turkish government will always be careful and any change in Turkish policy would be very subtle thing.
Reporter: Since we are on subject of Turkey, the Turkish president's visit to Armenia was one of those not-so-subtle events. Our journalists in Armenia had dug up information that previously Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inönü visited Soviet Armenia in the 1930s.
Gilmore: In a way it doesn't surprise me. When the Soviet Union was born, there was an alliance between Russia and Turkey. Vladimir Lenin personally was one of the authors of it. That memory is not dead and for a person like Inönü, who was a close lieutenant [of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's] that would be something that he was a part of.
Reporter: Clearly, President Gül did put a lot of thinking into this decision...
Gilmore: As did, I think, President Serge Sargsian....
Reporter: One would imagine, but the invitation was extended two months ago and for those two months there was no clear response from President Gül....
Gilmore: The Turkish press gave significant coverage to the invitation and President Sargsian was interviewed [by the Radikal newspaper] and I thought did a masterful job in presenting the case why he invited President Gül.
It's not the first time Turkish reporters are given interviews by Armenian leaders. Robert Kocharian gave a very important interview, 5-6 years ago. Of course, in my time, Levon Ter-Petrossian was engaged in a careful dialogue with Turkey.
But it seems to me that President Sargsian has done a very masterful job in trying to explain to the Armenian world why he's doing what he is doing. He is in it with his eyes open. I think it's a major initiative for the Armenian leader and I hope it bears fruit.
Reporter: Can this clear the waters in terms of Armenia explaining its position to Turkey, rather than Turkey explaining the Armenian position to itself, as it has been for a while? Do you think the Turkish leadership is clear about what Armenian intentions are?
Gilmore: I think they are. From what I've seen, there has been dialogue since the rebirth of the Armenian state; there has been some dialogue between Ter-Petrossian and Turkish leaders.
But I think there is more dialogue now between Armenia and Turkey than ever before.
Reporter: One functional difference is that for Armenia, the Turkish issue is large, an almost definitive issue in its foreign policy, but for Turkey Armenia is one of many issues on its agenda.
Turkey is now focused on winning a seat on the UN Security Council. They are opening embassies around Africa and assisting Pacific island nations, thus generating international support. They are still on the EU track but it is not as significant as previously.
How is the Armenian item playing into larger Turkish policy today? Is Turkey genuinely interested in normalization?
Gilmore: I think they are, one of the reasons I'm sure that the Turks have calculated carefully. Azerbaijan for its own reasons has been very nervous about [Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia], about the Turkish-Armenian dialogue.
They have lobbied Ankara against it but this time, Gul and [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan [must have] have thought through of what they are doing about Armenia and talked to Baku about it and made it clear that whatever Baku [says,] the Turks are going.
That to me is a measure of Turks' sincerity.
Pipelines and Karabakh after the Ossetia war
Reporter: It seems until recently the Turks weighed Baku and Yerevan and said: why should we spoil good relations with "brothers" in Baku at the expense of Yerevan, which is not offering us that much other than some soothing historical lessons?
Now, with Turkish position evolving with Russia, they look at Armenia as an extension of Russian interests and....
Gilmore: They certainly look at Armenia as a strategic ally of Russia, which President Sargsian has made very plain is the case, and then the Turks have taken that into account.
With that being said, I give Turkish diplomacy a lot of credit and I think they will see Armenia as a strategic ally of Russia is not in lock-step to Russia. Armenia is a sovereign country and Sargsian is making decisions as the head of sovereign Armenia. Strategic alliance with Russia is fundamental to Armenian interests as he and the Armenian political class see them, but Armenia is not anybody's satellite.
Reporter: But would it make sense to say that now Turks are not just weighing Baku against Yerevan but they are weighing the future of their relations with Russia and Armenia versus Baku?
Gilmore: I think it's probably a factor in their decision. I think the Turks also know if there is an opening of a new border and exchange of ambassadors it could be very significant.
If you could get Armenian-Turkish normalization and some kind of agreement on Karabakh I think you could have a very different Caucasus. I think Armenia and Azerbaijan have naturally a lot of complementarities in terms of economics and I think both countries would profit considerably and quickly. I'm sure the Turks have thought of that and I'm sure they've thought of communications with Baku which are now through Georgia or down the tortured route through Iran.
Reporter: From your time, there was a lot of talk about running the Azerbaijan to Turkey pipelines through Armenia. It seems that because of the crisis in Georgia that talk has been revived. A sign of that was Vice President Dick Cheney, while not going to Armenia, making a comment on inviting Armenia to the EU summit on energy.
Gilmore: I saw that and again, Armenia will be very careful on this issue because of its strategic alliance with Russia. So much depends on Russia's intentions.
[But] I think it's clear that the Turks have been very careful not to rule anything out in terms of Armenia as a transit country of future pipelines. It's probably premature to talk about it at this point but I cannot believe the Turks, careful strategic thinkers, haven't thought about it.
Reporter: Other than that, in terms of the U.S. reaction to this crisis, one of the side effects that we have seen is [Deputy Assistant Secretary of State] Matt Bryza drafting new language on the U.S. position on Nagorno-Karabakh for Vice President Cheney's visit to Azerbaijan; he played up "territorial integrity," and it was clearly designed to appease Azerbaijan.
Gilmore: I've also seen the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in the Azerbaijani press saying it's time to put more emphasis on resolving the issue in the context of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. I don't know if it's a policy shift or not.
Reporter: And for our readers, what is the difference between a change of rhetoric and a change of policy?
Gilmore: Change in rhetoric does not necessarily mean change in policy. From what I understood from colleagues in the U.S. government, the U.S. still hopes to work on [the Madrid] principles for Karabakh. [The say that] France, the U.S., and Russia [can continue] as co-chairs of the Minsk Group.
The other question on my mind as a former diplomat is about the French, through President [Nicolas] Sarkozy's mediation efforts in Georgia: Are they looking at this post-August 8? Is there any implication for Karabakh negotiations and what is it? What are implications of Russia recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Is there an analogy with the Karabakh?
McCain vs. Obama Russia policy
Gilmore: Maybe there will be difference depending on which candidate will be elected in terms of a difference in policy. Sen. John McCain at one point said that we are all Georgians; whether in fact a McCain administration will pursue that policy, I'm not sure.
I would assume whichever camp wins there would be systematic review of U.S. policy, including toward Russia and the region. I would imagine if McCain gets elected, the idea of Georgia being supported for eventual NATO membership would still be U.S. policy.
With Barack Obama, I'm less sure [he'd support such a direct confrontation with Russia], but support for Georgia's territorial integrity will be a part of our policy whoever is elected. And then I think at some point Russia intends to incorporate [Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. This could be a long procedure.
Reporter: Either way, the holdup there is Abkhazia. It doesn't want to be a part of Russia.
Gilmore: [True,] Russians were not totally pleased with the outcome of the [most recent presidential] election there and the Abkhaz have the tendency to do their own thing. Ossetia is different; North Ossetia is a part of the Russian Federation so South Ossetia joining that entity is logical from South Ossetian and Russian points of view.
Reporter: What do you think is in the U.S. interest? Should the United States continue to lobby for Georgia and Ukraine to be NATO members and thus antagonize Russia? Or should the United States in a way let this area be like Finland in the Cold War - connected to the West economically but not militarily?
Gilmore: I would say certainly the U.S. interest is to continue support of the territorial integrity of Georgia as well as the territorial integrity of Moldova...
Reporter: And, in that case, what about Azerbaijan?
Gilmore: In Azerbaijan: support its territorial integrity, but the territorial integrity and principles are fine, but there is a negotiated settlement that changes that and the parties agree that's a different question. I think I made myself clear and I know you understand it.
But, back to the U.S., I would personally support economic assistance to Georgia and figure out a way to repair some infrastructural damage. If Georgia continues to pursue NATO membership I think the U.S. [should support that]. That's what Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried had said in his last testimony; I think it's going to be U.S. policy.
And some kind of [security] assistance to Georgia to enable it to have the means to protect its own internal security and putting down some kind of protections for its borders [is in order].
Reporter: But back to Finland. It was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939 and the U.S. and allies sacrificed Finland's interests to keep the Soviet Union as an ally against Nazi Germany. So, in this case, the bigger challenge is Iran or Islamic terrorism or perhaps China; would it make sense for the U.S. and its allies to sacrifice Georgia's interests to continue to court Russia?
Gilmore: I don't think we'll do that. The United States and European Union are not going to abandon Georgia. However, whether they will approve Georgia for full membership in NATO is a different question. It's a question of when and if.
Reporter: Finally, with the financial collapse going on, would it be too conspiratorial to suggest that some thinking minds in the United States and Russia could decide that some kind of long-term confrontation might be in the interests of their states?
Gilmore: I think no, the decision makers in both countries are very careful not to get into that kind of a situation. There is nothing to be gained for either side in that kind of confrontation. Everybody would lose and people in the countries would just suffer.
I personally don't look for a new Cold War, I see some analogies, but I don't know if this is becoming a Cold War.
With that being said, I think there is a possibility that Russia by pushing the idea that it has a sphere of influence will get a negative reaction in the political class of the U.S.
I think nobody is going to accept that as when we talk about the sphere of influence, does that mean Poland shouldn't be in NATO? We won't accept that and if the Russians keep talking about it, it will change the attitude of not only the U.S. but France and Britain, maybe even Germany.
I hope the Russians don't go down that road and they calculate their interests carefully.