During Clinton's six hours in Armenia, fighting broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops along the border areas. Armenia has concerns about the US position on Nagorno-Karabakh for the two main reasons: Firstly, the final declaration of NATO's Chicago Summit (May 2012) prioritized the principle of territorial integrity over that of self-determination in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and secondly, the State Department's 2011 Human Rights Report, published before the visit, named Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan. In light of this, the Armenian public sought to emphasize the shift in US attitudes regarding conflict resolution, which now seem to be weighted in Azerbaijan's favor. When border skirmishes intensified with military casualties on both sides, local media coverage suggested that Azerbaijan was attempting to remind the US of the risk entailed in this “frozen conflict.”
After the incidents, Clinton told reporters, "I am very concerned about the danger of escalation of tensions and the senseless deaths of young soldiers and innocent civilians.” It remains unclear which side opened fire on the line of contact (LOC), through the fiercely contested de facto border deep inside internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory.
Examining the motivations behind the sudden and timely outbreak of conflict, it seems that the clashes benefitted Armenian interests over Azerbaijan's. The Armenian opposition described the Chicago Summit as a failure of Armenian diplomacy. In this regard, it was mostly in the interests of the Armenian authorities to promote criticism of Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh policy; thus the local media stated that Azerbaijan was responsible for the outbreak of these deadly clashes.
The second move was to suggest to the US that Azerbaijan holds a destructive attitude towards peace negotiations, and prefers such military clashes -- in light of which the US should review its attitudes. The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) published ten steps for Secretary Clinton to undertake prior to her visit to the Caucasus, one of which was, “to clarify distinction between territorial integrity and self-determination.”
Thirdly, Armenia is concerned about the possibility of the US selling military equipment to Azerbaijan. The fact that the US State Department is considering permitting a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan resulted in fierce public debate. Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objected the sale under the pretext, that any similar sale can damage the negotiating process or even lead to war. Supporters say the equipment is needed to protect Azerbaijan, as Baku's strategic interests in the Caspian are potentially under threat from Iran, while House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Democrat Howard Berman sent a letter to Secretary Clinton on May 29 calling on her to “stop the proposed sale of military hardware to Azerbaijan.” In the case of deadly clashes, it will be easy for Armenian-American lobby groups to argue in Washington that Azerbaijan will use the equipment against Armenia, and thus the sale should be prevented.
While there remains a formal limit on US laws arms transfers to Azerbaijan, known as Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, there is a provision that allows the Secretary of State to waive the restrictions if a transfer "is important to Azerbaijan's border security." Azerbaijan has made it clear that the equipment in question is needed to secure its borders following threats from Iran, not Armenia.
During Clinton's visit to Georgia, she said that the US would provide support to Georgia to “better monitor [its] coasts and skies,” “upgrade Georgia's utility helicopter fleet” and help Georgia give its officers “the 21st century training they need for today's changing missions.” President Mikheil Saakashvili announced that “for the first time, after many years of hesitation, that the US will train Georgian armed forces and assist us in monitoring our land.” The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on June 6 that US support and Secretary Clinton's remarks during her visit would fuel Tbilisi's “revanchist aspirations.” Clinton not only urged further US support for Georgia, but also emphasized that the US believes the upcoming election in Georgia will be fair one, and mark an important step in democratization.
The Secretary of State's final destination in the Caucasus was Azerbaijan, where the focus was expected to be Iran, above energy questions. In fact, the key matter of Iran-Azerbaijan tensions was not discussed publicly, likely due to its sensitivity. On the energy issue, Clinton showed support for the Trans Caspian pipeline. The US' position on energy was cemented by Obama's recent nomination of Richard Morningstar as ambassador to Azerbaijan. Morningstar was one of the founders of the US' Caspian energy strategy back in the '90s. Secretary Clinton's demonstration of support, interestingly, provided the probable impetus for Russian President Putin's declaration that Moscow believes the project to be problematic, on the grounds that the legal status of Caspian Sea status has not been yet been conclusively defined and regulated. This assertion led to speculation in Azerbaijan that the border clashes occurred on Moscow's initiative, seeking to diminish the role of the US in the region.
Further to this, since June 9, Russian fighter jets have been conducting an increasing number of training flights over Armenia, Russian military spokesman Col. Igor Gorbul, told the Interfax news agency, which is an indicator that Moscow is looking for suitable moment to intervene as a “peacekeeper” at any moment should violence escalate further in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Secretary Clinton's visit to the South Caucasus countries demonstrated on the one hand that the US sees a moral obligation to promote democracy across the region, and on the other signaled that the countries will receive more attention from Washington following the November presidential elections. One thing is clear: The political situation in the Caucasus is increasingly vulnerable to threats from Iran and Russia, who are acting together against perceived Western “dominance” in the Middle East and the Caucasus. The question is what's next?