Unfortunately, for the most part, the West has avoided condemning the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. The unequivocal support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemnation of Russia’s occupation by the West, along with a regime of economic sanctions and restrictive measures against Russia, stands in stark contrast to the Western rhetoric on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While rightly supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the West has been more ambivalent about the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. This pick-and-choose approach to the issue has had a negative impact on the resolution of the conflict by creating unreasonable expectations for wannabe separatists. They saw this ambiguity as a precursor to eventual international legitimacy and became convinced that the continuation of the status quo only strengthened their position, which, in turn, emboldened them to refuse to engage in any serious negotiations or make any meaningful concessions. In his October 2018 interview, then-U.S. ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills noted that he was struck by how most Armenians he met “were adamantly opposed to the return of the occupied territories as part of a negotiation settlement,” warning that “any settlement is going to require the return of some portion of the occupied territories.” Negotiations turned to an imitation with the sole purpose to drag out the process. After all, the longer they drag out the negotiation process, so thinking went, the easier it would be to convince the international community to accept the facts on the ground. Such a prospect however slim made the Armenian government even more intransigent and less willing to compromise, leading to the eventual collapse of the negotiation process and current war.
Nevertheless, the West can still help in finding a peaceful and lasting solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but in order to do that, it has to take a tougher stance on separatism. The Kosovo case should truly stay sui generis. International law is strongest when its norms do not leave much room for wishful and destructive interpretations. The West should make it clear to separatists that unilateral secession through violence and ethnic cleansing will not be tolerated any longer. It has to push separatists to abandon their maximalist position and pressure them to make their case for self-determination within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. To echo Joseph S. Nye, before hastily calling for recognition of separatist entities, one might want to take a step back and consider the diplomatic version of the ancient medical motto: Primum non nocere (first, do no harm).
Ayaz Rzayev is a research fellow at the Topchubashov Center in Baku, Azerbaijan. He is also a Fellow with MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative.