NATO enlargement since the end of the Cold War has sometimes been blamed for the current poor state of relations between Russia and the West. This thinking often rests on unrealistic expectations for Russia’s development after 1991 and overlooks the major benefits NATO membership had for the countries formally dominated by the Soviet Union and consequentially, for Europe as a whole.

The recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh offers an insight into one such benefit that probably gets overlooked more than any other – NATO membership made conflict over contested territory between the Eastern European states pretty much unimaginable.

The final death toll from the war is estimated to reach at least 5,000 soldiers and more than 100 civilians. For countries with fairly small populations, that is a high number. This will not be a recount of the war itself. Several experts on the region have provided that, like Svante Cornell in the National Interest and Thomas de Wall in the New York Times. Instead, what’s striking is Russia’s role in the conflict and how it shows us what could have been a reality in many parts of Europe today had we, instead of offering NATO membership, been content with letting the region slip into a “security limbo” with Moscow as the dominant player.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are located in the Caucasus, an area that has been under Russian rule since the early 19th century. The current map with its peculiar borders was created by the Bolsheviks in 1921 after the region had a brief go at independence in the aftermath of the collapse of the Russian Empire. These borders remained the borders of the Armenian and Azerbaijani Soviet Republics until in turn, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and both countries achieved independence.

One look at the map explains the use of the word “peculiar.” The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, formally part of Azerbaijan, is basically an Armenian dominated island surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijan is, in turn, split in two by Armenia, creating the landlocked enclave of Nakhchivan to the west. The current conflict dates back at least to 1988 when the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh wanted to incorporate the region into Armenia but the Soviet Politburo refused.

“Divide and Conquer” was a staple of Soviet rule. An Armenian minority in Azerbaijan could be used to undermine any case for independence. Using minorities in this way was common throughout the Soviet Union. Following its collapse, Moscow sought to retain its influence in the region which prompted Russia to support Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1992-93, a major factor behind the then Armenian success in seizing the area.

Russia has generally backed Armenia ever since. In 1994, Yerevan received security guarantees through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian dominated military alliance for former Soviet states. These guarantees did not extend to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region though. But Russia has also been supplying Azerbaijan with weapons at least since 2013. Despite having a lot of leverage in both countries, Moscow has done very little in order to promote a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the conflict.

It’s unclear if Russia was caught by surprise on September 27 when the current war started. But if so, Moscow seemed to have accepted the situation and sought, once again, mainly to maximize its own influence. The Russian peacekeeping force of barely 2,000 soldiers is not enough to keep the sides separate should fighting flare up again. There is nothing in the deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 10 on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian forces pulling out, or even on investigating human rights violations. Russia does not seem to care about any of that; instead it’s driven by having boots on the ground. The Russian peacekeepers are accompanied by units from the FSB, the principal Russian security agency and successor to the KGB. The fact that these troops were dispatched so quickly following the deal shows that Putin might have planned that particular part in advance.

Some observers believe that Putin was displeased with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan becoming too independent from Moscow and was therefore happy to see his “ally” suffer military defeat and the wrath of his own population. Pashinyan came to power after the Armenian revolution of 2018 when the previous, authoritarian regime was toppled following street protests. Anyone familiar with the Russian leader knows that he dreads and despises such democracy movements.

So what does all this have to do with Eastern Europe and NATO? Nagorno-Karabakh is hardly the only disputed territory in countries formally run by Moscow. We have already seen how Russia makes use of ethnic minorities in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova to create “frozen conflicts” that prevents them from achieving their full potential.

The risks for such conflicts existed all over Eastern Europe in 1991 because of the redrawing of borders and resettling of populations that the Soviets engaged in following World War II. Poland’s eastern territories became part of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Few may know that the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius was part of Poland before the war and Polish speaking minorities exist in all three countries to this day. Hungarians live in parts of Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia and the large region of Transylvania which is now part of Romania. Romania in turn lost a part of its territory to the Soviet Union. That is now the previously mentioned country of Moldova. The bloody wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s where hardly some sort of anomaly. Communist governments preferred to keep a lid on ethnic conflicts rather than providing a solution to them.

NATO membership for these countries created a sense of security that lessened any perceived need for territorial expansion. It was also wisely conditioned on reforms that consolidated a democratic transition. Had that not happened, Russia would have been content with supporting authoritarian “strongmen” that kept these countries underdeveloped and dependent on Moscow. These would likely play on nationalist grievances in order to sure up popular support. As we just saw with Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia certainly does not always have the incentive to prevent a hot war. Especially not if Putin thinks it might reverse a move towards more genuine democracy in a client state. Of course, NATO is no silver bullet against authoritarianism but as many issues as one can have with the current governments of say, Hungary or Poland, they certainly pose no threat to the territorial integrity of their neighbors.

Europe is far better off without having several “Nagorno-Karabakhs” all over the eastern half of the continent. So is the U.S. if we are serious about a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” The opponents of NATO expansion fail to grasp that Russia sees security as a zero sum game – a strong Russia requires neighbors that are perpetually weak. Such an order was simply incomparable with the goals of the peoples of Eastern Europe once they achieved freedom. Nor would it have been beneficial for American interests. Rather than laying the ground for a future conflict with Russia, NATO expansion helped Europe dodge a bullet.