Hitting the Pause Button: The 'Frozen Conflict' Dilemma in Ukraine


Nov 7, 2014

A destroyed T-72 tank, which presumably came from Russia, is seen on a battlefield near separatist-controlled Starobesheve in eastern Ukraine October 2014

A destroyed T-72 tank, which presumably came from Russia, is seen on a battlefield near separatist-controlled Starobesheve in eastern Ukraine October 2014

Photo by Maria Tsvetkova/Reuters

By Denis Corboy, William Courtney, Kenneth Yalowitz

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on November 6, 2014.

For some time, Ukraine is likely to host frozen conflicts, in Crimea and the Donbas region. Elections last Sunday in the Russian-armed, rebel-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine reinforced this. Moscow said the vote reflected the "will of the people," but the European Union called the elections "illegal and illegitimate." Ukraine will face difficult realities and painful choices in managing its conflicts. Georgia's experience with frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia offers lessons for Ukraine.

“Frozen conflicts” describe places where fighting took place and has come to an end, yet no overall political solution, such as a peace treaty, has been reached.

There are key differences between the Georgian and Ukrainian conflicts. First, in the Georgian ones, both sides played a role in provoking fighting. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russian forces supported separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia in part to stem Georgian armed efforts to subdue the two regions. In 2008, Georgians used force precipitately in South Ossetia after Russia's provocation. In contrast, Russia's seizures of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were unprovoked by Ukrainian military action.

Second, in its 2008 invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia incurred Western criticism, but no lasting ill effects. In contrast, its seizure of territory in Ukraine, breaking explicit international commitments, has led to tough Western sanctions. They are exacerbating capital flight from Russia, an economic downturn and international isolation. These effects may not be alleviated anytime soon.

Third, Russia justified its 2008 intervention in specific terms: preventing Georgia from committing alleged genocide in the separatist regions and avenging the deaths of Russian peacekeepers. Moscow depicts its actions in Ukraine, however, as serving a broader goal, to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers abroad wherever they may be endangered. Buttressing this strategy, Russia is waging a nationalistic propaganda campaign alleging that the United States and the West seek to overthrow governments through rightist-led color revolutions.

The remainder of this commentary is available on nationalinterest.org.

Denis Corboy, visiting senior research fellow at King's College London, was European Union ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. William Courtney, adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, was U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Kenneth Yalowitz, a Wilson Center Global Fellow, was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.