Frozen Conflicts

By: My Nguyen

What are Frozen Conflicts?

Frozen conflicts are generally defined as a war in 'stasis' - whereby, formalized combat is halted, but the underlying causes of the conflict still exist without a permanent peace treaty or agreed upon political framework towards reconciliation.

The term has been commonly used for post-Soviet conflicts, but has also been applied to territorial disputes in other parts of the world.

The term "frozen conflict" gained no definite meaning and was not heard before the end of the Cold War in state practice. After the end of the Cold War, the expression began to be heard occasionally among diplomats and foreign policy makers.

Unrecognized Countries

Frozen conflicts within the post-Soviet space, but not limited to, have resulted in the creation of de facto states or unrecognized countries.

De facto states “refer to polities that exist within the boundaries of recognized, de jure (i.e. by law) states.” They refer specifically to state entities that meet international guidelines to be state, yet have failed to receive international recognition.

The post-Soviet unrecognized countries, namely; Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, fulfill all but the last obligation set forth in the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States of 1933.

The only difference between these polities and a lawful state lies in the non-recognition. Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh— and South Ossetia and Abkhazia before 2008— are the core examples of frozen conflicts, and, from these examples, the distinguishing characteristics of frozen conflicts as a category may be identified.

Characteristics of Frozen Conflicts

Frozen conflicts share certain characteristics:

  1. armed hostilities have taken place, parties to which include a State and separatists in the State’s territory.

  2. a change in effective control of territory has resulted from the armed hostilities.

  3. the State and the separatists are divided by lines of separation that have effective stability.

  4. adopted instruments have given the lines of separation (qualified) juridical stability.

  5. the separatists make a self-determination claim on which they base a putative State;

  6. no State recognizes the putative State.

  7. a settlement process involving outside parties has been sporadic and inconclusive.

Number six, which pertains to no recognition whatsoever, has been debated since the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia and a few other countries. Although they have in-fact been partially recognized, have their situation as a frozen conflict changed?


As all four conflicts emerged in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise, three share Russia as the key exogenous actor, and these conflicts (Moldova/Transnistria, Georgia/Abkhazia and Georgia/South Ossetia) can attribute much, if not all, of their frozen status to the Russian government’s perception of its interests.

The Transnistria War was an armed conflict that broke out in November 1990 in Dubăsari, between pro-Transnistria forces, including the Transnistrian Republican Guard, militia and Cossack units (which were supported by elements of the Russian 14th Army), and pro-Moldovan forces, including Moldovan troops and police.

Fighting intensified on 1 March 1992, and alternating with ad hoc ceasefires, lasted throughout the spring and early summer of 1992 until a ceasefire was declared on July 21st 1992 - which has held until the writing of this article.

The conflict however, has remained unresolved. In 2011 talks were held under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with Lithuania holding the rotating chairmanship.

Despite the US and EU presence however, Russia continues to play a predominant role in the conflict. This can be seen in the aftermath of the talks that began between the leaders of Transnistria and Moldova in 2008.

After discussions with Moscow, the Moldovan President, Vladimir Voronin, abandoned his government’s package that was to guide the talks process; instead, he endorsed an accord which allows Russian troops to remain in Transnistria during a talks process, and also allows for their permanent presence as post-settlement guarantors.

The accord also establishes equivalent negotiating statuses for both Moldova and Transnistria. Although this volte-face can be partially attributed to a negotiating foul up, Voronin also acceded to Russia’s requests because he calculated that praise from Moscow would benefit his party, the Communist party, in the forthcoming Moldovan elections in April 2009.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia

A similar pattern can be observed in the Abkhaz–Georgian conflict, which involves ethnic conflict between Georgians and the Abkhaz people in Abkhazia, a de facto independent, partially recognized republic.

In a broader sense, one can view the Georgian–Abkhaz conflict as part of a geopolitical conflict in the Caucasus region, intensified at the end of the 20th century with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Georgia’s breakaway republics in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, fearing the consequences of Georgian nationalism’s recrudescence during the Soviet Union’s dissolution, both regions fought wars of independence in the early 1990s that resulted in their de facto independence.

Both South Ossetians and Abkhazians are ethnic minorities who have sought and received Russia’s patronage; although both groups were ethnic minorities, South Ossetians seek unification with the Russian republic of North Ossetia, whereas Abkhazians seek an independent state.

Russian forces provided troops and military assistance during their respective conflicts, and Russian troops have also served in peacekeeping missions in both regions.

Like Transnistria, many of the two regions’ security functions are ‘outsourced’ to Russia, and the Russian government has considerable influence over South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s governments, with many leaders of both regions coming directly from Moscow.

Russia is also the main trading partner for both of these unrecognized countries, but also a large trading parter of Georgia.

Therefore, just as in Transnistria and Moldova, the Russian government supports both Abkhazia and South Ossetia through trade, subsidies and by channeling investment to them, and it punishes Georgia by banning its exports and increasing its gas.

As the above discussion has demonstrated, Russia is the key external player in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Until recently, Russia’s centrality to both conflicts translated into support for the political status quo.

Russian preference for maintenance of the status quo could be attributed to several factors: a foreign policy that was more concerned with facilitating domestic development; a relatively weaker Russian state; and fear that overtly supporting the three secessionist entities would create a dangerous precedent vis-à-vis Chechnya and other potential breakaway regions in Russia.

In addition, that such over support could anger Russia’s ally Serbia, which did not, and does not, recognize the de facto, now de jure, independence of Kosovo (ibid: 3).

With economic growth and a strong, if not necessarily plural, state, the Russian government has become more concerned with projecting its power internationally.

Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh)

Nagorno-Karabakh, officially the Republic of Artsakh, is an unrecognized country internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. It is a de facto independent state with an Armenian ethnic majority established on the basis of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

Azerbaijan has not exercised political authority over the region since the advent of the Karabakh movement in 1988.

Since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, representatives of the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been holding peace talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group on the region's disputed status.

Like the aforementioned conflicts, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute arose in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh was part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, with a mixed Azeri - Armenian populations - though the majority was Armenian.

Ethnic tensions were compounded by religious differences – Azeris are largely Muslim, whereas Armenians are largely Orthodox – and conflict in the region escalated with Armenia and Azerbaijan’s declarations of independence.

After its parliament voted to unify with Armenia in 1989, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from both Azerbaijan and Armenia 1991, and a brutal war began shortly thereafter.

The war lasted until a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh has retained its de facto independence since then, and its economic and geo-strategic significance – in addition to Armenia and Azerbaijan, the relevant regional actors are Russia, Turkey, Georgia and Iran, and the EU and the US are also interested in the region – has largely stymied a settlement in the region.

In 2005, the OSCE’s Minsk Group, comprised of Russia, France and the US, proposed the following framework for a settlement: renunciation of the use of force and the right of return for displaced Azeris; Armenian withdrawal from parts of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno- Karabakh; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh, including peacekeepers; commitment to a vote on Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status after the return of displaced Azeris; and significant international aid (International Crisis Group, 2007).

Although skirmishes occurred over Nagorno-Karabakh in the aftermath of the 2008 Armenian elections, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement in Moscow in November 2008 which serves as a prelude to talks regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, and the ongoing normalization talks between Armenia and Turkey offer some hope for Nagorno-Karabakh.


On its surface, Crimea bears many similarities to others in the post-Soviet space. Each emerged after a shared history of centuries of Ottoman rule followed by over two centuries under Russian imperial and communist control, resulting in serious internal ethnic and cultural issues.

In Crimea, the problems preceding the 2014 conflict had been festering for some time. However, the situation as a whole does not fit neatly into the paradigm of the other frozen conflicts discussed in this thesis.

The dispute started after the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, contrary to Ukrainian law, held a referendum on rejoining Russia and then, when the results showed overwhelming support for the proposal, unilaterally declared their independence from Ukraine as a single united state under the name of Republic of Crimea.

These two entities (Crimea and Sevastopol) were then annexed by Russia, where the Crimean Autonomous Republic became the "Republic of Crimea" as a Russian republic and Sevastopol became a Russian federal city.

However, Ukraine and the majority of the international community do not consider the merge, the independence, the referendum, nor the annexation legitimate and still consider both entities as parts of Ukraine.

Despite international opinion however, the currency, tax and legal system are all operational under de facto Russian control. Ukraine has applied for multiple litigations through international crime, water resources, European Union and other courts.

Political Holidays offers guided tours to Unrecognized Countries, Turkmenistan and other unique destinations that aren't even on the map!


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Grant, Thomas D. (2017) "Frozen Conflicts and International Law," Cornell International Law Journal: Vol. 50 : No. 3 , Article 1.

Joerg Forbrig. (2014). “Will Ukraine's Crimea region be Europe's next 'frozen' conflict?”. CNN.

Michael S. Bobick. (2014). “Separatism Redux: Crimea, Transnistria, and Eurasia’s De Facto States,” Anthropology Today.

Near Abroad" (2016). MSU Graduate Theses. 3039.

Rusif Huseynov. (2015). “Ukraine: Towards a frozen future?”. The Politicon.

#UnrecognizedCountries #FrozenConflicts #DeFactoStates

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