Modern Authoritarianism: Frozen Conflicts | Freedom House

Chapter 7: Frozen Conflicts

Bullying the Neighbors: Frozen Conflicts, the Near Abroad, and Other Innovations

Certainly within the next four to five years [Russia] will have the ability to conduct operations in eastern Ukraine and pressure the Baltics and pressure Georgia and do other things, without having to do a full mobilization.

– U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges

Vladimir Putin’s publicists have used the phrase “sovereign democracy” to describe the political system that evolved in Russia under his leadership.1 In practice, however, Putin’s regime respects neither democracy nor sovereignty.

Sovereign democracy bears no more resemblance to the unmodified original than did previous variants: guided democracy, managed democracy, people’s democracy. Nor does sovereign democracy represent a genuine commitment to the notion of national sovereignty, as countries on the Russian periphery will attest. On repeated occasions, Putin has demonstrated a readiness to intervene in the affairs of nearby countries by fomenting ethnic discontent, undermining the economy, or grabbing territory.

Putin has in effect set down a doctrine of limited sovereignty for Russia’s neighbors, especially those that were part of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin’s tactics are meant to keep these countries fearful and off balance. The instruments of choice range from the nonviolent, such as destabilizing propaganda and economic pressure, to the lethally aggressive, such as proxy insurgencies and outright invasion.

The following are the main techniques employed by the Kremlin to influence the actions of its neighbors:

  1. Civil society and ‘traditional values’: The Kremlin has funded and encouraged pro-Russian civil society organizations in neighboring states to build influence among local populations and promote its policies and interests. The Russian government has also exploited its partnership with the Orthodox Church to present itself as a champion of “traditional values,” and to portray opponents—including human rights activists and European democracies—as purveyors of hedonism and immorality.2
  2. Propaganda offensives: The Kremlin has made powerful use of Russian-language media, especially state-controlled television stations, to spread disinformation and foment discontent among ethnic Russians in the Baltics, Ukraine, Moldova, and elsewhere.
  3. The energy weapon: At various times during Putin’s tenure, Russia has sought to use its oil and natural gas exports as a means of disciplining Ukraine and other neighbors. It has raised and lowered prices for political reasons, abruptly halted deliveries in the dead of winter, and manipulated pipeline routes and investments to drive a wedge between Germany and other European powers on one side and the Baltic states and Ukraine on the other.
  4. The trade weapon: Russia has invoked dubious health concerns and other pretexts to block the import of products from countries whose governments displease Putin, including Georgia, Moldova, and Poland, as well as the European Union (EU) as a bloc.3
  5. Cyberwarfare: Russian-backed hackers are widely believed responsible for a powerful 2007 cyberattack on government websites in Estonia in the wake of a controversy over the removal of a war memorial. Other countries in the region have since suffered similar attacks, particularly Ukraine following the 2014 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas.
  6. Military threats: In the wake of the Ukraine invasion and subsequent sanctions, the Russian military launched a series of military exercises on its borders with the Baltic states and intensified more distant patrols that tested the readiness of a number of European navies and air forces.
  7. Military invasions: Russian forces poured into Georgia through its two breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, during a brief conflict in 2008. In 2014, Russian troops occupied Crimea, oversaw a stage-managed referendum on annexation there, and unofficially entered eastern Ukraine en masse to support a supposedly indigenous rebellion by ethnic Russian separatists.
  8. Frozen conflicts: The term “frozen conflict” indicates a condition in which active fighting has ended or subsided but there is no peace agreement beyond a tenuous cease-fire. Under Putin, Russia has perpetuated or created frozen conflicts that affect Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. In each case, the Kremlin retains for itself the capacity to subdue or escalate tensions as needed to maximize its political influence over the relevant country.

Moscow applies these tactics according to its objectives for a particular country or region. For nearby EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, the goal is to remind local political leaders that Russia can play a disruptive role, and to inject a measure of fear into foreign policy calculations. While the Kremlin holds out the possibility of military invasion as an option, its preference thus far has been to promote instability and uncertainty.

Russia’s message is meant both for the target country and for its more distant allies. The target country is effectively warned that challenging Russian interests could provoke serious reprisals. For allies like the United States, Britain, or Germany, the message is that solidarity with the target country could entail a heavy cost, including the possibility of a shooting war in which they are obliged to defend small NATO member states like Estonia and Latvia.

The ‘Russian world’

A favorite theme of Kremlin propaganda is the so-called Russian world, a cultural or civilizational space that extends beyond Russia’s political borders. This deliberately flexible and nebulous concept suggests that Russia claims the right to intervene wherever its perceived brethren—ethnic Russians, other Russian speakers, Orthodox Christians—are under threat.

Putin has spoken of one million Russians cut adrift by the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has said it is his obligation to protect these people, and he has tried to appeal to them through culture, history, and the media. His press spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, has said that “Russia is the country that underlies the Russian world, and the president of that country is Putin; Putin precisely is the main guarantor of the security of the Russian world.”4

In 2014, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin dredged up the tsarist-era term Novorossiya to describe a large swath of southeastern Ukraine that he hinted might be annexed. Suddenly, the Novorossiya idea began appearing in Russian media, complete with maps, while Russian-backed separatists moved to write the “history” of the region into textbooks. 5 Eventually Putin dropped Novorossiya from his speeches, having successfully stoked fears that the Ukraine conflict could widen beyond Crimea and the Donbas. The international community was then apparently meant to feel grateful that Russian forces did not press their attack any further.

In practice, Putin has invoked the idea of a greater Russian world to intimidate only countries that have embraced democracy and seek closer ties to the EU and NATO. He has shown little interest in ethnic Russians and other residents in Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, even though they suffer under political conditions that Freedom House ranks as among the least free in the world.6

The case of Estonia

Throughout its history, Estonia has been fought over by Russia and European powers to the west. During World War II, it was occupied by the Red Army and forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union. Its elites and intellectuals were murdered or deported to the Soviet gulag, and the Estonian people endured over four decades of Sovietization and Russification, including a policy of encouraging Russian speakers to relocate to Estonia.

The country regained its independence in 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. From early on, relations between the ethnic Estonian majority and the sizeable ethnic Russian minority have been difficult. Estonia has adopted citizenship laws that require many ethnic Russians to pass an Estonian language test, and they complain of being treated as second-class citizens. In opinion surveys, however, Russian speakers show little enthusiasm for becoming citizens of Russia, and have indicated an appreciation for the access to Europe that citizenship in an EU country confers.7

There are an estimated 300,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia. Approximately three-quarters get their news through Russian television stations. On a daily basis, they are exposed to propagandistic programs in which the EU is demonized, NATO is treated as an aggressor, the democracies on Russia’s borders are presented as enemies, and the annexation of Crimea is hailed as a milestone in the rebuilding of a great Russian state.8

By exploiting the tensions that already exist between Estonia’s ethnic communities, the Kremlin has sought to turn a complex problem into something combustible. The tendency of Russian speakers and ethnic Estonians to live in parallel universes is exacerbated by Russian propaganda, which depicts the Estonian political leadership as hostile to Russians and as members of a cosmopolitan European elite that promotes sexual degeneracy and cultural radicalism. Moscow also tries to create distrust of the Baltic states among their NATO allies by depicting them as overly emotional, irresponsible, and intent on dragging other countries into a conflict with Russia.

There is no strong evidence that Russian speakers in Estonia are simply embracing the Russian explanation of things. Instead, they tend to reject both Russian and Estonian sources of information. This is in itself a victory of sorts for Russia, since the goal of external Russian propaganda is less to win people over to its way of thinking than to sow confusion and mistrust. Moscow’s interests are served so long as Estonian society remains divided. As a report on the integration of Russian speakers in Estonia concluded, “They [ethnic Estonians and Russian speakers] reside in separate information spaces and hold divergent perceptions and perspectives not just about each other, but also about the Estonian state and its history, its threat environment, and its national security policies. Since these two Estonias do not fully trust one another, when security developments put pressure on the country they tend to drift to opposing poles—especially if the factor of Russia is involved.”9

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

In their campaign to assert control over countries on Russia’s periphery, Kremlin officials have not hesitated to use traditional authoritarian methods, up to and including military invasion and the creation or support of proxy insurgents. But they have taken care to defend their efforts in terms meant to appeal to, or at least confuse, democratic audiences.

This is especially the case with propaganda broadcasts. While the Russian government has sought to prevent foreign news services like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from reaching the Russian people, it expects its own broadcasts to remain unhindered in neighboring democracies, which are committed to freedom of expression. Thus when Latvian authorities imposed a six-month ban on the Russian television channel Rossiya RTR for inciting ethnic hatred in April 2016, Russian officials called on international watchdog bodies to investigate the incident as a violation of media freedom.10

Something similar is at work in the nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector. Moscow has established or supported a series of charities, think tanks, and associations that promote Russian interests, claim to represent Russian minorities, and in some cases advance secessionist causes in the near abroad.11 The Russian government presumes that these organizations will be allowed to operate without restriction in democracies. Meanwhile, it compelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to close down its Russia operations in 2012, and has banned contact between Russian NGOs and foreign organizations that have been placed on its “undesirable” list.

Russia has also used the extensive distribution of passports to draw populations involved in frozen conflicts—or potentially involved in future conflicts—into its orbit, and to justify its meddling in neighboring states. Rather than conquering a foreign people, the Russian authorities convert foreign individuals into Russian citizens, then claim a right to defend them from what had been their own government. Up to 90 percent of those living in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia have Russian passports, which are accessible to anyone who still has Soviet documents or at least one ancestor who was a permanent resident of Russia, among other forms of eligibility.

Limited sovereignty, limited options

For Russia’s neighbors, the constant intimidation and interference from Moscow have significant consequences. Most importantly, normal political development becomes difficult, and sometimes impossible. The affected countries lack full sovereignty in the sense that they are not free to make fundamental decisions about their political systems, their trading partners, and whether to integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Their national identity and existence as states are regularly cast into doubt. Democratic reform often takes a back seat to security concerns, or to policy concessions aimed at maintaining good relations with Russia.

Prior to the saber rattling from the Kremlin, Estonia had an economy with one of Europe’s higher rates of growth and was among the vanguard in embracing e-government and other innovations associated with a modern open society. Since the invasion of Ukraine and the Russian military’s menacing gestures along its border, Estonia has ramped up defense spending and launched war games to increase preparedness. Indeed, all three Baltic countries announced major increases in military spending in 2016.

Conditions are even worse for states where Russia has instigated frozen conflicts. Russia maintains military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both on the territory of Georgia, and in Transnistria. These enclaves, as well as the occupied portions of Ukraine, are impoverished, heavily militarized, and marked by gangsterism and corruption.

Crimea is an instructive case for neighboring peoples who live under the threat of Russian military intervention. Residents of the peninsula enjoyed a reasonable array of civil liberties under the Ukrainian government. Under Russian occupation, all that has changed. Moscow has sent Russian officials to run the region as de facto viceroys. Freedom of the press, which was relatively vigorous before 2014, has been extinguished, and independent voices have been arrested or forced into exile. Property rights are routinely ignored, and expropriation is used as a blunt instrument against those who oppose the new order.

The fate of the Crimean Tatars is especially tragic, given the group’s history of persecution and mass removal during Soviet times. Their leaders have been silenced or driven out of the region, their commemorations banned, and their media muzzled. By supporting a still-deadly frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Russian leadership has ensured that the attention of policymakers in the democracies will be focused on the fighting there, and not on the dreadful conditions in Crimea.12

Since its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has done its best to maximize the intimidating effect on other neighbors. It conducted war games in which 33,000 troops rehearsed the invasion of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark.13 The Russian navy has held multiple, large-scale exercises in the Black Sea to defy NATO, assert its control over Crimea, and threaten Georgia.14 Russian and Abkhaz separatist officials have announced what amounts to a merger of troops from the two sides under the command of a Russian officer.15 Russia’s military is developing the capacity to simultaneously carry out several operations on the scale of the Ukraine conflict—limited, rapid offensives involving elite troops, deception, and propaganda that would leave opponents fumbling for an appropriate response.16 The intervention in Syria has already demonstrated Russia’s ability to project force unexpectedly in a new theater while maintaining its existing engagements in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Russia’s renewed embrace of cross-border aggression has had wide repercussions in Central Europe, a region that had expected a secure alignment with the democratic world after the end of the Cold War. Poland, for example, had achieved something quite remarkable prior to 2014, given its history of domination by outside powers. It enjoyed friendly relations with Germany, one of its past occupiers, and stable ties with Russia, traditionally the other main threat to its sovereignty. After the annexation of Crimea, Poland’s leaders were forced to seriously contemplate the possibility of a Russian invasion, especially given Putin’s bellicose language about the speed with which his tanks could reach nearby capitals.17 As a result, Poland has embarked on a military buildup to maintain its hard-won independence and territorial integrity.18

But no single European country could ever match Russia’s present military might. If Poland, the Baltic states, and their allies fail to maintain solidarity based on shared democratic standards, it will not be long before their sovereignty erodes under pressure from the Kremlin.


1 Vladimir Frolov, “Rise and Fall of Surkov’s Sovereign Democracy,” Moscow Times, May 13, 2013,

2 Marlene Laruelle, The ‘Russian World’: Russia’s Soft Power and Geopolitical Imagination (Washington: Center on Global Interests, May 2015),

3 Denis Cenusa, Michael Emerson, Tamara Kovziridze, and Veronika Movchan, “Russia’s Punitive Trade Policy Measures towards Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia,” CEPS Working Document no. 400, September 2014,

4 Laruelle, The ‘Russian World.’

5 Peter Pomerantsev, “Russia and the Menace of Unreality,” Atlantic, September 9, 2014,

6 Freedom in the World 2016 (New York: Freedom House, 2016),

7 Jill Dougherty and Riina Kaljurand, Estonia’s ‘Virtual Russian World’: The Influence of Russian Media on Estonia’s Russian Speakers (Tallinn: International Centre for Defence and Security [RKK ICDS], October 2015),

8 Ibid.

9 Juhan Kivirähk, Integrating Estonia’s Russian-Speaking Population: Findings of National Defense Opinion Surveys (Tallinn: RKK ICDS, December 2014),

10 TASS, “Foreign Ministry Says Latvian Ban of Russian TV Channel Violates Freedom of Speech,” Meduza, April 8, 2016,

11 Laruelle, The ‘Russian World.’

12 Andrii Klymenko, Human Rights Abuses in Russian-Occupied Crimea (Washington: Atlantic Council and Freedom House, 2015),

13 David Blair, “Russian Forces ‘Practiced Invasion of Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden,’” Telegraph, June 26, 2015,

14 See for example “Russia Launches Large-Scale Naval Drill in Black Sea Same Day as NATO,” RT, July 4, 2014,

15 Luke Harding, “Georgia Angered by Russia-Abkhazia Military Agreement,” Guardian, November 24, 2014,

16 Adrian Croft, “Russia Could Soon Run Multiple Ukraine-Sized Operations: U.S. General,” Reuters, January 16, 2015,

17 Ian Traynor, “Putin Claims Russian Forces ‘Could Conquer Ukraine Capital in Two Weeks,’” Guardian, September 2, 2014,

18 Jeffrey Simpson, “Why Russia’s Neighbors Are Getting Nervous,” Globe and Mail, September 5, 2014,