A Rogue Fleet in the Black Sea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 227

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet operated with total impunity—political and legal, as well as military—against Georgia during the August war. Breaching the neutrality of Ukraine, where it is mainly based, and tearing apart international maritime law, the Russian fleet’s actions exploited the vacuum of Western power and international authority in the Black Sea. With the United States and NATO distracted elsewhere and complacent about Russia and the Turkish government seeking a special relationship with the Kremlin, the Russian fleet enjoyed a free hand to attack Georgia and to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty in the process.

The Russian Defense Ministry’s official newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda has published a lengthy narrative about one part of the naval operations against Georgia. This account suggests that in late July the Russian fleet was already rehearsing the operation against Georgia that was to follow in August (just as Russian forces in the North Caucasus practiced a ground operation against Georgia) in late July and up to August 2.

According to this partial account, a naval group including the large landing ships Tsezar Kunikov, Saratov, and Yamal, as well as four smaller combat ships, most of them based in Sevastopol, took part in the combined-arms exercise Caucasus-2008. These ships and their personnel practiced “landing by assault troops on an unfortified shoreline” on Russia’s Black Sea coast, after which they did not return to Sevastopol but anchored in Novorossiysk from July 25 onward, awaiting further orders.

These ships launched the naval operation on August 8, landed naval infantry near Sokhumi, crossed what Russia calls the “Abkhaz-Georgian maritime border” (that is, deep inside Georgia’s internationally recognized territorial waters) on August 9, issued an attack warning against any vessel within a 35-mile radius, and sank (or so the narrative implies) two Georgian coastguard cutters on the high sea. The Russian naval group then proceeded to “screen” Georgia’s Poti harbor, where Russian troops sank the remaining Georgian coastguard cutters at their piers in the harbor (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 29, via BBC Monitoring Global Newsline, November 24).

As an outcome of this war, Russia has substantially expanded its de facto shoreline, territorial waters, and economic zone in the Black Sea by absorbing Abkhazia. This expansion has no legal basis; but Russia is enforcing it in practice, and no one will challenge it in the foreseeable future.

The Russian fleet can police this expanded area by operating out of Novorossiysk on the Russian coast and, soon, out of Abkhazia. The Russians plan to create a naval or coastguard station in Sokhumi and have begun rebuilding the naval base at Ochamchire in the southern part of Abkhazia. In Soviet times Ochamchire was used as a submarine base at one stage and for the coastguard at another time. Abandoned in the early 1990s, the base is now being repossessed by the Russians as a valuable asset due to its location inside a bay.

At the moment, Russian divers and other naval specialists are busy measuring the depth and other characteristics of the Ochamchire base, preparatory to defining its role for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet or the coastguard. When reactivated, probably starting in 2009, the Ochamchire base will operate in close coordination with three other Russian military installations in Abkhazia: the Gudauta land and air base (which the Russians are now refurbishing), the FSB border troops in the Gali district (created in October to face the rest of Georgia), and the planned naval station in Sokhumi. Under the Russian Navy’s modernization program, sixteen new ships are said to be planned for delivery to the Black Sea Fleet by 2015 (RIA Novosti, November 21; Messenger, November 24).

Inasmuch as the new ships will take up berthing space at Novorossiysk, Ochamchire, and Sokhumi, this will undoubtedly become an excuse for Russian foot-dragging on withdrawing the fleet from Sevastopol, where the lease from Ukraine will expire in 2017. Given that fleet’s size, the relocation from Sevastopol to Russian Black Sea ports would probably have to commence by 2010 in order to be completed on schedule. Moscow, however, takes the position that talks with Ukraine on withdrawing the fleet can be held when the 2017 deadline draws near. This would practically ensure the Russian fleet’s stay in Ukraine past the deadline, with or without Ukrainian consent to prolong the basing agreement (see EDM, October 23).