Russia has been planning to establish a permanent naval base in the Ochamchire district of occupied Abkhazia for quite some time. On October 4, the leader of the separatist regime in Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, reaffirmed that agreement when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi (Kremlin.ru, October 4). The planned base became more widely known after Bzhania spoke of it in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia, in which he also declared that the “foreign policy [of Abkahzia] will be coordinated with the foreign policy of the Russian Federation” (Iz.ru, October 4).
Moscow hopes to achieve three primary goals with the proposed naval base. First, it wants to demonstrate that it is not leaving the South Caucasus anytime soon. Second, the Kremlin seeks to retain its dominant position in the Black Sea. Third, the agreement sends a message of calm to the puppet regime in Abkhazia, which has become extremely worried about Russia’s weakening position in the region against the backdrop of mounting military failures in Ukraine and the recent military operation in Karabakh (see EDM, September 19).
The original agreement for the base was received rather negatively in Georgia. In recent years, the Georgian Dream government has been pursuing a more pro-Russian course. It has explained such policies based on the desire for lasting peace and the issue of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Russia’s latest steps, nevertheless, demonstrate that the Kremlin does not intend to make any concessions to Tbilisi. The more the Georgian government concedes, the more Moscow seems to demand from it.
The proposed naval base puts the Georgian ruling elite in an awkward position. Many Georgian Dream officials have propagated claims that the West wants to drag Georgia into the war in Ukraine. Now, it turns out that Russia may in fact trigger that reality. If a Russian military base opens in Abkhazia, it could become a legitimate target for Ukrainian forces.
The decision to build the Russian base coincided with the news that Moscow began to withdraw its Black Sea Fleet from Crimea (The Moscow Times, October 5). Russian vessels have been under constant attack from Ukraine’s long-range strikes and growing fleet of drones. As a result, some foreign observer began to suggest that Russia needed a new naval base in Abkhazia to station a part of the Black Sea Fleet. The political opposition in Georgia warned that Russia might begin launching missile attacks on Ukrainian targets from Abkhazia (Georgian territory), which would draw Georgia into the war. (Facebook.com/LeloForGeorgia, October 5).
The port at Ochamchira was established in Soviet times, and its expansion has been discussed for many years. Currently, it is estimated that up to four Russian patrol boats are already stationed there (TASS, October 5). The port’s existing infrastructure cannot accommodate larger vessels, let alone an entire fleet. Thus, the project aims to expand the port. The proposed location of the expanded base lies just 35 kilometers from the administrative border of occupied Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.
If Moscow goes ahead with the new base, the project’s locale could doom it from the beginning. On the one hand, it creates an additional threat to Georgia’s national security. On the other hand, the facility’s close proximity to Georgian territory may contain risks for the base itself, as it will be within reach of ground force rockets. It is entirely possible that Russia may deem the situation too dangerous and not risk investing huge resources in the construction of such a large-scale base.
The agreement between Moscow and the separatist regime in Abkhazia points to the fact that the Georgian Dream government’s policy of warming relations with the Kremlin is failing. Georgian officials generally avoid criticizing the Kremlin, but the decision on the new naval base forced them to make a formal statement. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili called the agreement “an illegal decision and a continuation of Russia’s occupation” of Georgia (Radiotavisupleba.ge, October 5). The Georgian Foreign Ministry decried the plans “to include Abkhazia in the integration processes initiated by Russia” and called for Moscow to “stop its illegal occupation of the indivisible regions of Georgia”(Mfa.gov.ge, October 5). However, the government did not accept the opposition’s parliamentary resolution contesting construction of the base.
Before mention of the naval base, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with the leaders of the puppet regimes of Abkhazia and so-called “South Ossetia.” Lavrov promoted two main areas of cooperation that fundamentally threaten Georgia’s national interests. First, he promised to expand the circle of countries that recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as autonomous entities (Ekhokavkaza.com, October 3). Second, Lavrov and the puppet regimes agreed to deepen both regions’ integration into a single state entity with Russia and Belarus.
This meeting likely served as a consoling gesture to those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the collapse of the separatist regime in Karabakh. The separatist regime in Karabakh and that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia imitated quasi-interstate cooperation for many years (YouTube, March 5, 2010). Desperate reactions from the authorities of these unrecognized entities have become more frequent following the dissolution of the armed separatists in Karabakh (YouTube, September 26). The Georgian breakaway regions realize that the geopolitical alignment in the region is not changing in Russia’s favor. At same time, Bzhania also pointed out that “American reconnaissance aircraft violate the airspace” of the self-proclaimed republic and sees “the interests of the Armed Forces of the United States and, to some extent, Georgia” in these provocations (Iz.ru, October 4).
Lavrov’s meeting with the leaders of the puppet regimes was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia (which was carried out by the Abkhazians with the support of Russia in the 1990s). On September 30, the Abkhazians held a military parade to celebrate the massacre of Georgians (YouTube, September 30). The same day, despite the increased risks to national security, the Georgian government introduced a new draft military budget that conveyed a more pacifist agenda. A large share of the budget will be spent on the salaries and social benefits for military personnel rather than on developing new technologies and purchasing weapons (Interpressnews.ge, September 30).
Moscow’s latest steps, aimed at strengthening its position in the region, increasingly look inconsistent and chaotic. Simultaneously supporting separatist regimes and hoping for the strengthening of pro-Russian sentiments in Georgia seems illogical. The more the Kremlin uses the occupied regions against Tbilisi, the less chance it will have of keeping the pro-Russian Georgian Dream party in power.