Russia to Build a Naval Base in Abkhazia: A Security Threat to the Caucasus
Author: Haley Nelson
Oct 6, 2023
Russia has reportedly signed an agreement with the so-called Republic of Abkhazia to build a permanent naval base in the Russian-occupied region of Georgia.
On October 5, following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and another meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, de facto President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, told Russian newspaper Izvestiya that an agreement had been signed with Russia, and “in the future, there will be a permanent base for the Russian navy fleet in the Ochamchira district.”
“All this is aimed at increasing the level of defense capability of both Russia and Abkhazia, and this kind of cooperation will continue, because it ensures the fundamental interests of both Abkhazia and Russia, and security is above all,” said de facto President Aslan Bzhania.
Although the Kremlin has yet to confirm the claims, this announcement follows the retreat of Russian naval fleets away from occupied Crimea. On October 4, the Institute for the Study of War released satellite images showing that “The Russian military recently transferred several Black Sea Fleet (BSF) vessels” from the Crimean port of Sevastopol to Russia’s Novorossiysk port, “likely in an effort to protect them from continued Ukrainian strikes on Russian assets.”
An estimated 17 Russian naval vessels have relocated from Sevastopol, moving closer towards the Black Sea’s Eastern shores.
Ukrainian military officials have also confirmed a partial Russian retreat from Sevastopol. “There is a process under way . . . they are taking measures to partially transfer the fleet and infrastructure, but not completely,” said Andriy Yusov, an officer in Ukraine’s military intelligence services.
After Russia witnessed a series of missile attacks from Ukrainian forces on its Black Sea naval fleets, its retreat towards the Eastern Black Sea coast suggests that the Russian military can be contained. Ukraine’s successful missile strikes on Russian naval fleets have made Crimea an unwelcoming zone for Russia to operate. And now, the Kremlin is considering a permanent move East, farther from the regions it occupies in Ukraine. This signals that Russia worries it may lack the strength to continue pushing Westward in Ukraine, or it may suggest that Russia is preparing to divert forces away from Ukraine to its occupied region in Georgia.
Abkhazia, which lies in the Northwestern corner of Georgia, next to the Black Sea, has long been an area of contention between Georgia and Russia. With Russia’s backing, Abkhazia fought a war of secession with Georgia from 1992-93, declaring its independence in 1999, although unrecognized by the international community. In August 2008, Russian forces invaded Georgia, and within days, Russia illegally occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia, formally recognizing the two regions as independent states. Parallel to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin blamed then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for provoking Vladimir Putin with his pro-Western stance. Now, 20% of Georgian territory is occupied by Russian forces, where Russian troops still remain. Georgia views Abkhazia as an illegally occupied territory and part of the Public of Georgia. Russia views Abkhazia as an independent state.
Russia already possesses permanent military bases stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; The Russian 4th Military Base in South Ossetia, operated by 4,500 conscripts and contractors; and the Russian 7th Military Base in Abkhazia. The inland base in South Ossetia is mainly used to store armament and conduct radio surveillance, while the military base in Abkhazia features motorized rifle and tank battalions, S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, and an aviation command. Satellite images show that existing port infrastructure in Abkhazia is limited and underdeveloped, currently unsuitable for Russian naval vessels. Although the sandy coastline does not have the capacity for a primary base for the Russian Black Sea fleet, Russia is indicating that it will expand the Ochamchire port’s naval infrastructure to serve as a subsidiary base in the future.
A permanent Russian naval base in Abkhazia could transform the region into an additional front, or a maneuverable reserve, for Russia’s offensive against Ukraine, potentially dragging the conflict down into Georgia. Not only would an Abkhazian naval base provide Russia with the opportunity to launch attacks from Georgia’s coastline, but it also increases Georgia’s risk of becoming a target for anti-Russia attacks.
While Georgian analysts fear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, if successful, could produce a domino effect in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia’s naval buildup on Georgia’s Abkhazian coast is ringing alarm bells.
"We express concern over the statement of Russia's occupation regime in Sukhumi regarding the establishment of an additional Russian military base on Georgia's occupied territory," Georgia's Foreign Ministry said. The Ministry described Russia’s move as a "flagrant violation of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity and another provocative attempt to legitimize the illegal occupation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia ".
While it was speculated that Ukraine would distract Russia from its other military operations, the potential construction of a port within Abkhazia shows that the Kremlin is not abandoning its other seized territories. The Kremlin will continue to use its occupied territories. Not only this, but the permanent status of this naval base is revealing that Russia does not see a near end to its invasion of Ukraine.