Russia’s Mystery Naval Base In Abkhazia Sends Shockwaves; Georgia Says No Secret Talks With Moscow

The construction of a Russian naval base in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia on the Black Sea adds another dimension to the tense situation in the water body amid the Russia-Ukraine war.

With frequent clashes between Ukrainian drones, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) warships, and missile strikes on the naval base in Sevastopol, the base in Ochamchire becomes a flashpoint in the Great Power rivalry playing out in the Caucasus. 

Abkhazia is an internationally recognized territory of Georgia but has been under the control of Russia-aligned separatist forces since the 1990s. Russia and Georgia also fought a war in 2008 when Tbilisi clashed with another separatist region of South Ossetia, leading to a Russian intervention. A year later, in 2009, Russia announced its plans for the Ochamchire base. 

The emergence of the Ochamchire base – seen in satellite images showing sand dredging – revolves around two elements in regional geopolitics. First are the Georgian fears of the facility being used to strike Ukraine, which would make it a legitimate target for counterattacks. 

Another is the belief that it is the first step in a counter to the Western-backed Anaklia Project – part of the so-called Middle Corridor – to deliver cargo between Asia and Europe.

The route avoids the overland route from Russia, with the World Bank estimating it could halve travel times and triple trade volumes by 2030. The Kremlin has long opposed it as a US project, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claiming that US Navy submarines would be able to dock there.

Georgian Politicians Up In Arms 

A BBC report quoted Georgian political figures who expressed outrage at violating their “sovereignty” yet suggested that they do not perceive it as an “immediate threat.” The report said the deal was signed between the separatist Abkhazia administration and the Russian government in September this year. 

Satellite pictures showing the progress in building infrastructure at Ochamchire. Source: Planet Labs/X (formerly Twitter)

The matter came to light in early November when 50 Georgian Members of Parliament (MP) addressed the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “calling for a unified stance against Russia.”

The Kremlin’s plans “raised fears that the base can drag” Georgia – which has long been hoping to join the EU – into Russia’s war in Ukraine and “harm Tibilsi’s plans for a port on the Black Sea.” 

“We unanimously and firmly condemn Russia’s occupation, militarization, and other actions aimed at annexation of the occupied regions of Georgia, a new expression of which is the opening of a permanent Russian naval base in Ochamchire port,” read the MPs’ statement.

‘No Immediate Threat’

Weeks earlier, Abkhazia’s de facto leader, Aslan Bzhania, had confirmed an agreement had been signed with the Kremlin on a permanent naval base at Ochamchire. While Georgia’s foreign ministry condemned Russia’s plan as “a gross violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia,” Tbilisi’s diplomatic and security officials do not perceive it as an “imminent threat.”

“Even if they start constructing the base in Ochamchire, it will take them at least three years. We are concentrating on imminent threats and not on threats that might come in the future.

“We do not observe any moves to start construction in Ochamchire,” Nikoloz Samkharadze, the head of Georgia’s Foreign Relations Committee, was quoted by BBC. The base is a further 500 kilometers further south of Novorossiysk, along the Black Sea coast.

No Secret Talks

Georgia is not holding secret negotiations with Moscow, Georgian Vice Prime Minister Levan Davitashvili said.

“As for our participation in the Belt and Road Forum, it is an initiative in which many EU countries are members, along with Georgia. Georgia has been physically participating in this forum since the day it was founded, and Russia has almost always participated as well. If someone wants to imagine that the Georgian authorities today are harming the interests of the country in any way and are conducting some kind of secret dialogue [with Russia], as has been falsely spread in society, I can say unequivocally and directly – this is not the case,” Davitashvili said, speaking at parliament.

What Are Russia’s Intentions?

Georgia was granted an EU “candidate status” within two days of releasing the satellite photographs. It is unclear if Russia’s intentions behind setting up such a base are more geo-economic and commercial or military.

Given Russia’s violent response to Ukraine being considered for NATO membership, which led to the war, it has established a sufficient deterrence to prevent NATO from expanding further eastwards. 

Talks of Georgia to be allowed to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP), as the US and Poland announced during NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, are nowhere on the horizon. But the leader of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, was quoted saying the location will host a “permanent point of deployment for Russia” on the Black Sea coast.

“(The Ochamchire base) would boost the defense capacity of Russia and Abkhazia and safeguard the fundamental interests. Security is above all,” he told Izvestia. 

File Image: Admiral-Panteleyev

Abkhazia fought a war of secession with Georgia from 1992-93 and declared independence in 1999, but has little international recognition. Since the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, Moscow has recognized it as an independent state, but Georgia officially maintains that Russia illegally occupies Abkhazia. 

After the Ukrainian strike on the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) headquarters with Storm Shadow missiles, Russia shifted the BSF HQ to Novorossiysk to prevent Ukraine from striking internationally recognized Russian territory.

Russia knew conducting operations in the Black Sea from the Ochamchire base would draw Abkhazia into the war. But neither does it need to, given that its facility at Novorossiysk and the BSF is intact. 

Thus, an intention could deter the anti-Russian political figures within Georgia, which Russia perceives as being provoked by the West into opposing the normalization of ties with Abkhazia and Russia. 

For instance, on October 9, the ruling Dream Party of Georgia, which also has a majority in the Parliament, refused to vote in a resolution tabled by the opposition against the Ochamchire base.

First Deputy Speaker of the Georgian Parliament Georgiy Volsky was quoted in Radio Sputnik, “Not only will we not support such a resolution, but it should not be discussed at all.” He called the initiative a “provocative squeak.”