Geopolitical chess: Russia’s naval base in Ochamchire raises stakes in Black Sea

Russia’s plan to establish a permanent naval base in Ochamchire is reshaping the geopolitical landscape in the Black Sea. As tensions rise, Georgia and U.S. allies face strategic challenges that could impact regional dynamics and global security.

In October, the global discourse surrounding the Russia-Ukraine War predominantly portrayed the conflict as a singular theatre proxy war between the West and Russian imperial ambitions. Quietly, the naval dimension of the conflict extended into a new geographical area.

In response to Ukrainian naval advancements, Russia declared its intentions to establish a permanent naval base in Ochamchire, Abkhazia—a region along the Black Sea encompassing a significant portion of Georgia’s northwestern territory. Despite the Russian military’s longstanding presence and troop deployment in Abkhazia, this move marked a notable and direct implication of Georgia and its occupied territories in the ongoing Ukrainian invasion.

Considering the constant threat posed by Russia to Georgia’s expressed aim of Euro-Atlantic integration and the increasing significance of the Black Sea in Russia’s offensive military operations, the assertive action necessitates adjustments to the West’s strategy in the Black Sea region. Although the establishment of a Russian base in Ochamchire would impose significant challenges on Western interests in the region, the proposal might have opened a potential opportunity within the intricate Russo-Georgian bilateral dynamics.

EVENTS LEADING UP TO THIS

The agreement concerning Ochamchire directly aligns with Russia’s ongoing military campaign against Ukraine. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has historically held a significant advantage in this strategically vital region, leading analysts to anticipate the potential use of this naval superiority to rapidly seize key Ukrainian ports. The capture of Odessa, in particular, was deemed critical, as it could have effectively created a barrier between the Ukrainian Army and the Black Sea, isolating defence forces and compelling a surrender.

Contrary to expectations, the unfolding events took a different turn. Ukraine achieved a significant triumph by sinking the flagship Moskva, resulting in “the most significant loss by any navy in 40 years.” Subsequently, Ukraine’s substantial September strikes on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol compelled a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from the once heavily fortified naval stronghold. This outcome had a profound impact, severely limiting Russia’s capacity to influence foreign movements and operations in the Black Sea. Consequently, Russia sought a new base further east.

Despite the substantial gains for Ukrainian military interests, the eastward relocation of Russian warships had a consequential effect—it shifted Russian naval influence to Georgia. With the loss of Sevastopol, Russia identified Abkhazia as an alternative base from which to project power in the region.

The majority of the Russian navy has pulled back to Novorossiysk, Russia, although there is a possibility that some of it might be deployed closer to the southeast, specifically to Ochamchire. There are allegations that warships in Ochamchire could be involved in strikes on Ukraine’s civilians, making them potential targets for the Ukrainian military. While the Ochamchire port may not be deep enough to accommodate Russia’s largest battleships, it can host smaller ships and vessels and serve as a base for resupply and logistical activities.

In response to multiple rocket attacks on its Black Sea navy forces by Ukraine, Russia’s eastward withdrawal from the Black Sea suggests a potential constraint on the Russian military, particularly the navy. Ukraine’s successful missile strikes on the Russian navy have made Crimea an inhospitable operating environment for Russia. Presently, the Kremlin is contemplating a permanent shift towards the east, moving away from the occupied Ukrainian territories. This indicates either Russia’s concerns about advancing further west in Ukraine or its preparedness to relocate its forces away from Ukraine and towards the occupied territory of Georgia.

SCOPE AND TERMS

Abkhazian leader Aslan Bzhania has explicitly stated that the newly established base will be permanent, marking a departure from a temporary vantage point for naval forces during Black Sea engagements. This permanence holds significance for several reasons. Firstly, it implies an enduring necessity for a Russian naval presence in the eastern Black Sea, suggesting a belief that hostilities among Ukraine, Russia, and possibly Georgia may persist. Secondly, it underscores the Kremlin’s commitment to projecting power along the periphery of its borders, particularly towards states pursuing NATO accession. Lastly, it signifies a deepening of Russian control over Abkhazia, making the task of restoring the internationally recognized borders of Georgia even more challenging.

The plans for expanding the naval base in Ochamchire are reportedly in progress, with ongoing construction and the installation of on-site radio-electronic warfare systems. These systems could potentially be utilized by Russia to deter Ukrainian missiles, indicating an anticipation of potential strikes on the base. Abkhazian Security Council Head Sergey Shamba has stated that the base is expected to be “at least partially operational” by early 2024.

Despite ongoing infrastructure development, analysts suggest that the current facilities in Ochamchire may not support large capital ships but could accommodate strike or support vessels. The de facto Abkhazian administration claims that dredging work is underway to expand harbouring possibilities. While the base might not significantly alter the geographic disposition of the Black Sea Fleet due to these challenges, it is likely to become a new launching point for regional aggression. This development directly implicates a new set of eastern Black Sea actors, with Georgia and, to a lesser extent, the landlocked but newly embittered Armenia coming under the influence of Russia’s imperial control.

From a strategic perspective, Russia places greater importance on controlling Georgia than the United States does on cooperation with Georgia. While Tbilisi has provided some benefits to the United States, such as significant troop contributions to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the potential significance of having a true Russian puppet state in Georgia is crucial for the Kremlin. American interests in Georgia primarily revolve around countering Russian regional dominance in the area.

The foremost U.S. interest at stake is evident: the establishment of a permanent Russian naval base in Ochamchire could heighten the likelihood of a military triumph for Russia in Ukraine. Such a Russian victory would pose a direct threat to U.S. security by jeopardizing NATO allies and potentially emboldening other potential aggressors. Additionally, it would undermine globally proclaimed U.S. values by implicitly endorsing imperialistic actions achieved through force.

Already contending with various political pressures stemming from the ongoing conflict, such as waves of Russian immigration and a deteriorating security environment, the establishment of the Ochamchire base significantly raises the likelihood of military attacks on territories recognized as Georgian. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s acknowledgement that Russia has announced the creation of a new base in Georgia emphasizes the potential for conflict to spread beyond current boundaries. The prospect of Ukrainian attacks on Russian-occupied Georgian territory could strain the already delicate relations between Ukraine and Georgia and dissuade Western partners from deepening security integration with Georgia. Consequently, there is a risk that the Georgian government may drift further into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.

Logistical challenges for Georgia are also a cause for concern. Tbilisi has consistently advocated for the establishment of a deep-sea port in Anaklia on Georgia’s western shore, leveraging its unique status as the sole South Caucasian country with Black Sea access. The ambitious $2.5 billion project, which has faced setbacks in the past, aims to create the first Black Sea port capable of accommodating large container vessels.

This initiative could rejuvenate the concept of a Middle Corridor trade route, redirecting trade away from Russia and diminishing the strategic importance of the Kremlin-controlled Northern Corridor in the global economy. While work on the Anaklia port is anticipated to commence soon, the proximity of the Ochamchire base, just 35 kilometres away, raises security concerns that may dissuade investors and potentially lead to the project’s failure once again.

The repercussions of the new base in Ochamchire extend beyond Georgia and could adversely affect U.S. partners. The establishment of this base underscores Russia’s ongoing commitment to blockading Ukrainian civilian and economic activities on the Black Sea, particularly its grain trade—a crucial element benefiting U.S. partners in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Despite Ukraine’s recent success in reopening its waters to commerce due to Russian naval vulnerabilities, a resurgence of Russian sea superiority supported by Ochamchire could bring Ukrainian maritime trade to a standstill, negatively impacting economically dependent U.S. partners and, consequently, weakening U.S. security interests.

GEORGIAN RESPONSE

In early November, 50 Georgian opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) collectively addressed NATO and EU member states, urging them to adopt a united stance against Russia’s proposal to establish a permanent naval base in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.

The MPs issued a statement expressing unanimous and resolute condemnation of Russia’s actions, including occupation, militarization, and actions suggestive of annexation in the occupied regions of Georgia. The recent move to open a permanent Russian naval base in the Ochamchire port is a new manifestation of these concerning actions.

Georgia’s foreign ministry has strongly condemned Russia’s plan, characterizing it as a “gross violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.” However, authorities in Tbilisi have downplayed the immediate significance of the proposed permanent naval base, describing it as not posing an imminent threat.

Nikoloz Samkharadze, the head of Georgia’s Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized that even if construction were to commence in Ochamchire, it would take at least three years for the base to be operational. He highlighted that the government is currently focused on more immediate threats, such as the safety of Georgian citizens facing dangers, such as being killed or kidnapped by Russian forces near the line of occupation that separates Georgia from its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.