When the Russian Black Sea Fleet's small missile ship, Tsiklon, entered the seaport of Sukhumi last September, the main city in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, it was welcomed with open arms. But few understood then that it heralded a storm for Georgia.
A few weeks later, Abkhaz leaders announced plans for Russia to establish a naval base in Ochamchire, just 30 kilometers from the Georgia borderline, potentially operational by 2024.
The presence of Russian warships would not only bolster Russia's military footprint but also grant the Kremlin additional leverage over trade and transportation links in the Black Sea. This poses a direct challenge to Georgia's ambitions regarding the east-west "Middle Corridor" trade route, analysts suggest.
"I think the key purpose of the naval base would be to use it against Ukraine. But at the same time, I'm sure that Russia sees further opportunities," Natia Seskuria, a security analyst with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Eurasianet.
On October 4, Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania announced Russia's intention to establish a naval base in Ochamchire.
Sergei Shamba, the secretary of Abkhazia's Security Council, later said that even though construction has not started, the base may become operational in 2024, according to Russian state news agency RIA.
This announcement comes as Russia seeks ways to secure its Black Sea fleet, which has repeatedly suffered attacks in Crimea from Kyiv, since Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Last month, Ukraine's military said it had destroyed 15 Russian naval vessels and damaged another 12 since the war's start. Following a missile strike on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol last September, satellite images showed the Russian Navy relocating a significant portion of its fleet from Crimea to its Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk.
Russia has used Ochamchire for naval operations before.
During the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Russian Black Sea Fleet vessels arrived there and used it as a launching pad for advances into Georgian-controlled territory. After that war, Russia recognized Abkhazia as independent and signed an agreement with its de facto rulers to station its forces there. Moscow has directly controlled the Ochamchire port since 2009.
Currently, the port's depth is limited to 9 meters, accommodating smaller patrol vessels like Sobol and Mangust class coast guard boats, according to 2022 data from the Rondeli Foundation.
In the northern part of the port there is also a wharf with infrastructure for ship cargo and repairs, connected to the railway that traverses Abkhazia lengthwise.
BBC satellite imagery analysis suggests efforts by Russia to expand its capabilities at the port.
"There are minor changes - at least, from what can be seen on the satellite images - access to the port has been widened, which indicates that there are some ongoing construction works to turn this port into a naval base," RUSI's Natia Seskuria says.
Transforming Ochamchire into a major Russian fleet base would require extensive renovations. Nevertheless, the existing infrastructure still allows Russia to conduct tactical and special operations, making it a potential target of Ukrainian shelling. Its active engagement in the Russia-Ukraine War could have a destabilizing impact on Georgia.
Middle Corridor dreams
Georgia has long been positioning itself as a bridge between Europe and Asia, serving as an alternative route to Russia.
In the mid-1990s, Georgia welcomed the Western-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline project for transporting Caspian energy through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean, bypassing Russian territory.
As discussions around the pipeline peaked, President Eduard Shevardnadze narrowly escaped three assassination attempts.
He later publicly suggested that Russia was behind one of the attacks, on February 9, 1998.
In an interview several years later, he recalled speaking to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin immediately after the attack. "'Stop talking about Caspian oil, Russia's interest in having the Caspian oil routed through Russian territory,'" Shevardnadze quoted Yeltsin as saying.
When the BTC pipeline went operational in 2006, it was a milestone in Georgia's post-Soviet history. It marked the country's emergence from its status as "Russia's backyard" to one of strategic importance for global connectivity.
The Anaklia deep sea port project is also of great potential importance to Georgia, which is now the only Black Sea nation without a deep sea port.
The idea for the port - a cornerstone of Georgia's Middle Corridor aspirations - dates back 30 years but gained momentum after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as the West began actively seeking routes bypassing Russia. The World Bank estimated that this corridor could significantly reduce travel times and potentially triple trade volumes by 2030.
In 2017, construction began, with control slated to be held by private investors led by prominent banker Mamuka Khazaradze, later became an opposition politician.
But the Georgian government canceled the project in 2020, citing a failure to meet obligations by the consortium overseeing it.
Critics, however, attributed the government's decision to a desire to appease Moscow, which had opposed the port. (At one point Russia's foreign minister expressed suspicion that it would be used to host U.S. Navy submarines.)
The Georgian government revived the project in 2022. It has been courting Chinese involvement, with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili declaring Anaklia a top priority at a China-Georgia Business Forum in Beijing.
Tbilisi's growing interest in Beijing, evidenced by Garibashvili's strategic partnership declaration during his visit to Chengdu last summer, adds another dimension to the geopolitical intrigue.
The government will maintain a 51 percent stake. For the private partnership, the government will have to choose between Chinese-Singaporean and Swiss-Luxembourgish consortiums.
Prime Minister Garibashvili says construction is to begin in spring this year.
Tbilisi's relations with Brussels and Washington have been strained due to the Georgian government's recent anti-Western rhetoric, increased trade with Russia, and democratic backsliding by the Georgian Dream government. Despite concerns, Georgia was still granted EU membership candidate status.
A lot depends on who is chosen to build the port, explains Kornely Kakachia, the head of the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi think tank.
"If China is the winner, it's unlikely that Russia would threaten Chinese strategic interests, given the alliance between the two countries. However, if a Western company becomes involved, it could increase the risks," Kakachia told Eurasianet.
The hosting of Russian vessels in Abkhazia raises concerns about potential Russian attacks from Georgian territory or Ukrainian retaliation on Georgian soil.
"We will reach them everywhere," President Volodymyr Zelensky said, claiming Ukraine will not refrain from attacking Russian ships in Abkhazia.
"The existence of a naval base in Abkhazia will ultimately mean that Russia will be using it for warfare purposes. That is a very serious risk," Natia Seskuria warns. "It could indirectly drag Georgia into the war."
By Tornike Mandaria via Eurasianet.org
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