Neighbors concerned over Russia’s military bases in Abkhazia: Senior Research Fellow of Heritage Foundation

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Heritage Foundation, especially for Trend

Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Armenia, as well as the United States are concerned over Moscow's plans to establish a Black Sea naval base in the Abkhaz port of Ochamchire. And that's just the beginning. Moscow also intends to restore the former Soviet airbase - Bombora - in Gudauta area, and establish a ground forces base in the Kodori Gorge.
The U.S. supports sovereignty of all three states of Southern Caucasus: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Americans are also interested in the security of strategic oil and gas transportation routes from the Caspian basin to the west (particularly, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline). Washington does not want to see the new Russian imperialism changing the post-Soviet status quo in Eurasia - even when Kyrgyzstan unceremoniously is asking Washington to close the Manas air base in Bishkek. "Allies don't come cheap", experts in Moscow quip, and despite the worsening economic crisis, Moscow believes it is worth $2 billion in credit and $150 million in grants to keep Uncle Sam out.
The three new Russian military bases in Abkhazia will alter the balance of power in the region. They will strengthen Moscow's military stance and make the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity an almost unrealistic project - exactly what Moscow is trying to achieve.
As the dust from the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war settles, however, the extent of the Russian geopolitical gain in South Caucasus and the Black Sea is becoming clearer. There is a lot for the Obama Administration Russian policy team to think about, when it sits down to formulate it policy towards Moscow.
Naval Power Projection. Ochamchire is some 60 km south-east of the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, near the ceasefire line with Georgia. When stationed there, Russian ships would essentially control the Georgian territorial waters all the way to the Turkish border.
The Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi would be well within striking distance from the base in Ochamchire, giving Russia a strong advantage in any future regional conflict.
The Russian military refer to the "threat of diversions and terrorist attacks by Georgian special services" to justify the new deployments in the breakaway province of Abkhazia. Yet, the base raises questions about Moscow's motivation for the August 2008 war, as well as Abkhazia's independence.
In the next few months, the Abkhaz separatist leadership expects to sign a treaty with Moscow, agreeing to host this naval base, as well as land forces base, including alpine special forces, in the Kodori Gorge, and a proposed Air Force base in the Gudauta area.
During the Cold War, the Soviet military presence in the Georgian province of Abkhazia, located close to the NATO member-state Turkey, played an important role in Russian confrontations with the West.
Ochamchire was a Soviet naval base. Since 1923, it hosted Batumi Black Sea border ship detachment. In 1967, it became the base of the 6th separate border patrol brigade, which was relocated - on Georgia's demand - to the Caspian port of Kaspiisk (Dagestan, Russia) in 1996. Most recently, during the August war in Georgia, it was Ochamchire where the Russian warships arrived and the marines landed to proceed to Georgia.
The Russians will have to build the Ochamchire base, including full coastal infrastructure for maintenance and supply of the ships, practically from scratch. This may take several years and billions of dollars. The construction work in Ochamchire, including dredging, is to start this year. Currently, the harbor channel is silted and averages only 3.8 m in depth.
In the Soviet era, warships in Ochamchire included border patrol boats, mine-sweepers, and tugboats. Sometimes small anti-submarine and landing ships entered the port, while large warships and cruisers remained off shore due to the shallow waters. Analysts expect a similar mix of ships in the new base - 3rd and some 2nd class ships with low draft.
Dredging may allow the revived base to accommodate larger landing ships. Nevertheless, the main forces of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, such as the missile cruiser Moscow or the large anti-submarine ships Kerch and Ochakov will not be able to enter Ochamchire.
Russia is clearly trying to strengthen and extend its military power abroad. Yet, one should remember another motive. The agreement allowing Russia's Black Sea Fleet to stay in Sevastopol expires in 2017. Ukrainian politicians have not been able to reach a final decision on whether to terminate or extend the lease. The situation gives Moscow every reason to look for additional Black See bases-especially among in areas where their hosts promise to be more pro-Russian than Ukraine.
Clearly, Ochamchire is not a viable alternative to Sevastopol as the main Black Sea naval base. It is shallow, relatively small and does not have a protected bay. Nevertheless, Ochamchire may serve as a key forward supply base for the Russian warships, seaborn Spetsnaz and naval infantry engaged in the future Black Sea conflicts.
The military planners in Baku, Tbilisi, Ankara and the Pentagon better take note.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of Trend

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