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February 4, 2009

Swords and Shields: Russia's Abkhaz Base Plan

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Russia plans to establish a Black Sea naval base at the Abkhaz port of Ochamchire.

Ochamchire is some 60 kilometers southeast of the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, near the cease-fire line with Georgia. If permanently stationed there, Russian ships essentially would 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 of a base in Ochamchire, giving Russia a strong advantage in any future regional conflict.

The Russian military refers 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 a 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 NATO member state Turkey, played an important role in Russian confrontations with the West.

Ochamchire was a Soviet naval base. Since 1923 it hosted a Batumi Black Sea border ship detachment. In 1967 it became the base of the 6th separate border patrol brigade, which was relocated in 1996 -- on Georgia's demand -- to the Caspian port of Kaspiisk in the Russian republic of Dagestan. 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 ships, practically from scratch. This may take several years and billions of dollars. The construction works in Ochamchire, including dredging, are to start this year. Currently, the harbor channel is silted and averages only 3.8 meters (around 12 feet) in depth.

In the Soviet era, warships in Ochamchire included border patrol boats, minesweepers and tugboats. Sometimes small anti-submarine and landing ships entered the port, while large warships and cruisers remained offshore because of the shallow waters. Analysts expect a similar mix of ships at the new base -- third-class and some second-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 clearly is trying to strengthen and extend its military power abroad. Yet we also should remember another motive. The agreement allowing Russia's Black Sea Fleet to stay at Sevastopol in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula 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 Sea bases -- especially in areas where their hosts promise to be more pro-Russian than Ukraine is.

Clearly, Ochamchire is not a viable alternative to Sevastopol as the main Black Sea naval base for Russia. It is shallow, relatively small and does not have a protected bay. Nevertheless, Ochamchire may serve as a key forward supply base for Russian warships, seaborne Spetsnaz (special forces) and naval infantry engaged in future Black Sea conflicts.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First  appeared in Georgian Daily

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