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
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
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
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