Russia’s new Black Sea naval base alarms Georgia

Two images side-by-side comparing an area of the Georgia coast in February 2022 and December 2023. The December 2023 image shows structures that are not in the February 2022 image.

In early November, 50 Georgian opposition MPs addressed Nato and EU member states calling for a unified stance against Russia’s plan to establish a permanent naval base in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.

The Kremlin’s plans have raised fears that the base could drag EU-hopeful Georgia into Russia’s war in Ukraine and harm Tbilisi’s own plans for a port on the Black Sea.

“We unanimously and firmly condemn Russia’s occupation, militarisation and other actions aimed at annexation of the occupied regions of Georgia, a new expression of which is the opening of a permanent Russian naval base in Ochamchire port,” read the MPs’ statement.

Weeks earlier Abkhazia’s de facto leader, Aslan Bzhania, had confirmed an agreement had been signed with the Kremlin on a permanent naval base in the Black Sea port of Ochamchire.

Abkhazia is internationally recognised as part of Georgia, but it has been under the control of Russian and separatist forces since the 1990s.

Georgia’s foreign ministry has condemned Russia’s plan as “a gross violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia”, although authorities in Tbilisi have played down the significance of the permanent naval base, describing it as not an imminent threat.

“Even if they start constructing the base in Ochamchire, it will take them at least three years,” Nikoloz Samkharadze, the head of Georgia’s Foreign Relations Committee told the BBC. “We are concentrated on imminent threats, and not on threats that might come in the future.”

He says the government is more focused on Georgian citizens being killed or kidnapped by Russian forces near the line of occupation that separates Georgia from its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“We do not observe any moves to start construction in Ochamchire.”

Map of Georgia

BBC Newsnight and BBC Verify have analysed satellite imagery that indicates new dredging and construction work at the port, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

According to Abkhazia’s de facto administration, that dredging work meant Ochamchire could now host larger cargo ships with a displacement volume of up to 13,000 tonnes.

Ukraine’s intelligence agency claims the work is to enable military vessels from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to use Ochamchire as a safe harbour.

If Russia were to use Ochamchire to attack Ukraine or if Ukraine chose to target Russian naval boats there, then Georgia would become party to the war, says Natia Seskuria of the Royal United Services Institute.

“If Putin needs Georgia to be involved or in some ways be dragged in this war, he will do it if it’s in his interests and he has all the capabilities to put pressure on Georgia, unfortunately,” she said.

Not only does that play into Georgian fears of being sucked into the war, but there are concerns that Tbilisi’s own plans for a mega-infrastructure project on the Black Sea coast could be impeded.

A deep sea port in Anaklia is the nearest Georgian town to Russian-controlled Abkhazia.

The Anaklia project is seen as vital for boosting commerce along the so-called Middle Corridor, the fastest route to deliver cargo between Asia and Europe.

The route avoids using Russia as a land conduit, and the World Bank has estimated that it could halve travel times and triple trade volumes by 2030.

Image caption,The Anaklia project could drastically speed up freight travel times by the end of the decade

The Kremlin has long opposed it as a US project and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has claimed that US navy submarines would be able to dock there.

But while Georgia has a broadly pro-EU population, its government has a complex relationship with Moscow.

In 2020 the Georgian government cancelled a contract to build the deep-sea port, which had been awarded to a consortium backed by Western banks and investors.

Mamuka Khazaradze, who led the original Anaklia Development Consortium, says the government in Tbilisi derailed the port’s development to appease Moscow.

“The biggest problem we have with this government [is] they are serving Russian interests, because Anaklia is not in the Russian interest to be built,” he said. And he said that the proof of it was the Russian base being built only 30km (18 miles) up the Black Sea coast.

His consortium has taken the Georgian government to international arbitration.

“We dredged five million cubic metres of sand, 11 metres deep. We put in 3,500km of pipes,” said Mr Khazaradze who heads the opposition party Lelo.

The Georgian government has insisted the deep-sea port plan will be revived, and the winning bid will be announced shortly.

Participants spread a huge EU flag, symbolizing the European aspirations of the entire Georgian society, during a march starting from First Republic Square to end at Europe Square, to support Georgia's EU membership bid in Tbilisi, Georgia on December 9, 2023
Image caption,Georgia’s electorate is widely pro-EU, but its government has a complex relationship with Moscow

Nikoloz Samkharadze, who chairs the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, said accusations that his government was pro-Russian were “absurd”.

“How on Earth can a pro-Russian government sign an association agreement with the European Union, get a visa-free regime with the European Union, and candidate status for the European Union?” Mr Samkharadze said.

But he said Tbilisi was obliged to tread carefully with its northern neighbour.

“We have had three wars with Russia in the past 30 years. We do not have the Nato security umbrella. We do not have the EU’s economic solidarity.”

He suggested Russia was using Ochamchire to threaten Georgia over its ambitions to join the EU.

A final decision on Georgia’s bid for EU candidate status is expected from European leaders at their December summit this week.

“Russians… always use the best timing in order to undermine first Georgia’s stability, and second Georgia’s quest for European integration,” he said.

“They try to show to our European and American partners that they are masters in the South Caucasus, so they can do whatever they want.”

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