Russia's Tightening Abkhazian Stranglehold Threatens Western and Georgian Interests

Russia's Tightening Abkhazian Stranglehold Threatens Western and Georgian Interests

. 9 min read

In October, as international commentary on the Russia-Ukraine War largely framed the conflict as a single-theater proxy war between the West and Russian imperial ambition, the naval arena of conflict quietly spilled into a new region. Following Ukrainian naval gains, Russia announced its plans to establish a new permanent naval base in Ochamchire, Abkhazia, a territory along the Black Sea comprising much of Georgia’s northwestern land. Although the Russian military has long occupied and based troops in Abkhazia, never has it so directly implicated Georgia and its occupied territories in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Given the ever-present threat that Russia poses to Georgia’s stated goal of Euro-Atlantic integration and the growing relevance of the Black Sea to Russia’s offensive war effort, the aggressive move demands adaptations to the West’s Black Sea strategy. While a Russian base in Ochamchire would inflict sharp costs on regional Western interests, its proposal may have created an opportunity window within the complex Russo-Georgian bilateral system.

How We Got Here

The Ochamchire agreement plays directly into the Russian war effort against Ukraine. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has long enjoyed relative superiority over the strategically crucial body of water, and as such, analysts once anticipated that Russia would utilize its naval position to swiftly overrun key Ukrainian ports. Were Russia to have captured Odessa, it could have effectively imposed a barrier between the Ukrainian Army and the Black Sea, land-locking defense forces and forcing surrender.

Reality played out differently. Ukraine secured a first major victory by sinking the Moskva flagship and exacting “the most significant loss by any navy in 40 years.” Shortly thereafter, Ukraine’s massive September strikes on Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol prompted a total Russian withdrawal from the once-fortified naval stronghold, an outcome that severely hindered Russia’s ability to influence foreign movement and operations on the Black Sea. Thus, Russia sought a new, more eastern base.

However, despite this considerable boost to Ukrainian war interests, a corollary effect of the eastward exodus of Russian warships is that it displaces Russian naval imperialism onto Georgia. Without Sevastopol, Russia identified an alternative base from which to project power — Abkhazia.

The unique political impact of the Ochamchire plan emanates mainly from the tense, dynamic relationship between Georgia, Russia, and the Russian-occupied separatist regions. The Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia not only undermines the territorial integrity of Georgia, but signals to other former Soviet states on Russia’s periphery that Moscow still views them as within its rightful sphere of influence. The international community broadly views the occupied territories as illegal; only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, and Nauru recognize them.

Moreover, when it comes to territorial integrity, Georgia’s wounds are raw. In 2008, mere months after NATO promised eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion into Georgia. Russian forces overwhelmed the under-equipped Georgian defense and, five days later, stood a mere 30 miles from Tbilisi. The decisive ease with which Russia incurred into Georgian territory allowed Russia to both consolidate its grip around Abkhazia and South Ossetia and send Georgia a frightening reminder of its militaristic inferiority.

As it stands today, 15 years later, Georgia charts an ambiguous, unpredictable path in its relations with both Russia and the West, which some have dubbed a “balancing act.” On one hand, Georgia has unapologetically proclaimed its desire for NATO membership and made significant contributions to joint exercises and interoperability with the alliance. On the other, the existential nature of the Russian threat, paired with an illiberal ruling party that displays arguably pro-Russian attitudes, precludes adopting unquestionably anti-Kremlin policies. Consequently, Tbilisi’s foreign policy disposition emulates “strategic hedging”; that is, it balances positions toward Russia and the West to maintain a fallback position. This political reality has posed major challenges to the US-Georgia bilateral relationship — but political and diplomatic changes wrought by the Ochamchire plan may create windows of opportunity.

What's at Stake

Any response to the Ochamchire agreement must also consider its scope and terms. Few specifics regarding the plan are widely known; still, a few preliminary elements have come to light.

For one, Abkhazian leader Aslan Bzhania specified that the base will be permanent, as distinct from a temporary vantage point for naval forces while engaged in battle on the Black Sea. This is significant for a few reasons. First, the permanence signifies a continued need for a Russian naval presence in the eastern Black Sea, which may convey a belief that hostilities among Ukraine, Russia, and perhaps Georgia will persist. Second, it underscores the Kremlin’s commitment to projecting power around the periphery of its borders, especially toward states pursuing NATO accession. Finally, it reflects a deepening of Russian control over Abkhazia and will make restoring the internationally recognized borders of Georgia a yet more difficult endeavor.

Plans for this deepening have already moved into execution. Local contacts say that the construction of the base is well underway, including the installation of on-site radio-electronic warfare systems. Russia could likely utilize these systems to deter Ukrainian missiles, indicating an expectation of Ukrainian strikes on the base. In early January 2024, Abkhazian Security Council Head Sergey Shamba claimed the base will be “at least partially operational” this year.

Analysts say the existing infrastructure in Ochamchire will not support large capital ships and only strike or support vessels, though the de facto Abkhazian administration claims their dredging work will expand harboring possibilities. Given these challenges, the Ochamchire will probably not reorient the geographic disposition of the Black Sea Fleet. However, it will likely serve as a new launching-off point for regional aggression, directly implicating a new set of eastern Black Sea actors — Georgia and, to a lesser extent, the landlocked but newly embittered Armenia — in Russia’s imperial-control danger zone.

Control over Georgia matters more to Russia’s strategic objectives than Georgia-US cooperation does to the United States. Granted, Tbilisi offers some benefits; Georgia provided one of the largest troop contributions among non-NATO countries to the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. But the potential significance of a true Russian puppet state in Georgia to the Kremlin assures that most American interests vis-a-vis Georgian occupation exist simply because they counterbalance Russian regional dominance.

The first US interest at stake is most obvious: A permanent Russian naval base in Ochamchire could make a military victory in Ukraine more probable. A Russian victory would undermine US security by threatening NATO allies and potentially encouraging other “would-be aggressors,” and it would weaken self-proclaimed US values globally by implicitly promoting imperialism by force.

Similarly, the power-projecting elements of a hostile base in Georgian territory threaten to submerge the Caucasus in illiberalism by more firmly cementing Russia as the regional hegemon. At present, there exists no westward-gazing Caucasian state other than Georgia. Azerbaijan bows to no Western fantasies; not only is President Ilham Aliyev’s government largely autocratic and less than observant of human rights, but he crossed a Western red line in September by using military force to retake control of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia, though its ties to Russia are beginning to fray over the Kremlin’s inaction in Nagorno Karabakh, remains too intertwined with the Kremlin to be considered a viable launchpad for US interests. Iran exerts considerable influence over the region and assumes a distinctly anti-American disposition. And Turkey, though a NATO member and security contributor to US objectives, has taken unsupportive positions in both Ukraine and Israel, undermining the political cohesiveness of the alliance. Thus, were the Ochamchire plan to force the Georgian government further toward Moscow, an axis of anti-Western influence might emerge around the Black and Caspian seas, darkening broad swaths of important regions to US interests.

Finally, this expansion of Russian Black Sea power threatens to create new theaters of the Russia-Ukraine War and force US partners to share its costs. The clearest example here is Georgia. Though Tbilisi already feels numerous political pressures that emanate from the war, like waves of Russian immigration and a deteriorating security environment, the Ochamchire base massively increases the likelihood that military attacks will befall territory recognized as Georgian. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself stated, “Russia [announced] the creation of a new base … [in] Georgia … but we will reach them everywhere.” The likely incidence of a Ukrainian attack on Russian-occupied Georgian territory threatens to strain already tenuous Ukrainian-Georgian relations and deter Western partners from deepening security integration with Georgia. As such, the Georgian government might drift further into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.

There also exist logistical concerns for Georgia. Tbilisi has long touted the idea of establishing a deep sea port in Anaklia on Georgia’s western shore, taking advantage of its status as the only South Caucasian country with Black Sea access. The US$2.5 billion project, which has already failed twice, would establish the first Black Sea port capable of receiving large container vessels, breathing new life into the concept of a Middle Corridor trade route that would redirect trade flows from Russia and make the Kremlin-controlled Northern Corridor less critical to the global economy. Work on the port should begin soon; however, the Ochamchire base’s location — just 35 kilometers from Anaklia — could create such pressing security risks that it deters investors and sinks the plan once more.

US partners beyond Georgia may also feel negative effects of a new base in Ochamchire. The new base signifies a continued Russian determination to blockade Ukrainian civilian and economic activities on the Black Sea — especially its grain trade — which benefit US partners in Africa, Asia, and Europe. While Ukraine recently took advantage of Russian naval weakness to reopen its waters to commerce, an Ochamchire-supported return to Russian sea superiority would bring Ukrainian sea commerce back to a halt, harming economically dependent US partners and thereby weakening US security itself.

Exploiting a Window of Opportunity

Tbilisi has not always proven a cooperative US partner. The illiberal ruling party in Georgia, Georgian Dream (GD), has displayed a troubling trend of democratic backsliding that activists liken to a growing harmonization with Russian interests. Characterizing this chilling of relations with the West was a slew of government statements perceived to shirk NATO accession. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, for example, stated at a security forum last May that “NATO expansion” was “one of the main reasons” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the Ochamchire plan may create a chance to halt this drift and thereby alter Georgia’s eastward sway.

The occupied-territory issue cuts deep in Georgia, and even the GD government has condemned the Ochamchire plan. The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the plan a “gross violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia” and urged the Kremlin to comply with international obligations. The West may use the Ochamchire plan’s flagrant infringement upon Georgian sovereignty to credibly paint Russia as an unreliable security guarantor, especially paired with Russia’s refusal to support Armenia against Azerbaijan before Yerevan’s swift September defeat. If Tbilisi believes more firmly that a Russian-aligned future is one of subjugation, regardless of the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine War, it may grow into a more cooperative Western partner and approach its NATO accession with renewed determination.

Therefore, the West could take advantage of the potential for the Ochamchire plan to drive a wider wedge between the GD government and Russia before its salience wanes. Most crucial, of course, are big-picture issues. President Biden would have to spur a sluggish US Congress into approving a new Ukraine aid package; the meager US$250 million that the Pentagon pledged in late December will prove gravely insufficient. Likewise, NATO could set forth clearer benchmarks for Georgia regarding its conditional membership promise, or establish some political mechanism by which Georgia could join sans Membership Action Plan (like Ukraine).

With specific respect to Ochamchire, there is one concrete action the United States could take to mitigate harm to US strategic interests — ensure that, this time, the deep sea port in Anaklia succeeds. The benefits to US strategy would be numerous. First, the presence of a bustling Georgia-controlled commercial outpost near the Ochamchire base would foment a calmer local security environment. Russia would have to employ caution when commanding Black Sea Fleet operations near Ochamchire, lest it adversely affect some foreign vessel and prompt an unwanted escalation. Second, the Anaklia port would resurrect the concept of a Middle Corridor, drawing new trade routes independent of Russia and making anti-Russian sanction compliance less costly. A greater global adherence to anti-Kremlin sanctions could significantly impair the Russian war effort. And the United States, as a principal investor in the port, would have the opportunity to reap significant economic benefits from the first-of-its-kind commercial hub.

A US-supported Anaklia project also solves one of the international community’s primary concerns with the project — outsized Georgian ownership. The current state-mandated 51-percent stake in the project has led observers to predict that, given the GD track record, “no reputable … company will choose to invest if the state holds a majority.” If credible investors pass on investing, Georgia risks conducting business with shadier actors (i.e. Russian affiliates) that may hold malign political aims. The United States could assuage this Western concern by supporting the project conditionally on a Georgian minority share. Conditional support also offers the opportunity for the United States to participate more directly in the development process, ensuring procedural alignment with Western aims.

Developing Anaklia would come at a fairly high monetary cost, whether via direct aid or subsidized foreign direct investment. The political environment on Capitol Hill, where US legislators are showing their first significant resistance to aiding Ukraine, serves as evidence of the power of US party politics over foreign policy. If Congress is resistant to support what could be seen as the most clearly existential conflict to which the world has recently borne witness, it will likely scoff at erecting a commercial port in the Georgia not known for peaches. Still, action could be vital. Were a Russian naval base to go unchallenged in Abkhazia, it would throw security in Georgia, the Black Sea, and Europe into flux, at dire cost to paramount US interests.

Cover Photo: “The cruiser 'Moskva.' Russian Navy photo” by manhhai is licensed under CC BY 2.0