Is Russia Expanding its Battlefront to Georgia?

On the move: Russia has been relocating its ships out of the port of Sevastopol in Crimea. Image: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy

Russian plans to establish a naval base in Abkhazia would render the region a legitimate target for Ukrainian military strikes, creating major risks for Tbilisi.

Following a number of successful Ukrainian missile and drone attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Moscow is looking to establish a permanent naval base in the Russian-occupied Abkhazia region. According to satellite imagery, Russia has already been relocating its ships out of the port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea. Reportedly, several vessels including three diesel submarines, two guided missile frigates and five landing ships have been relocated to Novorossiysk on the eastern Black Sea coast. The Kremlin’s decision indicates that Russia sees Sevastopol as highly vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes amid Kyiv’s growing naval capabilities.

Sevastopol has indeed been attacked multiple times in the recent past, including on 22 September 2023 when Ukraine targeted the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet using the Storm Shadow missiles supplied by the UK and France. However, Novorossiysk is hardly a safe maritime space for the Russian fleet, since the port has also recently been attacked by sea drones, resulting in damage to the large Russian warship Olenegorsky Miner. According to Ukrainian officials, since the beginning of the war, Kyiv has managed to push the sea battlefront at least 185 km away from Ukraine’s coast.

Such efforts from Ukraine undermine Russia’s long-term plan to dominate the Black Sea that has been Moscow’s central geopolitical goal for years. Maintaining its fleet in Sevastopol remains the key to militarising and projecting power in the Black Sea region. Hence, Ukraine’s series of carefully planned attacks on the Russian fleet has not only inflicted significant damage to Russia’s critical infrastructure, but also exposed the vulnerability of President Vladimir Putin’s plans in the Black Sea, harming his own reputation. However, Russia’s further attempts to expand its room for manoeuvre in the Black Sea by creating a naval base in Abkhazia create heightened risks not only for Georgia but also for other littoral states.

Russia’s Plan B

The recent display of Kyiv’s ability to challenge Russia in the Black Sea coincides with a rare announcement by the de-facto leader of Russian-occupied Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania. In an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestiya, Bzhania claimed that Russia will soon establish a naval base in Abkhazia’s district of Ochamchire, which is located about an hour away from territory controlled by Tbilisi. According to him, the agreement has already been signed with Putin and Russian vessels will appear in Ochamchire in the near future. The de-facto authorities have also highlighted that the aim is to strengthen the defence capabilities of both Russia and Abkhazia. While it is not known how this decision may increase the defence capabilities of occupied Abkhazia, it could turn Georgia’s occupied territory into a legitimate target for Ukrainian strikes. However, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia are financially and politically heavily dependent on Russia, do not have a say when it comes to any strategic-political decisions, and are obliged to follow the Kremlin’s orders.

The potential establishment of a Russian naval base in Abkhazia creates major security risks for Georgia

In terms of Russia’s strategic calculus, moving some of its fleet to Ochamchire – further away from Ukraine’s territorial waters – seems like the least worst temporary solution. Yet, the port of Ochamchire in its current shape is not deep enough for Russia to relocate its large warships. Moscow can still move some of its smaller vessels, but it will have to invest considerable resources and time to transform the port into a large-scale naval base. Currently, the port hosts four Russian patrol boats, and its expansion has already been discussed in the past. Following Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, Russian media reported plans to build a naval base in Abkhazia that allegedly would have served as an infrastructure base for Russian military vessels. However, Russia never went ahead with these plans, especially in the light of its illegal annexation of Crimea.

Second Front

The potential establishment of a Russian naval base in Abkhazia, which is an internationally recognised territory of Georgia that Russia illegally recognised as independent in 2008, creates major security risks for Georgia. Russia has already been posing an existential threat to Tbilisi by occupying its territories and illegally building fully operational military bases – the 7th military base of the Russian 58th army in Abkhazia and the 4th Russian military base in the Tskhinvali region (so-called South Ossetia). Since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Georgian government has sought to strike a balance between supporting Ukraine on the international stage – such as by backing pro-Ukraine UN resolutions – and avoiding joining Western sanctions or making any moves that it claims could potentially provoke Russia to open up a second front in Georgia.

Georgian officials have also made numerous allegations about attempts to transfer the Ukrainian war to Georgia. In most cases, they have blamed the Ukrainian government, referring to a controversial comment that Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov made during the early days of the war, stressing that Georgia would greatly help Ukraine if it decided to open a military front and attempt to regain control over its occupied regions.

Additionally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that the West is trying to create second fronts in Georgia and Moldova. This narrative has been reiterated many times by openly pro-Russian voices in Georgia.

The further Russian military build-up in Abkhazia demonstrates that Moscow is willing to prolong the war by investing more resources

Yet, if Russia decides to go ahead with its plans to establish a naval base in Abkhazia, this would be the single biggest test of Tbilisi’s current policy of not provoking Russia so as to avoid a spillover of the war into Georgia. In fact, it would prove that it is the Kremlin that is creating a second front on Georgian soil, since Ukraine will have a legitimate right to attack Russian military targets at their base in Abkhazia. Under such a scenario, Georgia will face its worst security threat since the August war of 2008.

These developments will also threaten Georgia’s plans to take advantage of its geostrategic location, particularly when it comes to Tbilisi’s plans to build the Anaklia deep sea port. The Anaklia project could make Georgia a key transit point between Europe and Asia and define the country’s future geopolitical role. The Georgian government has recently revived the project, which was suspended in 2020. The port of Anaklia is supposed to be built by the state – which will have a 51% share – and an international partner, which will be selected through a tender process. In the case of an expansion of the Russian naval base at Ochamchire, which is located in close proximity to Anaklia (around 40 km away), it is highly unlikely that Western partners would take the risk of investing in the project.

Way Ahead

Russia's further military build-up in Abkhazia in a bid to support its war effort in Ukraine demonstrates that Moscow is willing to prolong the war by investing more resources. Since Bzhania’s announcement, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed its concern by stating that ‘such actions represent a gross violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and another provocative attempt to legitimise the illegal occupation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia’. Given the current circumstances, Georgia does not have any leverage to stop Moscow from creating a shelter for its fleet in Abkhazia by establishing a permanent naval base.

However, what Georgia can do is be much more proactive on the international stage by condemning Russia’s aggression and its militarisation in the Black Sea. Compared to 2008 and subsequent years, when the Western community underestimated the Russian threat and Georgia was seen as a lone wolf, today Tbilisi has a unique chance to seek more tangible security guarantees. At the end of the day, the expansion of the Russian naval base in Abkhazia is not just a Georgian problem, but will considerably worsen insecurity in the whole of the Black Sea.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Natia Seskuria

Associate Fellow; Founder and Executive Director of RISS

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