Russia's plans to dock part of its Black Sea fleet in breakaway Abkhazia could bring the Russia-Ukrainian war too close to home for Georgia.
Georgia has so far managed to navigate carefully through the security threats created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Save for a single stray naval mine that came ashore and blew up in the main coastal city of Batumi in February, Georgia has dodged the shrapnel of the Russo-Ukrainian war. But the changing geography of the conflict is driving Georgian fears of being caught in the firing line.
Aslan Bzhania, the leader of breakaway Abkhazia, recently revealed that Moscow will soon be setting up a naval base in Abkhazia's district of Ochamchire, just about 24 miles away from the de facto border with Georgia proper. "The goal is to strengthen the defense capabilities of both Russia and Abkhazia," Bzhania told Russia's Izvestiya newspaper.
Some believe that these risks to Georgia are major and immediate. "This is an attempt by the Russian Federation to expand the frontline to Georgia," said Badri Japaradize, one of the leaders of the Lelo opposition party. "Russia needs this base to shelter its naval forces that are under attack in the ports of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk."
The ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive is reportedly forcing Russia to pull out much of its Black Sea fleet from the occupied Crimean peninsula and look for safer options. The bulk of the fleet has retreated down to the Russian city Novorossiysk, but some of it could be moved further southeast, to Ochamchire. Japaridze argued that Ochamchire-bound vessels will participate in attacks on the civilian population in Ukraine and thus will remain legitimate targets for counterattacks from Ukrainian forces.
Ochamchire port is not deep enough to accommodate the largest warships in Russia's naval arsenal, but Russia can moor smaller vessels there and set up supply and logistics operations. "This increases sea-born security risks as Russia will have a military outpost much closer to [Georgian] borders," Vakhtang Kapanadze, ex-chief of staff of the Georgian armed forces, told Netgazeti, an online news magazine in Georgia.
The European Union and NATO lambasted the plans for the base, describing them as another threat to stability in the Black Sea.
Although since the Ukraine invasion the Georgian government has been treading carefully with Moscow, Tbilisi did voice concern over the base. "Such actions constitute a crude violation of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and yet another provocative step toward legitimizing illegal occupation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions," the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
But there is not much Georgia can do to stop Moscow's plans for its two protectorates, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali region). Regarding them as independent states, Russia maintains a heavy military presence in both regions and keeps their economies afloat. Apart from announcing plans for the naval base, Bzhania also voiced his desire to join the Union State formed by Russia and Ukraine. "It is hard to survive alone in this unstable world," he said.