Russian plans to construct a Black Sea naval base in Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia threaten heightened tension
The prospect of a US-Russian naval stand-off in the Black Sea loomed today after Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would spend nearly half a billion dollars next year beefing up military bases in Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia.
Much of the money is expected to fund construction of a new naval base in the Abkhaz town of Ochamchira, within striking distance of Georgia's Poti and Batumi ports, which have been regularly visited by US warships since the war in Georgia last summer. An existing Russian airbase further north in Gudauta is also likely to be enlarged.
"We will allot a very large amount of money — 15-16bn roubles (£300,000) — for the development of our military base and strengthening of Abkhazia's state border, next year," the Russian prime minister told reporters at his summer residence in Sochi, ahead of a surprise visit to the Moscow-backed republic today. "This is an additional and serious guarantee of the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he added.
Nato is increasingly nervous at Russia expanding its military reach beyond its borders and expressed "concern" earlier this year over reports that Russia planned to increase its military footprint in Abkhazia. Only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and under international law the construction of bases on what is officially Georgian territory will be illegal. Tbilisi has said it will protest against the plans "at every international level".
However, both breakaway republics have been de facto independent for more than 15 years and the Kremlin has made it clear it will sign bilateral agreements with them as "partner states", as it sees fit. A deal on military and economic co-operation was signed with both regions, in November last year.
In a recent analysis of the situation, Ariel Cohen, an analyst with the US Heritage Foundation, wrote: "With additional warships, fighter aircraft, and military personnel near the Black Sea coast of Georgia, Russia is challenging the position of the United States, which has recently signed a strategic partnership charter with Tbilisi."
He added: "In the summer of 2008, American warships were still able to enter Georgian waters to deliver humanitarian aid for the war victims. The question is: What will happen in the future? Could there be a US-Russian naval stand-off in the Black Sea some day?"
About 1,000 Russian troops are currently based in Abkhazia. It was unclear whether Putin's announcement envisaged a significant troop build-up. Last year, Moscow said it would increase the number to 3,700 but later scaled that down.
It is thought that Russia may envisage Ochamchira as a future home for its Black Sea fleet, which is currently based on Ukrainian territory. Ukraine says it will not renew the lease after it ends in 2017.