BACKGROUND: The base exemplifies Moscow’s ongoing campaign to suborn, subvert, and corrupt Georgia and subject it to lasting Russian influence in order to prevent a recrudescence of its pro-Western inclinations expressed in aspirations for NATO and EU membership. Obviously this base entails further Russian occupation of Georgian territory and lasting pressure upon the Georgian government. The base also underscores the critical importance to Russia of dominating the Black Sea, not only against Ukraine but in order to exercise leverage upon Georgia, the rest of the Caucasus and the international trade and transport routes West from Central Asia. It also represents a makeshift and viable partial solution to the increasingly evident naval defeats that Russia has suffered in the war with Ukraine. Russian authorities obviously hope and believe that once the Ochamchira base becomes operational, it will provide shelter to Russian ships from Ukrainian drones, including submarine drones, and missiles.
At the same time building this base could transform the surrounding areas in to a reserve base for operations against Ukraine, thereby widening and thus escalating the war. Under those circumstances Georgia could, against its will, become a base for and a target of both protagonists’ subsequent operations. Thus, the new base confirms that Russian power projection activities into the Caucasus, Central Asia, and against Ukraine and Europe constitute attempts to transform both the regional and international order.
The background to this development is primarily due to the ongoing course of the maritime or naval war against Ukraine. Russia’s navy is being defeated by Ukraine despite the fact that Ukraine has no navy to speak of. While developments in this domain might be the most outstanding manifestation of Russian military incompetence in the war; the announcement of the base also signifies Moscow’s abiding imperialism vis-à-vis not only Georgia but other post-Soviet states.
First, it displays Russia’s determination to preserve its dominance of the Black Sea and the blockade against Ukraine despite its defeats. Since the infrastructure will not permit hosting large capital ships it can only be a base for smaller but still heavily armed strike or support vessels. The forces that will be concentrated here can be deployed for operations throughout the Caucasus thereby constituting a threat to all the states in the region.
Second, the development of the base indicates Russia’s utter disregard for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by demonstrating its willingness to truncate those attributes of statehood and encourage Russian-sponsored separatism in Abkhazia. This move weakens Moscow’s agents in Tbilisi while strengthening its Abkhazian clients. Yet it should also raise concerns in Armenia whose relations with Russia have sharply deteriorated due to the trajectory of developments in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Third, beyond the Caucasus, the establishment of another Russian base in the Black Sea during hostilities with Ukraine also points to Russia’s determination to blockade Ukraine and especially its grain trade to Africa and Asia. Successful operations to these ends, in the absence of countervailing power from other states, subjects the imports and/or exports of the Caucasian states to permanent threat. Thus, in many ways the new base represents an implicit threat to widen the war into new theaters. If and when this war widens or other conflicts ensue in the Caucasus, this base will be instrumental in providing the platform for Russian power projection.
IMPLICATIONS: Aside from the potential and actual conflicts in and around the Black Sea; the significance of the Ochamchira base extends beyond the Caucasus to Central Asia, whose international economic posture and activities could be seriously affected. In the last few years, discussions about extensive trade and transport routes from India and China have taken off and gained new prominence. Most if not all of these potential routes will traverse Central Asia and the Caucasus and then go into the Black Sea from where they are intended to connect these regions to Europe. Once constructed, these routes will be powerful geopolitical as well as economic instruments of policy and power. The base at Ochamchira will increase the Russian Navy’s ability to block or interdict them and impose serious consequences upon the affected parties, which becomes another means of Russian leverage upon both the Caucasus and Central Asian states.
This is no idle threat since the Russian Federation has repeatedly used all kinds of instruments of power to impose its economic preferences upon Central Asian and other countries. In the Black Sea, Russia’s belief that it can behave highhandedly with regard to the trade of Ukraine and other countries is on view every day. Consequently, whatever the original impetus for this base, it also offers Russia multiple new ways to extend its hegemonic aspirations to former Soviet republics without competing external actors interfering. The announcement of this base therefore cannot be ascribed solely to developments in the war withe Ukraine. Indeed, Russia has likely long sought to acquire this base precisely in order to obtain these multiple capabilities to project its power. For these reasons, we need to see this development in its widest possible context that encompasses power projection well beyond the war in Ukraine and the Black Sea, e.g. Russian efforts to counter Turkey’s growing interest and capabilities in the Caucasus.
It must be understood that the quest for naval bases abroad is a distinguishing mark of Russian power projection abroad. Indeed, this is one of the classic hallmarks of Russian imperialism. As the war in Ukraine shows, Moscow has weaponized food and grain exports throughout the entire Black Sea basin to impact grain supplies to the Middle East and Africa as well as Europe. Therefore, we have every reason to suspect that Moscow, if necessary, would not hesitate to apply similar tactics as it has done several times in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Thus, Russia’s acquisition of this base represents a potential widening of the war either territorially or into other domains. As long as Russia reserves the imperial right to intervene in its neighbors’ territory, economy, and politics, the threat of war will remain endemic to the states surrounding Russia, obstructing efforts to enhance independence or regional cooperation among those states that excludes Russia. As a result of both Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, there is an evolving danger that Russia’s neighborhood may come to be seen as a perpetual war zone, an outcome that would decisively impede the future development of Central Asia and the Caucasus and a trend that can only benefit Russia. It is already clear that Russia’s long campaign to restore its hegemony over Georgia will obtain more power and durability from this base. Moreover, it will add to the bases that Russia already possesses in the Caucasus and to its power to exercise serious economic leverage over both the Caucasus and Central Asia.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia’s acquisition of the Ochamchira base reflects its enduring commitment to empire even at the risk of continued wars throughout this entire expanse. Since we are already seeing wars in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh and the high degree of tension between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, future wars in these regions remain a distinct possibility. Neither can we rule out a Russian presence in any of these actual or potential scenarios. Thus, the base at Ochamchira has a significance that goes far beyond its need to protect its Black Sea Fleet from Ukrainian attacks. And it also underscores the vital necessity of winning this war before it spreads outside Ukraine. Many comments on the war in Ukraine have made it abundantly clear that its outcome has critical significance for European security. Yet as this development suggests, unless the war is terminated victoriously, it may also engulf the Caucasus and areas beyond it like Central Asia.
Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, www.fpri.org.