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17 Apr 2024 23:56
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why some say Vladimir Putin's plan to relocate his battered Black Sea navy could draw another country into the war

    Vladimir Putin is being humiliated in the Black Sea, where a third of Russia's naval fleet has been destroyed by Ukraine's attacks. Some say a plan to move the surviving vessels into a new port could draw a third country directly into the war.

    Vladimir Putin is being humiliated in the Black Sea. His ships are under constant bombardment from Ukrainian forces.

    Since Putin's invasion began in February 2022, Ukraine has successfully used its unmanned aerial defences — including drones and missiles — to destroy around 80 ships in Russia's Black Sea fleet.

    The onslaught has been so costly, Moscow has withdrawn its fleet from its Sevastopol headquarters on the annexed Crimean Peninsula, which was destroyed in a missile strike in September last year.

    The vessels were moved east to Novorossiysk.

    Last month, Putin fired his Naval commander-in-chief over the heavy losses.

    Now, the Russian president is looking for safer alternatives and has turned his sights south to a port in Abkhazia — a Russian-occupied territory of the former Soviet country of Georgia.

    But the port requires significant construction work to house naval vessels, and is still within striking distance of Ukrainian forces.

    Satellite images of the port, which emerged in the media late last year, show how the site has changed since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

    This picture was taken in October 2019, around a year-and-a-half before Putin sent troops over the border.

    In this image from January 2023, several new structures can be seen in the area, as well as signs of dredging.

    The Ochamchira port is on the coastline of Abkhazia, which was illegally seized by Russia along with another Georgian region, South Ossetia, in 2008.

    The prospect of a Russian military build-up in the occupied territory is worrying for the Georgian government, which has denounced Moscow's plans.

    Some observers believe Putin's plan is more about politics than any long-term military strategy.

    He knows Kyiv will face a difficult decision initiating attacks on vessels stationed there, because Ukraine, like most other countries, recognises the territory as belonging to Georgia, not Russia.

    "It will be a very heavy, political decision for Ukraine to strike a territory that belongs, and that Ukraine recognises as part of, Georgia, especially, since they've had similar issues and problems with Russian occupation," Russia-Ukraine expert Natia Seskuria told the ABC.

    "This is something that will be heavily scrutinised and used by Russian propaganda, sources to claim that Ukraine is an aggressor — attacking a foreign territory."

    Ms Seskuria has studied Russia for more than a decade.

    She believes if Ukraine were to strike and hit Georgian territory, it would spark a diplomatic firestorm for the West and other supporters of Kyiv.

    "It is a dangerous plan ... for Georgia. I would say this could drag Georgia into Russia's ongoing war effort in Ukraine," she said.

    "I believe the main goal behind turning this port into a naval base is for Russia to use it against Ukraine, so in that sense Ukraine will have legitimate reason to respond to Russian attacks and if that happens Georgia will be part of the ongoing war."

    A continuous Russian naval presence in Abkhazia could turn the territory into another front, stretching the war with Ukraine into Georgia.

    It would also give Moscow a launching pad for attacks on Ukrainian forces but also put Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, or other population centres there in danger of becoming an inadvertent target for Kyiv's strikes on Russia, should they stray off course.

    "Despite the fact that Putin has been very much invested in the war in Ukraine, he still has eyes on Georgia, it is still trying to disrupt the internal processes in Georgia, in order to ensure [it] does not drift away from the Russian orbit," Ms Seskuria said.

    Vakhtang Kapanadze, a retired major general of the Georgian army, said Putin's plan wasn't a long-term military strategy.

    "No doubt today, Russia [in the] Black Sea, need additional enlargement because they are squeezed between Sevastopol and Novorossiysk," he said.

    "It will be more supplementary sea base for Russia, not main base."

    This plan isn't just focused on Russia's war effort with Ukraine. Putin's influence over Georgia has been shrinking.

    The country wants to join NATO and gained European Candidacy Status last year — a precursor to potential membership of the European Union.

    It wants to build a port in nearby Anaklia, about 30 kilometres from Ochamchira, which would increase trade and allow for foreign vessels, including NATO ships to dock.

    But those plans are on hold.

    "This is more of some kind of political message to Georgia," Mr Kapanadze said.

    "If they are going to develop Anaklia sea port, we will develop military base near [the] seaport and because of that, it will be … disrupting … for NATO visiting Georgia.

    "No businessman will be happy having just 30 kilometres until Russian military base."

    In 2020, the Georgian government cancelled the contract to build the Anaklia deep seaport, which critics argued was to appease Moscow.

    The government insists it's committed to the plan but it's yet to announce a new contractor.

    But with no control over the territories the Kremlin occupies, there's little the government can do to temper the Russian aggression.

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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