Will Russia Try to Commandeer One of Georgia’s Black Sea Ports?

Port Hunting Likely If Russia Fails to Co-opt Georgia

Russia has spent a pot of oil and gas profits to promote members of Georgia’s ‘Dream Party’ who would make Georgia Moscow’s satellite, stepping up efforts in 2024 to pass a foreign agent law outlawing NGOs with 20% or more of their funding from abroad, including those advocating for basic civil liberties and support for Ukraine. Georgia’s parliament just passed the Moscow-approved foreign agent law, and Georgia’s executive maintains horse-blinder neutrality regarding Putin’s attempt to sanitize (genocidal reference with precedent) Ukraine.

A 2021 CSIS report outlined Moscow’s asymmetric measures to divide, isolate, and control Georgians through groomed politicians moving into positions of authority touting policies that information warfare repetition has sought to popularize:

Georgia’s anti-Kremlin and pro-Western sentiments led the Kremlin to review its strategy and mobilize hybrid tools (that) have three main goals: (1) to discredit the West in the opinion of the Georgian public and reverse the European and Euro-Atlantic agenda; (2) to weaken Georgia from within by using radical nationalist and pro-Kremlin groups; and (3) to portray Georgia as a “basket of problems” that cannot bring any value to the West.

Consistent with the CSIS report, by adhering to Moscow’s foreign guidances that it would purport to outlaw for all other nations, the Georgian Dream Party’s parliamentary majority passed of the Putin-inspired foreign agent law.

There have been reward points from Moscow to put the Georgian Dream Party’s policies in a more positive light, such as:

(1) Moscow’s grant of Visa free travel and end of flight restrictions for Georgians to and from Russia a year ago; and

(2) China’s extension this week of visa-free travel to Georgians, backing up Moscow’s inducement and countering U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s promised visa restrictions for Georgians who undercut freedom of speech in Georgia.

All this despite last year’s April and December 2023 polls indicating a majority of Georgians favor EU membership, European culture, and basic individual freedoms that help check the dismal history of autocratic corruption. The Wall Street Journal reported that ‘more than 80% of Georgians favor joining the EU and there is deep suspicion of Russia due to the 2008 war.’

Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Georgians have marched and protested for over a month against the foreign agent law before Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili vetoed it last week. Georgian Dream Party’s speaker of parliament, Shalva Papuashvili said MPs would be able to overturn her veto, prompting thousands more to protest his party’s expressed intention. The Parliament did overturn President Sourbichvili’s veto and the foreign agent bill became law.

By Georgians’ protest turnout and in polls, the great majority of Georgians want E.U. membership for Georgia and oppose a government that does Moscow’s will. That will make it harder for Moscow to co-opt Tbilisi.

When Ukrainians revolted against Moscow’s favored president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow after ordering brutal crackdowns killing Ukrainian protestors in 2014. This led to Russian covert military aggression against Ukraine using Moscow’s separatist proxies in Donbas as pretext. Putin tends to follow the Soviet communist imperial crackdown approach hearkening back to Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring of 1968 when active measures do not work.

It seems unlikely that Putin would commit Russian troops desperately needed in Ukraine to conquer and hold all of Georgia. And yet there are signs that Moscow may attempt a more limited military coercion of Georgia if Georgia’s government does not grant Moscow what it needs in Russia’s war effort against Ukraine, even at risk of losing influence with Georgians. What would Moscow want with Georgia while quagmired in Ukraine?

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Needs a Black Sea Port Out of Ukrainian Military Range

Under Putin’s micromanagement, the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet has lost control of the Black Sea surface and needs a safe haven from Ukrainian Armed Forces.

After the U.S. Congress passed its long delayed Ukraine defense aid package in late April 2024, Ukraine has been utilizing longer range weapons and munitions, pressuring Russia’s Black Sea fleet to (a) remove itself to its Caspian Sea bases via canals and rivers, and or (b) find basing on the Black Sea out of Ukrainian range, or (c) be hunted down and sunk in the Black Sea region.

Back in January, Nicholas Castillo wrote for Caspian Policy Center that Ukraine’s successes had pushed the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet further East and South. The Black Sea Fleet needed a new port, so it started building one at Ochamchire, on the Southeast Black Sea coast of Russia’s de facto satellite Abkhazia (wrested from Georgia in 2008).

Castillo’s January 2024 assessment predicted Russia would pose security issues for Georgia over time and could likely attempt Russian annexation of Abkhazia after substantially completing its naval base at Ochamchire, estimated to take three years. However, this assessment was before Ukraine’s capabilities, range, and operational tempo against Russian Black Sea targets increased and intensified with the passage of U.S. aid and new weapon systems coming online in April-May 2024.

Under such conditions, completion of the Ochamchire naval base will not happen fast enough to help the Black Sea Fleet stay afloat as it steadily loses newly built frigates, corvettes, troop transports, landing craft, patrol boats, minesweepers, and trained navy personnel with them. Russia’s Abkhazia port project was already an admission by Russia that it could not find a friendly, safe, and readily usable port on the Black Sea to rearm and maintain its warships, so it had to tap Abkhazian separatists for a place to build one.

And Ochamchire, at a distance of just under 500 miles away from Ukrainian-held territory may become obsolete as a safe haven by the time it is finished as Ukrainian forces advance and or utilize air power. Not only have the Ukrainians already hit Russian vessels in Crimea, they have struck Russian warships and energy infrastructure at the Novorossiysk port to which Russia’s Crimea-based warships had earlier retreated. And last week Ukraine reportedly sunk what may have been one of Russia’s last new missile corvettes at the port of Sevastopol.

Meanwhile, Putin has directed an FSB purge of Russian military brass to pass the buck for major Russian losses of men and materiel after Putin scripted Russia as Goliath against Ukraine’s David. The leadership churn will cause delays, accentuating the need for timely, cost-cutting efficiency measures as new leaders get up to speed.

Accordingly, the appointment of the civilian economist Andrei Belousov to replace Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ‘..suggests that Putin aims to control military spending and improve efficiency at the ministry of defense as he looks to outproduce Ukraine and the country’s Western partners in a protracted confrontation’ writes Mercedes Sapuppo at Atlantic Council.

Upshot: The Black Sea Fleet has urgent need of a Black Sea base further from Ukrainian forces than Ochampchire if, as Nicholas Castillo wrote in January, Putin is unwilling for the Black Sea Fleet to cede the Black Sea (even temporarily). However, Moscow has need of all of the troops it can muster to have a chance of retaking Ukraine, much less holding it.

Possibilities that Moscow Will Attempt to Seize and Use the Georgian Port of Poti or Batumi

Given its leaner choices and new military management, if Moscow cannot co-opt Georgia’s government by the end of Summer 2024, it is more likely to employ force to buy its navy more time in the Black Sea. The main reason for this would be to avert the triple-loss of naval dominance, loss of face in retreat, and the freedom handed to Ukraine and its allies to fill the Black Sea power vacuum.

The path of least resistance for Russia would seem to be to takeover one or both of Georgia’s former naval bases at Poti and Batumi (now coast guard bases) by force. How feasible that is for Russian forces now is beyond the scope of this article, however, its risk-reward necessity should be assessed by relevant SME’s with the most current intelligence on Russian force structure and capabilities in Abkhazia, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Armenia. Necessity trumps feasibility as the mother of invention.

The closer Georgian port to Russia for resupply purposes yet also to closer to Ukrainian defenders is Poti, some 550 miles from the Ukrainian front and the larger of two former Georgian naval bases, with the smaller Georgian base port being Batumi about 570 miles away from the Ukrainian front near the Turkish border. Poti and Batumi are out of range for most of Ukraine’s current missile systems except perhaps drones and or Ukrainian air power closing the gap.

Pros and Cons for Russia If It Seizes a Georgian Ports in the Short Run

Pros from Russian Perspective:

(1) Readier Options: Poti and Batumi, Georgia were both Georgian Navy bases before the Georgian Navy fleet was destroyed by Russian forces in its 2008 war, so the ports were originally built for naval use, making them quicker term options for keeping Russia’s navy in the Black Sea yet out of range of current Ukrainian missiles;

(2) Basing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Georgia would force Ukraine to risk collateral damage to Georgians, their infrastructure, and trade should Kyiv strike the Russian fleet there, with Russia making Georgians into pawns and human shields;

(3) Due to Georgia’s relatively small size, Russian air power and transport from Russia’s 7th Military Base at occupied Bombora air base some 90 direct flight miles north of Poti could be used to soften or deter Georgian resistance and provide ongoing support of Russian and separatist ground forces’ seizures of the Poti and Batumi (the 7th Military Base appears to have a large number of hangars with easy taxiing to the runways and substantial housing for pilots and other military personnel);

(4) Russian FSB coast guard units from Ochamchire, Abkhazia, naval infantry from Kaspiysk, Dagestan, army aviation assets, and Kaspiysk-based FSB combat units could combine to raid key facilities at the ports of Batumi and Poti and meet-up with Russian brigades invading from Russia’s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia ( the base being roughly 125 miles from Batumi and 137 miles from Poti from the South) to secure entrenched perimeters around the ports, while FSB border guards which have been asked to leave Armenia by August 2024 may join the fight;

(5) Should Russian possession of a safer haven on the Black Sea coast materialize, Russia could use a naval hit and run approach, staging warships at the edge of Ukraine’s offensive range armed with anti-drone countermeasures, moving into range briefly to fire missiles into Ukraine then retreating out of range as observed by Jamestown Foundation’s Glen Howard regarding missile ships using the Ochamchire port, cited in Newsweek. In using this strategy, Russia would count on free nations’ timidity to fail to timely equip and support Ukraine’s use of longer range weapons to silence Russia’s missile attacks and destroy supply conduits;

(6) Having a defensible port in the Black Sea mostly out of Ukrainian bombardment range is a time-buying building block on which Russian force projection by sea has an outside chance of sustaining naval and littoral missions in the Black Sea against Ukraine and its neighbors. Stated in the negative from the Russian perspective, without a Russian presence in the Black Sea, Ukraine can, has, and would be expected to develop greater naval capabilities including anti-submarine warfare to fill the Black Sea power vacuum with other Black Sea nations under Russian threat. This would give Ukraine space to advance control, range, cooperation, and new attack and defense vectors across the Black Sea to decisively repel, silence, and deter Russia’s aggressing military and intelligence units;

(7) By occupying select areas of Georgia, Russia could assert control over crucial oil and gas pipeline crossroads between Eurasian producer countries and the E.U. purchasing nations, possibly trying to leverage the resources against E.U. support for Ukraine and other former Soviet republics and satellites;

(8) Russia’s Black Sea fleet reportedly has at least five Project 636.3 Kilo-class missile capable attack submarines in the Black Sea, however, must surface to launch, and must surface to replenish and rearm. Also, rumors are that Russia’s newest generation deep water combat submarine, the AS-31 Losharik is returning to service after repairs following an onboard fire in 2019. Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI) directly under the Russian MOD reportedly has a fleet of six deep sea, covert mission submarines capable of engaging in counter-sub, counter-communications, combat, and in some cases autonomous nuclear torpedo launch capability. If Russia has one or more of these submarines in the Black Sea, it remains to be seen whether Putin considers them a trump card. The Belgorod is an example of such a submarine spotted in the Arctic in 2022, according to USNI. Also, the covert aspect of “research” covers the military missions such as cutting undersea comm cables. Clandestine missions are of course supposed to be utterly unknown throughout.

Cons from Russian Perspective:

(1) A Russian seizure of Poti or Batumi more probably than not would fan Georgian nationalism costing Russia carefully cultivated and coerced political influence over Georgians. Russia’s larger risk in seizing a Georgian port is that Georgian outrage will fuel Georgian military and partisan guerrilla resistance, tying down Russian manpower and weapons needed for the war on Ukraine;

(2) New Russian seizures of Georgia’s sovereign territory could also ignite militant resistance across other former Soviet Republics and worsening Russia’s relations with Caspian Convention partners not wanting to be dragged into a regional war driven by Putin’s increasingly extreme imperial ambitions;

(3) To seize and hold Poti and or Batumi, Russia would need to secure ground and maritime supply lines for weaponry, munitions, and force replenishment to the seized port(s) and ships using up logistical resources it needs for the war on Ukraine merely to keep the Black Sea Fleet in the sea it exists for when Russian mainland missile batteries could provide long range missiles strikes on Ukraine in the future. This, with the ongoing risk that the remaining Black Sea vessels may still be tracked, damaged, sunk, or abandoned for lack of replenishment should logistics fail. Russia could attempt to hide resupply of its seized ports and remaining fleet via civilian shipping entering through the Bosphorus Strait, or, via rivers and canals linking the Caspian to Azov to Black seas, however, surveillance and inspection activity by Turkey and advanced maritime warfare capabilities by Ukrainian forces and alliances in the Black Sea could interdict logistical efforts;

(4) Ground supply routes from Russia, Abkhazia, Armenia, and airlifts to Poti or Batumi could become vulnerable to opposing ground, air, and air defense sabotage and attack by Georgian independence forces including portable anti-air, IED, guerrilla, sniper, and other irregular warfare methods, whether from native military or partisan guerrillas or both. According to Luke Coffey, if Russia intervened in Georgia, “a large number of Georgians would resist a Russian intervention. The Georgian armed forces are better trained and equipped than they were when Russia last invaded in 2008, and there are more soldiers with combat experience, mainly from Afghanistan. There are also thousands of Georgians fighting as volunteers in Ukraine who would be itching to defend their motherland.”;

(5) Armenia, put off by Russian peacekeepers’ allowance of the displacement of a massive Armenian population by an influx of Azerbaijani forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial conflict, may try to obstruct Russia from launching military operations against Georgia from Russia’s 102nd Military Base, forcing Moscow to become a hostile occupier of Armenia. Armenia is poor, with little global influence and two distrusted, historically hostile neighbors (Turkey, Azerbaijan) unlikely to take Armenia’s side if it seeks international support to cancel Russia’s military base lease before its 2044 expiration even though its lease with Russia specifies protection of Armenia as its purpose, not aggression against Georgia to feed Putin’s aggression against Ukraine; also, some claim Armenia cannot ally with the West until or unless Ukraine wins its defensive war against Russia’s aggression which tends to align Armenian interests with Ukraine’s;

(6) Some Abkhazian, Ossetian, Dagestani, and Chechen factions may disfavor and resist deeper involvement in Russia’s expanding wars adversely impacting Muslims who must fight them for Moscow. With Ramzan Kadyrov rumored to be ailing, Islamist opportunism and warlordism is a rising risk during times of Russia’s extremity. Likewise, Islamist insurgencies may be forming across the Russian Caucasus during Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine. If such an uprising occurs, Georgia and perhaps Armenia may take up arms to expel Russian forces and the Russian Caspian Sea multi-force bases at Kaspiysk and Makhachkala in Dagestan will come under threat, drawing Russian military assets away from the Ukrainian front;

(7) Every expansion of Russian imperial, forceful ambition deepens European Union, U.K., U.S., NATO, Nordic, and significant numbers in former Soviet Republics’ and satellites’ resolve to vigorously adapt and coalesce to defeat the Russian and Chinese imperial expansion threats even if heretofore neutral countries do not want to ultimately favor orientation to any superpower, West or East;

(8) The more Russia extends itself outward to achieve conquest, gets stuck in attritional quagmires, fights insurgencies, and takes losses, the more expensive to China it becomes in time, influence, treasure, and trade relations needed for the Belt and Road to work (which says something about the intentions behind the Belt and Road if China keeps supporting Moscow’s wars). On the flip side, the more dependent Russia becomes on China, nationalistic creditor-debtor resentments on both sides are likely to butt heads eventually, threatening both Putin and Xi, pushing the dictators now seeking unity to reverse themselves.

Preliminary Part I Conclusion

Considering the above and barring acquiescence by the Georgian government to Moscow inviting the Russian military to use Georgia’s ports from which to attack Ukraine, there is roughly a 55% percent chance that Russia will attempt to seize one or both of Georgia’s former naval ports by force or implied force (little green men) by the end of September 2024 while beefing-up the number of warplanes at its 7th Military Base at occupied Bombora, Abkhazia to leverage against increasing AFU airpower over the Black Sea. This may mean putting the Ochamchire naval base upgrade on the back-burner.

The main reasons for this relatively high probability, short term forecast under high-wire conditions on the ground in Ukraine is that (1) Ceding the surface of the Black Sea to Ukrainian and allied Black Sea nations could allow them to prosecute an unmanned surface and subsurface naval asset approach to area denial in the Black Sea region that is both affordable and sustainable. This area denial would also extend Ukraine’s range of fire against Russia and its proxies; (2) Ukraine, with more room to run and supporting nations’ help will enhance its anti-submarine capabilities in the Black Sea; (3) Russia has withdrawn some 2,000 troops from Karabakh and faces Armenian opposition to its continued lease for its 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia. Russia has already agreed to remove its Border Guard detachment from the Armenian border possibly signaling Moscow’s need to move its South Caucasus forces northward into direct support of the war on Ukraine. The closest roads home go through Georgia.

We reserve the right to recalculate this forecast as conditions change, including any possible reliance on this open source analysis to change conditions.

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