Ochamchire Port: Geopolitical Powder Keg in the Black Sea or Much Ado About Nothing?

March 2024

Since autumn 2023, there have been claims that a port in Ochamchire, a district in Abkhazia on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, will become a new hub for the Russian Black Sea Fleet and that this could extend the bloody war in Ukraine to the Caucasus. However, recent satellite and drone imagery of the port in Ochamchire obtained by the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) shows that, so far, nothing of relevance has happened there — and that the prospect of a major Russian naval base in Ochamchire remains unlikely.

The port of Ochamchire on the eastern coast of the Black Sea (22nd of November 2023; courtesy of David Katsarava / Anti-Occupation Movement Strength in Unity)

Small Port, Big Claims

Since October 2023, numerous reports asserted that the small port in Ochamchire, Abkhazia, is set to become a geopolitical focal point (see e.g. herehere, and here). These reports mentioned that Ukrainian attacks against Russian warships sailing in the Black Sea and mooring in Crimean and Russian Black Sea ports forced the Russian Navy to move the ships of its battered Black Sea Fleet farther away from Ukraine. And that the Russian Navy, which has already stopped using Sevastopol on Crimea as the Fleet’s main port, redeploying warships mostly to the more distant Novorossiysk, is looking to place them in even farther away ports than that. The latter supposedly includes the port in Ochamchire on the coast of Abkhazia. Abkhazia, a small territory nestled in between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountain range, sees itself as an independent state that is, however, only recognised by five countries in the world, including Russia, with the vast majority of the international community deeming it an integral part of Georgia. Since a war in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Georgia has, in practice, lost control over Abkhazia, which de facto governs itself in close collaboration with Russia. 

In view of this and as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on 24th of October 2023, vowed that Ukraine would attack Russian warships «everywhere» in the Black Sea, implying that this also encompassed Ochamchire, observers saw a risk that Ukrainian forces could hit Russian ships in Ochamchire port — and that this would then bring the war to Abkhazia and, given Georgia’s territorial claim over Abkhazia, by extension also to Georgia (see e.g. here).


What triggered all these big claims was a short remark of the de facto Abkhaz president Aslan Bzhania. In an interview that Bzhania gave to Russian newspaper Izvestia and that was published on 5th of October 2023, Bzhania said that Abkhazia had «signed an agreement [with Russia] and, in the near future, there will be a permanent base for the Russian Navy in the Ochamchire district». That was almost all that he mentioned on the subject, only generically adding that this plan is «aimed at increasing the level of the defence capability of both, Russia and Abkhazia». The vast rest of the interview concerned an array of other topics, most of which Bzhania and the interviewer seemingly deemed significantly more important than the alleged plans for Ochamchire as they talked in more detail about them.

De facto president of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania (17th of November 2020; source: http://presidentofabkhazia.org/region/photogallery/368/13095/)

The other allegedly involved party, the Russian government, has, as far as it could be determined, so far not commented on the purported plan to establish a Russian naval base in Ochamchire and Bzhania’s statements barely registered inside Russia. [1] Efforts by SIGA to obtain a Russian comment on Ochamchire remained unsuccessful.


While Bzhania’s statement created larger and larger circles, there was little to no clear factual information whether and, if so, what was actually happening in Ochamchire. On 23rd of October 2023, Vadym Skibitskiy, the deputy chief of the defence intelligence department of Ukraine, claimed that «active work» was ongoing in Ochamchire, namely that «the Russians have carried out dredging work there» and that «they have reconstructed the port infrastructure in some parts in order to ensure the basing of warships there». Later, in December 2023, a BBC report also indicated signs of dredging of the port. However, all these claims remained unsubstantiated or open to questions.

No Significant Changes

To clarify, what, if anything, is going on in Ochamchire, SIGA obtained recent satellite and drone imagery of the port there, with the latest having been taken on 5th of March 2024. The satellite imagery and related analysis was kindly provided by Alcis; the drone footage was shared by David Katsarava from the Anti-Occupation Movement Strength in Unity, a private initiative of a group of Georgian citizens who, amongst others, monitor the line of control between Georgia and Abkhazia, which they see as a Russian-occupied territory.


And these photos prove that nothing of relevance has so far happened in the port in Ochamchire. As can be seen from the below as well as additional imagery reviewed by SIGA, the port almost looks the same as since at least 2016.

The very few structures that have been added in the port of Ochamchire since Russia’s fulls scale invasion of Ukraine on 24th of February 2022 — namely another small quay on the western side of the harbour basin and a roofed structure just north-northwest of the harbour — were built well before Bzhania’s claim about an agreement on a Russian naval base in Ochamchire, as they are already visible on the above satellite image from 21st of January 2023 (marked with red rectangles).


And they do not appear to be of any military relevance. «The small additional quay is not serving military purposes, as it is accessed by open, unsecured ground,» a western naval officer, who has closely followed developments in Ochamchire, told SIGA. Given the new quay’s, in general and also in comparison to the other wharves in Ochamchire, very small size, it seems in any event inconsequential for the notion of a deployment of larger warships. «The roofed structure appears to be linked to the coal port» the naval officer then added, referring to the commercial civilian port on the northern side of the harbour used to ship coal out of Ochamchire. Comparing even older imagery also shows that changes in the port during the past years seem all related to coal operations or other civilian activities.

Conveyor belt to load ships in Ochamchire with coal (December 2022; Doğuş Kürkan, Google Maps)

Further reviewing imagery obtained by SIGA, the naval officer stated that he cannot see any signs of substantial dredging, elaborating that the reported dredging was likely only for maintenance. That said, satellite photos show that the dredging highlighted in the cited BBC article near the wave breaker at the entrance to the port (see also orange rectangles in above imagery), happened somewhen between 22nd of February and 30th of October 2022 (not published photo seen by SIGA) — i.e. well before Bzhania’s statements from October 2023 and well before any indication that Russia had a notable imminent interest in Ochamchire. From other satellite photos it also becomes apparent that such dredging near the wave breaker seemingly happens regularly and does not signify anything out of the ordinary.


In this regard, Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze, a retired Georgian officer who had, in the past, served as Chief of Defence of Georgia as well as deputy director of Georgia’s foreign intelligence service, confirmed to SIGA that the port in Ochamchire has always required regular dredging to keep its depth, which, Major General Kapanadze, asserted is, since 2009, about 9 metres. This depth of 9 metres was also mentioned in an assessment of the port from early 2022 published by the Rondeli Foundation, an independent Georgian think tank.


That said, the part of the port on the southern side of the harbour basin, which is since 2009 used by border guards of the Russian Federal Security Service (Федеральная служба безопасности (ФСБ) (FSB)) and is easily discernible due to the blue-coloured roofs of its buildings, remains, as of 5th of March 2024, unchanged. This and other Russian FSB units are officially hosted by the de facto Abkhaz government to support the latter with border security. The imagery obtained by SIGA also implies that there has not only been no increase, but potentially even a decrease, in the number of FSB patrol boats that are stationed in Ochamchire. [2]

FSB base with patrol boats in the harbour of Ochamchire (22nd of November 2023; David Katsarava / Anti-Occupation Movement Strength in Unity); later recorded satellite photos (see e.g. above photo from 5th of March 2024) and drone footage (see below) confirm that there has been no changes since then.

For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that satellite and drone images from 15th of January and 28th of February 2024 respectively show the amassing of boats in the port of Ochamchire. While it could not be determined what exactly all these ships were doing in the harbour, they were almost certainly not military, but commercial vessels, likely fishing boats. In view of this and as similar gatherings of numerous boats in the harbour of Ochamchire can be seen on older satellite photos, including such predating Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this does in any event not appear to stand in connexion with heightened Russian military activity in the Black Sea.

Drone footage from 28th of February 2024; courtesy of David Katsarava / Anti-Occupation Movement Strength in Unity

Unlikely Prospects for a Major Naval Base

That so far nothing of relevance has happened in Ochamchire was also confirmed by the de facto Secretary of Abkhazia’s Security Council Sergei Shamba, who was, on 12th of January 2024, quoted as having said that there has not yet been any construction work related to the alleged base in Ochamchire. Shamba then added though that the planned base might start operating in 2024, qualifying that it would be «difficult to say when exactly and what will be there.»


The alleged imminent use of Ochamchire port by the Russian Black Sea Fleet is technically possible, even in the port’s current form as seen in latest imagery and with the reasonable assumption of a harbour depth of 9 metres. «All active Russian navy ships currently in the Black Sea could, individually, be accommodated in Ochamchire port,» an independent naval analyst who has reviewed various imagery of the port told SIGA. «The largest types are two Admiral-Grigorovich-class frigates with a length of 124.8 metres and a draft of 4.2 metres and a single Ivan-Gren-class landing ship with a length of 135 metres and a draft of 3.8 metres, all of which could be berthed in Ochamchire,» the analyst elaborated. According to the same analyst, the current infrastructure would also allow for loading and unloading of warships, all the more given the war footing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The limited berthing space in Ochamchire could, at least to some extent, be overcome by berthing ships stern-on instead of sideways, which the Russian navy has done in other ports, both the analyst and the above cited naval officer noted.


All this has to be qualified though. All cited experts, the naval officer, the analyst, and Major General Kapanadze, noted that the current size of the harbour in Ochamchire is relatively small and much too small for a major naval base. This also becomes quickly evident, if one compares satellite images of the port in Ochamchire with the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s former and current main ports in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk. 

Sevastopol (Source: Google Maps)

Novorossiysk (Source: Google Maps)

Elaborating further, the naval analyst as well as the naval officer stated that, while larger Russian warships could technically be accommodated in Ochamchire, the size of the port does not make this very practicable. In this regard, the naval officer added that, although stern-on berthing of larger warships would be possible in Ochamchire, it would very soon interfere with the turn around of vessels in the harbour basin. This could, in theory, be solved by enlarging the harbour basin. However, this would require the demolition of parts of the current port, dredging away of whole plots of land, and building new wharves and other infrastructure — which would be a major undertaking that would take several years. (The time frame of at least three years to build a Russian Navy base in Ochamchire mentioned by Grigol Liuashvili, the director of Georgia’s State Security Service, on 19th of October 2023, likely refers to such or a similar scenario.)


As such, all cited experts agreed that smaller warships, especially corvettes, would be a more natural and reasonable fit for Ochamchire port. Given that such corvettes can carry missiles, including Kalibr cruise missiles which have been used to hit targets in Ukraine, this would, if it should happen, be a significant development though.


However, also such a scenario would have to be qualified. «Warships need regular maintenance, especially if they are frequently operated in a war setting,» the naval officer told SIGA. «As such, if corvettes or any other warships were to be permanently or for a longer time based in Ochamchire, they would require respective maintenance facilities there, which currently do not exist,» he added. As pointed out by the naval officer, available imagery maintenance-wise indeed shows only a small berth and cradle in the FSB base that can only provide maintenance to the mentioned patrol boats or other small vessels but not larger ships. While building maintenance facilities for larger ships in Ochamchire port would be possible, this would, according to the naval officer, not only be costly, but also take considerable time and even in the best case more than the period of less than a year indicated by Shamba. In this regard and given that other expenditures would arguably have a more direct impact on Russia’s war effort, the naval officer also raised questions about the prospect of Russia choosing to make major investments in Ochamchire.

FSB base with highlighted maintenance facility for small boats (22nd of November 2023; David Katsarava / Anti-Occupation Movement Strength in Unity)

«Another problem is that Ochamchire is quite far away from the Russian Navy’s main theatre of operations in the northern Black Sea, which, although making the port safer from potential Ukrainian attacks, also significantly limits the operational usefulness of vessels based there» the naval officer added. While the long range of some versions of Kalibr cruise missiles might be able to qualify this to some extent, it would not resolve this problem completely.


In view of this and if the Russian objective should indeed be to have a new naval base that is farther away from Ukraine but nonetheless still close enough to meaningfully operate in the northern Black Sea, there are arguably more suitable options than Ochamchire. The naval officer agreed with this, mentioning the port in Tuapse, northwest of Sochi on the Russian Black Sea coast, as an example. While the port in Tuapse is, as far as it could be determined, currently not used militarily, repurposing it would, given its larger size and infrastructure, likely be easier than upgrading the port in Ochamchire.


This was indirectly also corroborated by Major General Kapanadze who stated that circumstances in Ochamchire, including the problem with regular sedimentation in the harbour basin and thereby caused need for dredging, do not make it a good location for a port. He further elaborated that this was one of the reasons that the Soviet Union, even when the port was actively used and needed in World War II, never planned to build a larger naval base there.


In view of all the above, the notion that Ochamchire port will become a major Russian naval base appear unlikely. This holds true despite claims of Abkhaz officials to the contrary, as such assertions remain vague and have never been corroborated by anyone else, most noteworthy also not the Russian side [3].


In this regard, it should also be underscored that talks about a more significant Russian base in Ochamchire are anything but new. For example, in January 2009, Russian state news agency TASS quoted an unnamed source at the headquarters of the Russian Navy as saying that «[t]he fundamental decision on creating a Black Sea Fleet base in Ochamchire has been taken», that «practical work, including dredging,» will start the same year, and that the plans are set to be completed in «more than a year» — which then never happened (as mentioned above, the existing stationing of patrol boats in Ochamchire concerns FSB border guard units, not the Russian Black Sea Fleet). As such, and barring further factual evidence, it is therefore well possible that the current Abkhaz claims will be a repetition of such never implemented alleged plans.


Notwithstanding the above, it is possible that the port in Ochamchire — whether in its current or a upgraded form — might be used as a subsidiary port for some Russian Navy operations, such as refuelling or resupplying. Due to the above outlined reasons this would, however, likely be much less significant than most recent reports claim and not amount to a base where a relevant number of Russian warships would be deployed permanently. Indeed, in such a scenario, only a few ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet would be in Ochamchire and only temporarily, meaning that the Russian Navy would, in case it should want to re-deploy its Black Sea Fleet, still have to find other permanent ports or solutions.


For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that, in connexion with the potential use of Ochamchire for some Russian Navy activities, the analyst and Major General Kapanadze independently of each other mentioned that Ochamchire could be used as a stop over or end port in existing Russian cargo operations between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, including ports in Russian-allied Syria.


Given all the above, even such a scenario should, as long as there is no factual evidence — such as proof of Russian navy ships going to port in Ochamchire or the construction of militarily relevant infrastructure there — be viewed with caution, as jumps to conclusions prove to be questionable [4].

Franz J. Marty

[1] On 5th of October 2023, Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of Russian president Vladimir Putin, referred a question about the alleged agreement for a Russian naval base in Ochamchire to the Russian Ministry of Defence, which, as far as it could be determined, has never commented on the issue. The same applies to other Russian officials. That Bzhania’s statements were barely, if at all a topic inside Russia, was indicated by people in Moscow.


[2] Major General Kapanadze as well as the already mentioned assessment of the Rondeli Foundation from early 2022 indicated that the patrol boats in Ochamchire are from the Mangust- and Sobol-class. The cited report from the Rondeli Foundation added that, at that time (i.e. in early 2022), ten Russian patrol boats were stationed in Ochamchire. That said, several images reviewed by SIGA, including satellite photos as recent as 5th of March 2024, suggest that there are now slightly less than ten patrol boats in Ochamchire; this could, however, not be definitively confirmed.


[3] The notion that Russia is intentionally silent on reports about plans for a Russian naval base in Ochamchire is hardly convincing.

If Russia would want to hide purported plans in Ochamchire, it would be unlikely that they would have been spilled by mistake in an interview of the Russian-allied de facto president of Abkhazia.

The possibility that the Kremlin intends to pressure Georgia with reports about a naval base in Abkhazia, be it in general or to discourage the building of planned large commercial sea port in Georgian-controlled Anaklia, a mere 40 km south of Ochamchire, but wants to have credible deniability and, hence, uses Abkhaz officials for such announcements is also questionable. This namely derives from the fact that Russian officials have, in the recent past, not been shy to directly pressure Georgia, as, for example, seen in this Tweet from the Representation Office of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Crimea from March 2023.


[4] Another example of highly questionable jumps to conclusions were reports from October 2023 indicating that Russian electronic warfare systems seen on photographs of a base in Pichori, 35 km south of Ochamchire and just behind the line of control to Abkhazia, are meant to counter expected Ukrainian drone attacks against Ochamchire (see e.g. here, here, and here). Given Ukraine’s location northwest of Ochamchire and the long distances, the notion that any Ukrainian drone would attempt to attack Ochamchire from the south, where Pichori is located, is highly unlikely. Furthermore, if Russian electronic warfare systems would be meant to protect Ochamchire, they would in any event be rather stationed in or closer to Ochamchire — where there is, according to reviewed drone footage recorded on 22nd of November 2023, no sign of such systems. As such, the systems in Pichori, which could not be definitively identified but might be for signals intelligence rather than jamming, appear not directly linked to Ochamchire.

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Kommentare: 1
  • #1

    Stuart Barnard (Samstag, 23 März 2024 11:52)

    Great article with real perspective.