Russia plans naval base in Abkhazia, prompting criticism from Georgia
PHOTO CAPTION: Russian anti-submarine corvette Muromets fires during the joint drills of the Northern and Black Sea fleets, attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the Black Sea, off the coast of Crimea January 9, 2020. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia has signed a deal for a permanent naval base on the Black Sea coast of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, the Izvestiya newspaper reported, prompting criticism from Georgia which said the move was a "gross violation" of its sovereignty.
Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, has been repeatedly targeted by Kyiv's forces since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A day after he met President Vladimir Putin, Aslan Bzhania, the self-styled president of Russian-backed Abkhazia, said on Thursday that an agreement had been signed for a permanent naval base in the Ochamchira region.
"... in the near future there will be a permanent base of the Russian Navy in the Ochamchira district," Bzhania told Izvestiya.
"This is all aimed at increasing the level of defence capability of both Russia and Abkhazia, and this kind of interaction will continue," he said. "There are also things I can't talk about."
When asked about the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred all questions to Russia's defence ministry. Abkhaz authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
Russia recognized Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, as independent states in 2008 after Russian troops repelled a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia in a five-day war which ended on August 12, 2008.
The West accused Russia of effectively annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia and when talk surfaced in 2009 of a Russian base in Ochamchira, the NATO military alliance expressed concern.
Three of the Black Sea littoral states are NATO members - Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.
Most of the world recognises Abkhazia as part of Georgia. Besides Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria have recognised Abkhazia as independent.
Georgia's foreign ministry expressed concern over "the inclusion of the indivisible Abkhazia region of Georgia in the integration processes initiated by Russia".
Such actions "represent a gross violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia", it said.
The news of the Russian base at Ochamchira, where the Soviet Union had a naval base, could indicate that Russia is seeking alternatives to Sevastopol while also expanding its military presence down the Black Sea coast towards Turkey.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Russia had withdrawn the bulk of its Black Sea Fleet from its main base in annexed Crimea due to Ukrainian attacks.
The Kremlin also referred questions about the WSJ report to the defence ministry.
At his meeting with Bzhania on Wednesday, Putin made no comment about a naval base. But Bzhania did say that he wanted to participate in "the integration processes initiated by the Russian side".
(Reporting by Guy FaulconbridgeEditing by Gareth Jones)