Georgia proposes Black Sea base for NATO

NATO’s Military Committee (MC) visited Georgia on March 2-3 to discuss implementation of the “Substantial Package” agreed at the Wales Summit in September 2014 in support of Tbilisi’s goal of further NATO integration. The MC is NATO’s senior military body, tasked with providing military advise to the North Atlantic Council. Czech General Petr Pavl, the current chairman of the MC, held meetings with Georgian officials, including Defense Minister Levon Izoria. He also visited the Joint Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC) at Krtsanisi Training Area, established as part of the above-mentioned “Substantial Package” of support. Georgian service members there are currently preparing for deployment to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.

On March 3, the MC held a meeting in Tbilisi with participation of the Georgian side. A particular topic of discussion, besides plans to further build cooperation between Georgia and the Alliance, was NATO’s recently reinforced presence in the Black Sea region to counter Russia’s military buildup. An increase in the number of NATO air patrols over the Black Sea, more frequent training and port visits of the Standing Naval Forces as well as the expansion of an existing multi-national land forces brigade based in Romania were announced at NATO’s Defense Ministerial meeting in February 2017. A NATO official told The Bug Pit blog that these steps would “increase our situational awareness and contribute to NATO’s overall deterrence posture.”

NATO has recently reinforced its air and maritime patrols in the Black Sea area

In Tbilisi, General Pavl and head of the NATO-Georgia Liaison Office, William Lahue, both alluded to Georgia’s role as a Black Sea littoral country and “player” in regional security, saying the “Black Sea component” would be part of discussions with Georgian officials.

A day before the MC’s arrival in Tbilisi, Georgia’s Chief of the General Staff, Vladimer Chachibaia, was somewhat more expansive in his discussion with journalists. He said Defense Minister Izoria had presented to the NATO Defense Ministerial concrete suggestions on Georgia’s “participation in practical measures to ensure security in the Black Sea.”

In this context it is important to consider that Georgia has not had a navy since 2009. The country’s naval forces were initially built in the 1990s on the back of fishing vessels equipped with anti-aircraft and machine guns, donated Ukrainian patrol boats, and some support from Turkey and Greece. Though Georgia was a founding member of the Turkish-led Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (BLACKSEAFOR), its navy was generally considered an inferior component of the armed forces. The sea service lacked a strategic doctrine and the resources to maintain its vessels in seaworthy conditions or to conduct training exercises.

Moreover, a major part of Georgia’s small fleet was destroyed during the August 2008 conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. Its remnants were subsequently folded into the Coast Guard Service as part of the Border Police subordinated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Contrary to its weakly developed navy, the Georgian Coast Guard had already gained a reputation as an effective maritime service, modeled on its U.S. counterpart and supported by that country’s financial and technical aid.

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Georgian Coast Guard vessel P-107 off Batumi in 2010. Photo: Kober via Wikimedia Commons.

General Chachibaia conceded in his comments to journalists that strengthening Georgia’s naval forces would be a prohibitively expensive way for NATO to bolster Georgian involvement in Black Sea security. Instead, he suggested the Alliance set up a coast-guard base near Poti, a coastal town accommodating the headquarters of Georgia’s Coast Guard Service and “a port with strategic significance.”

In that way, NATO might potentially be able to circumvent limitations imposed by the 1936 Montreux Convention, which stipulates that non-Black Sea littoral states must limit their warships deployed in the Black Sea at any one time to a maximum of nine vessels with a combined tonnage of no more than 30,000 tons. These vessels can remain in the Black Sea for at most 21 days, whereas warships with a tonnage larger than 15,000 tons are not allowed to pass the Bosphorus straits at all. The restrictions of the Montreux Convetion, thus, put the Alliance at an inherent disadvantage to the Russian Federation. Not only has Russia embarked on a large-scale modernization program of its maritime forces, by annexing Crimea in early 2014 it has also secured the homeport of its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol.

Expanding on General Chachibaia’s suggestion, military analyst Irakli Aladashvili surmised that the proposed military installation, however, would not be meant to permanently berth NATO vessels in the Black Sea. Rather, it would house a land forces base equipped with artillery and rocket systems, with the primary aim of setting up a so-called A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) zone over a part of the eastern Black Sea. Such a zone would be akin to area denial “bubbles” established by Russia in parts of the Baltic, Black and eastern Mediterranean seas through S-300 and S-400 missile deployments in Kaliningrad, Crimea, and on the Syrian coast.

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Range of Russian anti-access/area denial zones as of August 2016. Illustration: Institute for the Study of War

At this point, NATO officials have not commented on the Georgian suggestion to set up a military installation near Poti, and it is unclear in much how such a proposal corresponds to the Alliance’s interests in the Black Sea region. As Kommersant aptly noted, an area denial zone would more than anything help Georgia protect its own coast — a valid matter of concern, as demonstrated by the events of August 2008.

Back then, a Russian naval convoy led by guided-missile cruiser Moskva had enforced a “security zone” (or blockade, as reported by Georgian and Ukrainian sources) on the coast of Abkhazia, considered by Georgia a separatist region. There are conflicting reports on whether Georgian navy fast-missile craft had attempted to skirmish with the Russian ships and were chased away, or whether the Georgian navy turned tail and evacuated to the southern port of Batumi. What remains beyond doubt is that Georgia’s small naval force would not have stood a chance against the Russian warships dispatched to the Abkhaz coast. Georgian vessels that remained docked at Poti were later destroyed by Russian troops taking control of that city.

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Remnants of Georgian navy flagship Dioskuria in Poti port after its destruction by explosive charge during the August 2008 conflict. Photo: Gavin Sheridan, CC license

In any case, the Georgian government aims to stay engaged in one way or another with NATO’s efforts to bolster its presence in the Black Sea region. A meeting of the Georgian National Security Council on 23 March discussed ways on how the country could “better promote” its interests at the NATO Summit scheduled in Brussels for May. Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua said Georgian contributions to NATO in order to strengthen Black Sea security would also be on the table.

In turn, NSC Secretary Davit Rakviashvili alluded to Ukrainian reports about the deployment of a Russian S-300 missile system to Abkhazia, saying that such a move changes the military balance in the region and “require[s] a reaction […] from NATO members.” (Russia has since denied all reports on the S-300 missile deployment.)

As the May NATO Summit will be open only to Alliance member states and Georgia thus will not be represented by its own officials, President Giorgi Margvelashvili has reportedly asked his Lithuanian counterpart to “raise the topic of Georgia and state Georgia’s position” there on his behalf. Apart from demonstrating Georgia’s continuing efforts to strengthen cooperation with, and approximation to, the North Atlantic Alliance, this also is a sign of how deadly serious the government takes the resurgence of Russia as a Black Sea naval power.

Featured image: Guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul (DDG74) delivers humanitarian assistance to Georgia in August 2008. Photo: Lt. Cmdr. John Gay, courtesy U.S. DoD

This post has been slightly cleaned and touched up since it was first posted.

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