Russia is eyeing a new permanent naval base on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia, an official from the region has said, after satellite images showed President Vladimir Putin‘s Black Sea fleet is fleeing occupied Crimea.
Aslan Bzhania, leader of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, met Putin on Wednesday. The next day Bzhania told Russian newspaper Izvestia: “We have signed an agreement, and in the near future there will be a permanent point of deployment for the Russian navy in the Ochamchira district.”
“This is all aimed at increasing the level of defense capability of both Russia and Abkhazia, and this kind of interaction will continue,” he said. “There are also things I can’t talk about.”
The Kremlin has not commented. Newsweek has contacted Russia’s Foreign Ministry for comment via email.
Bzhania’s remarks came as satellite images dated October 1 and 2, shared by three Russian military bloggers on Wednesday, show that some of the largest ships of the Black Sea fleet have repositioned from the port of Sevastopol in Crimea.
The fleet has been dealt a number of blows in recent weeks as Kyiv ramps up its offensive to recapture the Black Sea peninsula that was annexed by Putin in 2014.
On September 22, Ukraine launched a missile attack on the Black Sea fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, reportedly killing a number of senior officers.
Nine days earlier, on September 13, a Ukrainian missile attack on the Sevastopol shipyard damaged a Russian submarine and cruise missile carrier—the Rostov-on-Don—and a large vessel, the Minsk, as they underwent repairs.
Kyiv has said the attacks are part of preparatory measures before it attempts to liberate the peninsula.
In the aftermath of the strikes, satellite images have shown that some of the largest ships of the Black Sea fleet are moored at a naval base near Novorossiysk, while smaller ships are located in Feodosia.
News that Russia is eyeing a permanent naval base in Abkhazia is likely to cause alarm.
The region declared independence in 1999 but is internationally recognized as Georgian. After Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent state in 2008 following Moscow’s victory in the Russo-Georgian War, the West accused Russia of in effect annexing the region.
Newsweek has contacted the Pentagon, U.S. State Department and NATO for comment.
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Update: 10/05/23, 6:00 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add additional information.