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Russia regains key air base to project power in Caucasus

By ARIEL COHEN   |   Feb. 5, 2009 at 12:50 PM
WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- As the dust over the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war settles, the extent of Russia's geopolitical gain in South Caucasus and the Black Sea is becoming clearer.

Besides the naval base in the Abkhazian port of Ochamchire, of which we wrote recently, Moscow intends to restore the former Soviet air base Bombora in the Gudauta district of Abkhazia.

This is the largest military airfield in the southern Caucasus, boasting a runway that is 4 kilometers long. The runway ends less than 100 meters from the sea, allowing aircraft to take off at very low altitudes over the sea and proceed undetected by enemy radar in the initial phases of flight.

In the Soviet times, Gudauta -- Bombora -- air base could accommodate all types of military aircraft, including fighter jets, close air support and heavy military transport. The air base used to host a separate paratroops regiment and was among the first air bases to receive the Soviet Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets (NATO designation Flanker). Sukhoi fighters also operated out of Bombora against Georgian attack aircraft and helicopters in the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz war. At that time, the Russian military ran the base.

In 1999, acting upon Georgia's demands, Moscow committed to withdrawing from the Gudauta base. In 2001 it declared that it had done so -- a claim Tbilisi has contested continually. According to Gazeta.ru, the Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has indirectly confirmed the presence of Russian aircraft in Gudauta after the alleged withdrawal.

In the recent 2008 conflict, Russian airborne troops landed in Bombora to fight the Georgian army in western Georgia.

Whether the Russian military ever fully left the air base or not, there is no question that it is now officially returning. According to a source in the Russian Ministry of Defense, Moscow plans to deploy some 20 aircraft, including a wing of Su-27s (NATO designation Flanker), a squadron of Sukhoi Su-25 (NATO designation Frogfoot) attack aircraft, and several Antonov An-26 (NATO designation Curl) transport aircraft.

The same source identifies "deterrence of Georgia" as the main mission of the base. Moscow also says the restored air base in Abkhazia is necessary to provide proper security for the 2014 Sochi Olympics -- but this explanation is risible.

Deployment of Russian naval, air and land power, including some 3,700 troops, in separatist Abkhazia brings additional threats to Georgia's sovereignty. This move inevitably will worsen relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.

The 26-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization has voiced concern over the new bases. The United States and the 27-nation European Union have accused Russia of violating the cease-fire agreement that called for limiting Russia's military presence in Abkhazia after the August 2008 war. Russia, in turn, accuses the United States of supporting Tbilisi and aiding in the reconstruction and development of Georgia's military capabilities.

With additional warships, fighter aircraft and military personnel near the Black Sea coast of Georgia, Russia is challenging the position of Washington, which recently signed a Strategic Partnership Charter with Tbilisi. In summer 2008, American warships were still able to enter the Georgian waters to deliver humanitarian aid for the war victims.

The United States supports Georgia's sovereignty and is interested in the security of strategic oil and gas transportation routes from the Caspian basin to the West, particularly the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

The new Russian naval and air bases in Abkhazia will change the geopolitical balance of power in the region. They will strengthen Moscow's military stance and make the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity an almost unrealistic project -- exactly what Moscow is trying to achieve.

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(Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy security at the Catherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.)

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