A Georgian coast guard vessel at its base in Poti. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs.)
When NATO officials announced last month that they were planning to increase the alliance's presence on the Black Sea, they noted that the details of what that would look like are still being worked out. Since then, Georgia and Ukraine have offered creative solutions about how they might chip in -- with NATO's help, of course.
The Black Sea has become one of the most dynamic sites of confrontation between Russia and NATO since Russia's annexation of Crimea, with both sides substantially stepping up their military activities in, around, and over the sea. But one limitation to an expanded NATO presence in the sea is the Montreux Convention, the 1936 international agreement that regulates the use of the Bosphorus straits. It restricts the presence of warships from non-littoral states to 21 days in the Black Sea. That affects all NATO countries other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. But NATO aspirant Georgia had one idea.
"One of the possibilities for strengthening the capabilities of NATO in the Black Sea is frequent visits of alliance warships, but there is a restraining factor here -- the Montreux Convention," said Brigadier General Vladimir Chachibaia, Georgia's chief of general staff. "One possibility is if NATO helps Georgia and Ukraine strengthen their military fleets, which costs a lot of money. Or, for example, create a coast guard base on Georgia's coast." He suggested that such a base could be "near Poti -- a port with strategic significance."
Last week, the chairman of the NATO Military Committee, General Petr Pavel, visited Tbilisi and while Chachibaia's proposals were not publicly mentioned, Black Sea issues were on the agenda. "We believe that security situation deserves discussion at regional level and of course Georgia is one of [littoral] countries of Black Sea. It has tremendous experience and expertise we can draw on," Pavel said. "Georgia is definitely a player and can contribute to the overall regional security.”
Alongside Pavel, Chachibaia alluded to the proposal: "Georgia has already appealed to the NATO headquarters to get information about the form of Georgia`s involvement in Black Sea security affairs. In this case, a particular importance is attached to the role of ministries of Defence and [Internal] Affairs." (Georgia dissolved its navy in 2009 and folded it into the coast guard, which is part of the ministry of internal affairs.)
Georgian military expert Irakli Aladashvili told Russian newspaper Kommersant that this wouldn't be a NATO base per se, but "a land forces base capable of 'covering' the eastern part of the Black Sea. 'Russian armed forces occupied Poti in August 2008, recognizing the strategic significance of this coastal port," he said. That base, he added, would be equipped with "artillery and rockets capable of controlling a significant part of the eastern Black Sea," which sounds a bit like the anti-access/area denial strategy Russia is using around the Black Sea.
The first part of Chachibaia's suggestion is not dissimilar from a Ukrainian proposal to buy old ships from NATO members. Ihor Voronchenko, the commander of the country's navy, said that it was in talks to build up its navy, which was already in dire straits before Russia annexed Crimea and with it, a large portion of Ukraine's naval vessels. Reports Newsweek, via an interview of Voronchenko on Ukrainian TV:
Voronchenko said a Ukrainian naval delegation recently returned from a NATO state that he was not authorized to name, where they discussed purchasing older Western ships to fill out Ukraine’s ranks.
“Several options were looked at and we decided that for the resources that we have, we will be able to buy a mine-sweeping set,” he said. “The same (solution) is being worked on for acquiring ships for the coastal area.”
Ukraine is already getting substantial military aid from the United States to help rebuild its navy, and training from other NATO members including Britain, France, and Italy.
But it was the mention of the "base" at Poti, albeit only a coast guard one, that piqued the most interest. No Russian officials seem to have publicly commented on it, but it got a lot of attention in the Russian press. A sample of some headlines: "Georgia Proposes Clever Way to Cheat Montreux Convention, Host NATO in Black Sea" (Sputnik). "NATO Drops Anchor at Poti" (Svobodnaya Pressa). "Georgia Waits by the Sea for NATO," a play on a Russian phrase meaning to wait for something that won't come. (Kommersant).
Aside from the merits of the proposal itself, it also seems to suggest that Chachibaia, who was appointed in November, is looking to make a dramatic mark on the Georgian armed forces. Recall that he also has announced a plan to get rid of all the country's attack jets and replace them with drones. Georgia's defense ministry also is undertaking a fairly dramatic restructuring of the armed forces' structures, so we can likely expect more unexpected announcements.