Why is Russia Modernizing Abkhazian Forces?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

A Soviet-build infantry fighting vehicle, BMD-1, of Abkhazian armed forces rolls during a military parade to mark the 20th anniversary of Georgia's rebel region's de facto independence in Sukhumi on September 30, 2013. (Photo: Ibragim Chkadua).
A Soviet-build infantry fighting vehicle, BMD-1, of Abkhazian armed forces rolls during a military parade to mark the 20th anniversary of Georgia’s rebel region’s de facto independence in Sukhumi on September 30, 2013 (Photo: Ibragim Chkadua).

In September 2019, the Russian Federation’s President Vladimir Putin announced that his government would finance defence modernization efforts in Abkhazia, a secessionist region of Georgia that was formally recognized by Russia after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War but by few other countries since. What this modernization might look like for Abkhazia or for South Ossetia, another breakaway region of Georgia, is unclear but merits further analysis, especially as Russia could look to introduce similar programs in the future in occupied regions of Ukraine, such as Crimea and the so-called Donbas.

The Abkhazian Armed Forces are made up of three armed branches – land forces, the navy and air forces. Land forces are deployed in three military districts: the central (Sukhumi), eastern (Ochamichira) and western (Pitsunda). There are 2,200 active personnel, the Abkhazia Air Force is equipped with 5 L-39 jet trainers, 3 transport aircrafts and 6 helicopters. The Abkhazian Navy consists of 1 battalion (350 persons) and 15 motor boats. — Grazvydas Jasutis, “Georgia-Abkhazia: The Predominance of Irreconcilable Positions“, Geneva Academy, The War Report 2018, October 2018.

The current size and capabilities of the Abkhazian Armed Forces, the secessionists’ military force, are unclear. However, most reliable sources indicate a standing force between 2,200 and 5,000 soldiers as well as reserves of 25,000 to 50,000 personnel. Much of the arms and equipment used by these forces was obtained either from the Soviet Airborne Forces base in Gudauta, situated on the Black Sea, or through arms transfers from the Russian Federation during the 1990’s and what could be captured from Georgian forces during the 2008 war. As such, Russian sources state that the Abkhazians have a modest arsenal of T-55 and T-72 tanks, BMP-1 and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, and BTR-60 armoured personnel carriers. Owing to its Black Sea coastline, the Abkhazian military also has a maritime branch, but this is believed to consist of only 15 motor boats that have been jury-rigged where possible to carry machine guns. 

With much of Abkhazia’s equipment dating back to the 1960’s and 1970’s, a serious modernization effort would be rather expensive. By way of comparison, according to the Georgian Armed Forces, they consist 37,000 active personnel (however the Military Balance 2019 lists 20,650 active personnel), supported by an annual defence budget of more than $300 million. Much of the Georgian military’s equipment was also inherited from the Soviet Union, but reportedly Georgia intends to replace its attack helicopters with designs from NATO members and the country receives training assistance from NATO under the Partnership for Peace and other similar programs. Somewhat concerning, though, is Georgia’s plans to replace its Su-25KM fighters with drones, which would attempt to fulfil the same close air support (CAS) role. 

Evidently, despite diminishing capabilities in some areas, Georgia would be more than ready to hold its own against Abkhazia in a conflict. It is the role of Russian forces in the region that tips the scales in Abkhazia’s favour, with about 4,000 Russian soldiers deployed in Gadauta and a smaller naval base in Ochamchire. This “rapid reaction force” is supported by at least four combat aircraft stationed in Gadauta – two Su-27SKM fighters and two MiG-29’s. Even with their anti-air systems, Georgian ground forces would likely find themselves at the mercy of Russian air superiority in the event of a renewed conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, making Georgia’s move to sell off its conventional combat aircraft all the more puzzling.

Abkhazia's Defense Minister Mirab Kishmaria (L) and Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu shake hands during a meeting ahead of signing an agreement on financing modernization of Abkhazia's Armed Forces in August 2019 (Photo: Alexei Yereshko).
Abkhazia’s Defense Minister Mirab Kishmaria (L) and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu shake hands during a meeting ahead of signing an agreement on financing modernization of Abkhazia’s Armed Forces (Photo: Alexei Yereshko).

To wean Abkhazia off of its reliance on Russian security guarantees, a substantial investment would be needed. Beyond the acquisition of a few combat aircraft and missile boats, Abkhazia would need more anti-armour weapons and newer tanks if it is to face off against Georgia’s larger number of T-72’s. This would also require a sustained financial commitment from Russia if Abkhazia were to keep pace with Georgia’s own modernization efforts, which include support from NATO and several of its member states. It is also important to keep in mind that modernization efforts in Abkhazia will likely have to be matched with similar assistance to South Ossetia, which relies on 2,500 active military personnel and reserves of 13,500. Bolstering Abkhazia but neglecting South Ossetia could breed distrust in the latter for Russia or present Georgia with the perceived invitation to force a change on the ground in South Ossetia. As Russia has offered to sell India surplus MiG-29’s at a cost of $25-30 million per aircraft, it is easy to imagine that a serious effort to modernize Abkhaz and South Ossetian forces could become prohibitively expensive. 

Some observers have sought a geopolitical explanation for this, arguing that Russia’s pursuit of dominance in the Black Sea region could justify the expense. More likely, Russia does not intend for the genuine modernization of Abkhaz and South Ossetian forces. Rather, the announced program is intended to serve the interests of Russia’s own arms industry, which has been struggling to survive amid declining exports, increased production costs, and domestic budgetary constraints. The pledged assistance to Abkhazia has created new demand for arms, which will undoubtedly be supported by long-term contracts for maintenance on all of this new, modernized equipment. This is not by any means the “shot in the arm” that the Russian defence industry currently needs – such as Russia’s hoped-for sale of Su-35 or Su-57 fighters to Turkey, India, or China – but it at least allows Putin to demonstrate to the industry that he is exhausting every possible avenue to keep the sector running. It is through this lens that Russia’s recent behaviour in Abkhazia can best be understood: not as part of some grand geopolitical project, but as a desperate strategy to stave off the decline of another Russian industry.  

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Paul Pryce, Russia, Security Policy.

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