For Russia, Abkhazia is one of the most strategic territories to hold in the Caucasus to influence Georgia. Abkhazia is the home of Georgia's Black Sea port, Sukhumi. Part of Abkhazia constitutes a thin coastal strip connecting Georgia with Russia, serving as the only direct road and rail link that can handle heavy traffic between the two countries.
According to the new agreement, Russia and Abkhazia will develop a common defense and security space, and Russia will provide assistance should Abkhazia be attacked. In addition, Russia will finance the Abkhaz army's modernization and form a combined Russian-Abkhazian force. Russia will also station troops on the Abkhazian-Georgian border. In reality, Russia already held such military capabilities in Abkhazia before the agreement was signed, financially and tactically supporting much of the Abkhazian military in an unofficial capacity. Still, this agreement makes it official that Russian policy is to support and defend the breakaway region.
Following the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and Abkhazia's subsequent declaration of independence from Georgia, Russia solidified its military presence in Abkhazia. Before the war, Russia had stationed a fluctuating 1,000-2,500 force of so-called "peacekeepers" in Abkhazia. Today, Russia has 3,800 military and 1,500 Federal Security Bureau personnel in Abkhazia at 20 border postings. Russia has also bolstered the hardware at its base in Gudauta, its primary military installation in Abkhazia, by deploying the S-300 air defense system. In 2010, Abkhazia extended Russia's lease on the Gudauta base to 2059 with a 15-year extension option, creating the impression that Russia is permanently establishing its military presence in the region.
Even before Russia expanded military ties with Abkhazia, there was little Georgia could do to counter Moscow's presence. The Georgian military is miniscule compared to the Russian armed forces. Georgia has 37,000 active military personnel and 140,000 in reserves. Russia has more soldiers than that stationed in the Northern Caucasus alone, and it has 1 million soldiers and 2 million reservists overall. Strengthening the Abkhazian military, of course, diminishes Georgia's influence in the breakaway region even further.
In formalizing its military presence and flexibility in Abkhazia, Russia is sending a signal to Tbilisi that it is committed to defending the region. On Nov. 18, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced his country is expanding ties with NATO, including the opening of a NATO training center in Georgia — though the details of the agreement are not yet clear. Russia's formalized military ties with Abkhazia are likely Moscow's response, as well as a show of NATO's limitations in protecting its allies.
It will be important to see if Russia formalizes similar agreements with Georgia's other Russian-occupied breakaway region, South Ossetia, where an expansion of military ties would be more concerning for Tbilisi. Russia already props up nearly all of South Ossetia's security and military sectors, and there are 3,000 Russian military and 1,000 FSB personnel stationed in the region. While Abkhazia is relatively isolated geographically from Georgia proper, South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali is a mere 92 kilometers (57 miles) from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Because of its proximity to Tbilisi, any bolstering of Russian forces in South Ossetia would be a larger threat to Georgia than an increase in Abkhazia.
Another possible motive for Russia's actions is to counter the accusations that Moscow will annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia like it did with Crimea. Georgia and NATO discussed the issue at their summit, and there have been protests in Tbilisi over the past week for the government to prevent the annexation. Russia could be showing that it does not have to annex a territory to occupy it, something most of the former Soviet states already know. However, this expands Moscow's official policy to support and defend these regions. This could be a signal not only to Georgia, but to other former Soviet states where Russia is militarily stationed within breakaway regions, such as Moldova and Ukraine. Ultimately, Russia is signaling that it does not have to annex a region in order to occupy or defend it.