Ochamchire Port: Smuggling, Coal Transportation and Russia’s Influence

2022 / 02 / 04

Author:  Giorgi Beroshvili

In the wake of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Black Sea security has been called into question. The Black Sea is strategically important both for NATO member states (Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria) and their partners, and for Russia which considers the South Caucasus and the Black Sea as its spheres of influence.

The issue is even more urgent in the light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, given that in the event of the conflict escalation, ports located here will give Russia a naval advantage. With this in mind, it becomes interesting to study the role of Georgia in the Black Sea and of naval facilities located in the occupied territories, including the port of Ochamchire. This strategic point has attracted attention after the Russian-Georgian conflict for two reasons - under a 2009 agreement between the de facto government of Abkhazia and Russia, Russian coast guard ships were deployed here, and smuggling  increased in subsequent years. This article briefly reviews the history of the port, as well as its modern political and economic significance.

Location and Infrastructure of the Port

The port of Ochamchire is located in an artificially created bay northwest of the city, between the rivers Mokva and Jukmur. According to current data, the depth of the port has increased to nine meters where ten patrol boats (there are up to ten Sobol and Mongust-class patrol boats in the port) can dock in its southeastern platform. In the northern part of the port there is also a harbor with appropriate infrastructure where ships can be loaded or repaired. This freight platform has a railway connection. It is noteworthy that the development of the port and the equipping of the infrastructure began in 2009, after this strategic facility came under the actual control of Russia. Also noteworthy is the coal-contaminated cargo area near the northern platform (see below photos).

Port of Ochamchire in 2006 (Source: Google)  

Port of Ochamchire in 2017 (Source: Google)

History of the Port During the Soviet Period

As for the history of the port of Ochamchire, it had hosted a detachment of the Batumi Black Sea border ships since 1923, although Ochamchire did not have the status of a city until 1926. The port development begins in the 1930s. During the beginning of the Soviet rule, many infrastructural and economic projects were implemented in Abkhazia, which led to the development of strategic facilities. Among them was the port of Ochamchire the construction of which was finally completed in 1936.

Initially, the port hosted commercial ships; however, in 1940, when the civilian (non-military) fleet moved to the port of Poti, the port of Ochamchire was a small base of Soviet M-class submarines as well. These submarines were of strategic importance during World War II. In 1967, ships of the 6th  Border Guard Brigade of the Soviet State Security Committee were stationed in Ochamchire, and the area around the port was developed accordingly to host military and port personnel. The port was mainly accepting Slava-class cruisers due to insufficient water depth.

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were many port development plans that failed to materialize - including an increase in the size of the fleet and the depth of the port, as well as the development of a submarine base.

Port Development in the Post-Soviet Period

After the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, the port was transferred to the ownership of the de facto government of Abkhazia, which started using it both for military and civil purposes. The port of Ochamchire changed its status again in 2009. On January 26 of the same year, the Russian Navy announced that an agreement with the de facto government of Abkhazia would transform the port into one of the bases of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In April 2009, Russia and Abkhazia (as well as the Tskhinvali region) signed an agreement on the protection of the common "state" border, and at the end of the same year, Russian Federal Security Service patrol boats were deployed in the port to ensure Abkhazia's maritime security. During this period, there were rumors about the possible development of the port and the relocation of the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, as the agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the use of the port of Sevastopol was expiring in 2017 (extended to 2042 after the rule of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine) and Crimea had not yet been annexed.

It’s worth of mentioning that Russia started developing the infrastructure of the port before the 2008 war - a railway connecting Sokhumi and Ochamchire as well as two railway bridges in the Ochamchire district were repaired. According to various sources, it was also planned to deploy a ground radar to increase maritime safety. Consequently, with the capture of the Abkhaz naval strip, Russia's advantage in the Black Sea will increase even more, given the annexation of Crimea.

Significant technical work is needed to increase the capacity of the port of Ochamchire, which is not planned at this stage, therefore the port will not become a large strategic object in the near future. In 2016, Russian Admiral Igor Kasatonov commented on the  possibility of using the port for military purposes and said that there was no need to deploy the Black Sea Fleet in Ochamchire and that only Coast Guard ships would remain here.


Despite its less military potential, the port of Ochamchire acquired a different significance in the following years. In particular, Ochamchire, according to an analytical source, is one of the important points of smuggling transit for Russia. The shipment of illegal goods is facilitated under the cover of the Coast Guard located in the port, as well as the existing infrastructure eases the loading of ships with appropriate goods. For example, in late 2017, the port of Ochamchire was reportedly used for smuggling cigarettes made in Syria - a scheme unveiled by the Ukrainian Navy when they detained a ship coming from Ochamchire to Odessa.

Coal Transportation

Even more important is the issue of natural resources. The same media source released images of the Sokhumi railway taken in 2015 which clearly show coal-laden Russian train carriages that were supposed to be used for export. There was an opinion that the given coal was mined in the so called Luhansk’s People's Republic, Ukraine, and was in transit to Turkey. The author of the same article writes that the coal transported from the Ochamchire port could be considered that was mined  in Abkhazia, in particular in Tkvarcheli, however, the Russian-Abkhaz media says that coal is no longer mined in Tkvarcheli due to technical and economic problems. Consequently, the coal mined in Luhansk goes through Russia to Ochamchire and then to Turkey. It is noteworthy that the coal mined in Luhansk in 2017 ended up in Poland through a similar scheme and was unveiled by local journalists. To track smuggling is difficult given that foreign ships are not allowed to enter the port, however, it is clear that this scheme works successfully.

Sokhumi Railway Station, Coal-Laden Wagons. Photo Taken by a Local Blogger on July 11, 2015. Source:


It’s fact that Russia's influence in the Black Sea was further strengthened by the annexation of Crimea. The development of the Black Sea ports will give an even greater advantage to Russia. However, it should be noted that the Russian ports in the Black Sea (the port of Ochamchire could be considered due to Russia’s influence over Abkhazia) are in an unfavorable condition in terms of infrastructure development, which makes it dangerous to host and transit ships. Consequently, additional Russian investments are needed to increase the capacity of the ports, including Ochamchire.

At this stage, the port of Ochamchire has economic as well as military-political significance. Smuggling of various goods is a source of income for the de facto republic. However, Russia plays a crucial role in the use of the port for cargo-transit or military purposes. It is true that the port cannot receive large ships, however, existing infrastructure of the port enables Russia to conduct tactical and special operations, which poses a big problem for the security of the Black Sea.

Port of Ochamchire in 2021 (Source: Google)


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