US envoy warns against Russian base in Abkhazia

US envoy warns against Russian base in Abkhazia

BRUSSELS, Jan 31 (Reuters) – Russia must refrain from opening a naval base in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia and should agree to extend the mandate of U.N. monitors in the region, said a senior U.S. envoy.

The NATO alliance has already expressed concern at a recent report Moscow plans a naval base in Abkhazia.

A separatist official told Reuters this week that Abkhazia expects to sign a deal over an airbase and naval base within a few months, but there has been no official confirmation from Moscow.

“The possible deployment of a naval base in Abkhazia, an airbase in Abkhazia and a military base in South Ossetia seems to be moving in the wrong direction,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told Reuters in an interview.
Georgia’s pro-Western leaders accuse Russia of effectively annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a second breakaway region that was the focus of Russia’s war with Georgia last August.

“Russia pledged to reduce its troops to the levels and locations of before the Russia-Georgia war,” said Bryza, an envoy to the region. “Russia is already in violation of those commitments… Deploying a naval base would be another violation.”

He said Russia should not prevent the extension of a mandate for United Nations observers in the region, which needs extending by Feb. 15.

“We’ve put compromises forward and Russia has rejected them so far,” he said. “We hope Russia won’t reject the compromise for the United Nations.”

Russia’s crushing of Georgian forces in the five-day war raised concerns in the West about a new Russian assertiveness in its traditional sphere of influence and stirred fears for the safety of energy supplies that run through Georgia.

This winter’s gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which cut off supplies to Europe, stoked those fears further and highlighted the need for renewed investment in Ukraine, said Bryza.

The United States is considering putting its weight behind an $800 million pipeline that would de-bottleneck gas flows from Ukraine into Slovakia.

“From a U.S. perspective it makes it all the more urgent,” he said.
“With this less than a billion dollar investment it is possible to increase the transit of gas by almost 15 billion cubic metres, so about half of the South Stream pipeline for a very small investment,” he added, referring to Russia’s preferred gas project for bypassing Ukraine.

But Ukraine will have to work hard to reassure private investors, who might view the project as too risky.

“It’s time for both sides to rebuild their respective reputations…maybe this proposal to expand gas transit through Ukraine is a way to bring it all back together.”