Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
On April 1, Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi met Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Tunis. In a statement to reporters after their meeting, Hadi praised Russia for supporting Yemen’s U.N.-recognized government, and Bogdanov expressed Moscow’s desire to facilitate the stabilization of Yemen.
Although media coverage of the Arab League summit highlighted the cordial relationship between Hadi’s government and Moscow, Russia has actively engaged with a wide array of political stakeholders in Yemen. In late October 2018, a delegation of Houthi rebels, led by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, met with Bogdanov in Moscow and endorsed Russia as a potential mediator in Yemen. This meeting was followed in March by the visit of Aidarous al-Zubaidi, the president of Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, to Moscow.
Russia’s policy of universal engagement in Yemen has remained consistent since the start of the war. In April 2015, Russia was the only country to abstain from U.N. Resolution 2216, which imposed sanctions on senior Houthi officials for undermining the stability of Yemen. Russia also maintained diplomatic staff in both Aden and Sanaa until Houthi rebels assassinated former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017. Russia’s policy of strategic nonalignment in Yemen can be effectively explained by Moscow’s material interests in the Gulf of Aden, soft power promotion aspirations in the Middle East, and desire to balance the conflicting interests of its regional partners.
Since the establishment of South Yemen in 1967 and its later declaration as a Marxist state, Russia has valued the strategic importance of the Gulf of Aden. During the 1970s, the Soviet Union leveraged its alliance with South Yemen to secure a naval base in Aden and a resupply facility on the island of Socotra. Although the 1990 unification of Yemen caused Russia to lose access to these military installations, the former commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Feliks Gromov, and academics at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies have called for the revival of these Soviet-era facilities. As different parties maintain control over areas with access to Yemen’s coasts – the U.N.-recognized government retains control over Socotra, the Southern Transitional Council exerts de facto authority over Aden, and the Houthis still occupy ports on the Red Sea coast – Russia views a policy of strategic neutrality as the most effective guarantor of a future base presence on the Gulf of Aden.
In addition, Russia views its neutral position in Yemen as an opportunity to increase its soft power in the Middle East and distinguish itself from the United States. Russia has highlighted the distinction between its neutrality in Yemen, which allows it to repeatedly call for an immediate end to the war, and Washington’s open support for the Saudi-led coalition. Russian state media outlets have attempted to shape international opinion on the Yemen conflict by highlighting Washington’s culpability in coalition airstrikes that cause civilian casualties. In November 2018, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States of stalling prospective peace talks in Yemen, while notably refusing to blame Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or Iran for continued hostilities. Although the success of Moscow’s information offensive against U.S. involvement in the war is unclear, Russia is trying to depict itself as a leading advocate of peace in Yemen.
Although Russia’s military base ambitions and soft power promotion objectives hinge on its continued nonalignment in Yemen, Moscow has not completely detached itself from developments on the ground. Instead, Russia has worked to establish common ground with leading regional powers involved in the conflict. In order to extend its cooperation with Iran in Syria to Yemen, Russia has defended Tehran against allegations of providing ballistic missiles to the Houthis, and blocked a U.S.-sponsored draft U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s alignment with the Houthis in December 2018. Russian diplomats have also echoed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s four-point plan for peace in Yemen, in their calls for a political resolution to the war.
To appeal to Saudi Arabia, Russia has supported Hadi’s legitimacy as Yemen’s president, on the condition that he remains recognized as such by the United Nations. In October 2017, a Russian medical team performed surgery on Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president, with Saudi Arabia’s approval, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decried the radicalization of the Houthis after Saleh’s murder. According to Yemen’s ambassador to Russia, Ahmed Salem al-Wahishi, the Russian Foreign Ministry has denounced Houthi missile strikes against oil tankers operating on the Bab el-Mandeb strait. This is an issue of vital interest to both Russia and Saudi Arabia, as 5 million barrels of oil a day transit through the Bab el-Mandeb.
Acknowledging the UAE’s interests in Yemen, particularly in the south, Russia has emphasized the importance of addressing Southern Yemen’s aspirations in U.N. peace talks, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the first to formally request a meeting with Southern Transitional Council officials. Yet Russia has refrained from supporting their separatist ambitions, as these aspirations are opposed by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Russia has appeased these countries by urging Fuad Rashid, the head of the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary al-Hirak for Liberation and Independence of the South, to work within the confines of U.N. Resolution 2216.*
By establishing common ground with the most influential regional stakeholders in Yemen and showcasing its ability to maintain good relations with all major Yemeni factions, Russia is seeking to expand its influence over the conflict resolution process in Yemen. In recent months, Lavrov has engaged with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Egypt, on ending the war. Peter Salisbury, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, has noted that Russia could try to present itself as a backchannel facilitator of dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. Kirill Semenov, a noted Russian geopolitical analyst focusing on Yemen, has suggested that Moscow might try to leverage its diverse array of diplomatic connections in Yemen to facilitate the extrication of Gulf Arab countries from a seemingly unwinnable conflict. The need for the international community to get behind the efforts of the U.N. special envoy could give Russia the opportunity it needs to leverage these diplomatic ties, especially as one more attempt to implement the Hodeidah cease-fire and troop redeployment hangs in the balance.
Russia’s strategic neutrality policy in Yemen could bolster its chances of securing a military base on the Gulf of Aden, improve its image in the Middle East, and strengthen its relationships with leading regional partners. As the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen enters its fifth year, it remains to be seen whether Russia can leverage its positive relations with a wide range of stakeholders and contribute to the resolution of the war.
*Correction: This article originally stated that Fuad Rashid is the Southern Transitional Council vice president. He is the head of the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary al-Hirak for Liberation and Independence of the South.
is a doctoral candidate in the Department of International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a geopolitical analyst and commentator, who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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