In late July, Russian officials met with Yemen’s Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed and representatives of the Houthi Supreme Political Council to discuss the resolution of the Yemeni civil war. These meetings underscored Russia’s ability to balance favorable relations with Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Houthis. Moscow supported Abdulmalik’s vision for a political solution to the war and concurred five days later with Houthi criticisms of U.S. military deployments to the Persian Gulf.
Russia’s preservation of favorable relations with both major warring factions is the product of its strategic non-alignment policy in Yemen. Until the assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2017, Russia maintained diplomatic staff in both Aden and Sana’a. It was also the only country to abstain from UN Security Council Resolution 2216 in April 2015, as Moscow believed that the resolution would escalate the Yemeni civil war by sanctioning the Houthis.
Russia’s consistent adherence to a policy of strategic non-alignment in Yemen advances its geopolitical interests in the Middle East and leaves it well-positioned to assume an important role in ending the Yemeni civil war. Moscow attaches considerable value to Yemen’s location at the cross-roads of the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden and wants to construct a military base in southern Yemen to expand its influence in a region of growing geopolitical importance.
Russia’s naval base aspirations have intermittently surfaced in its official discourse on Yemen, since the head of its Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, announced Moscow’s potential interest in establishing a base in Aden in 2008. This is closely intertwined with its desire to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa. Because Aden has been occupied by forces loyal to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the Houthis, and the south Yemeni separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) since the start of the civil war, a policy of strategic non-alignment allows Russia to ensure that its interests are safe, despite shifts in Yemen’s internal balance of power.
Russia’s non-alignment in Yemen has also allowed Moscow to balance positive relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, as it can selectively support and criticize policies backed by both countries with little risk of backlash. Its opposition to Houthi efforts to disrupt oil exports passing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait bolsters the effectiveness of the Moscow-Riyadh OPEC+ oil price regulation pact. Conversely, Russia’s criticism of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen has enhanced the strength of the Moscow-Tehran axis against U.S.-backed military interventions.
As the international community rallies around the need for a peace settlement in Yemen, Russia has leveraged its position as an impartial stakeholder to advance its own conflict resolution strategy. The first plank of Russia’s strategy to end the civil war is its support for an immediate cessation of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. During the early stages of the conflict, Russia challenged the legality of Saudi Arabia’s decision to intervene in Yemen without UN Security Council approval and called for UN-enforced “humanitarian pauses” to Saudi airstrikes. In spite of efforts from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to encourage Russia to support Riyadh’s military intervention, Moscow continues to view Saudi Arabia’s conduct as an impediment to peace in Yemen.
The second component of Russia’s conflict resolution strategy is recognizing Iran as a constructive stakeholder in Yemen. In February 2018, Russia vetoed a UN resolution that would have blamed Iran for supplying ballistic missiles to the Houthis, and in December, Moscow foiled U.S. efforts to condemn Iran’s alignment with the Houthis in the UN. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also stated that Saudi Arabia-Iran dialogue is an essential precondition for peace in Yemen, and Moscow regularly consults with Tehran on the conflict resolution process. Since Russia seeks to extend its diplomatic cooperation with Iran beyond the context of Syria — and promote its vision for collective security in the Persian Gulf — Moscow will likely continue defending Tehran’s conduct in Yemen.
The third facet of the Russian peace plan is its significant emphasis on resolving Yemen’s intra-regional cleavages. Russian experts on Yemen, like the IMEMO Institute’s Nikolay Surkov, have argued that the Yemeni civil war can only be resolved through extensive consultations between international stakeholders and tribal leaders representing specific regions of Yemen. Russia’s support for a peace settlement that considers Yemen’s panoply of conflicting regional interests is exemplified by its handling of southern Yemen’s quest for autonomy.
Russian officials have frequently emphasized the importance of southern Yemen’s status for the resolution of the conflict: STC leader Aidarus al-Zoubaidi visited Moscow in March at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s invitation. In a noteworthy contrast from Moscow’s typical emphasis on preserving Yemen’s territorial integrity, Russian First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy did not condemn the STC’s seizure of Aden, in an Aug.10 press conference. Although these gestures are not indicative of Russian support for south Yemeni independence, STC officials hope that Russia will facilitate the organization’s entry into UN-brokered peace negotiations.
While Russia has consistently maintained positive relations with all major factions in Yemen and articulated a tangible approach to ending the civil war, it remains unclear how Moscow will convert these ideas and diplomatic links into genuine leverage in Yemen. Some analysts, like Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury, have speculated that Saudi Arabia could use Russia as a backchannel facilitator of dialogue with the Houthis or request Russia’s assistance in extricating itself from Yemen.
Although these predictions have not come to pass, the stagnation of UN-brokered peace talks in Yemen could provide an opening for Russia to act as a parallel-track dialogue facilitator and help implement the terms of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths’ praise for Russia’s balancing strategy in January and his visit to Moscow on July 1, ahead of his trips to Oman and the United Arab Emirates, are indicative of Russia’s growing strategic value as an arbiter in Yemen. As hostilities between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis continue unabated, and Yemen’s regional cleavages deepen, Russia could expand its diplomatic involvement in Yemen in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. He writes regularly for leading publications, like The Diplomat, the Washington Post, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Al Monitor. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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