by Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria marked the beginning of its increasingly dominant power-broker status in the Middle East and North Africa. Russia has often initially adopted a neutral stance in various regional situations, talking with multiple sides while assessing which factions it could support, to eventually gain more leverage—as it is currently doing in Yemen.
As Russia expands its Middle East presence, this could conceivably result in further intervention in Yemen, re-establishing itself as a key player in that country. The recent clashes in Aden between the pro-secession Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the internationally recognized Yemeni government have opened more room for Russian involvement. With a lack of leadership from the United States and other world powers to support legitimate negotiations, Russia is in pole position to assume a greater role, particularly as it alone has contact with all prominent warring parties.
“Moscow certainly could work with the STC and an independent South Yemen. It was South Yemen, after all, that had a pro-Soviet Marxist regime from South Yemen’s independence from Britain in 1967 until its unification with North Yemen in 1990 at the end of the Cold War. Many from the older generation of the South Yemeni elite studied in the USSR, and contacts between them and Russia continued,” Mark Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, told Lobelog.
South Yemen’s Emergence
While Russia’s dominant status in southern Yemen faded after Yemen’s unification, that could be changing. The recent violence in Aden, formerly the capital of South Yemen, has left the STC as the dominant power in the city, displacing the government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Throughout the Yemeni civil war, which erupted in March 2015 after the Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign to crush the Houthi movement and restore Hadi’s government, Moscow has remained in the background, maintaining ties with all sides whilst refusing to explicitly support any party.
“Russia has not been a particularly visible or active player in Yemen over the course of the war. The Russians had embassy staff in Sanaa until [former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah] Saleh was killed in December 2017 and has received the Houthis and STC officials in Moscow, but has also said that it respects the legitimacy of the Hadi government,” said Peter Salisbury, Yemen researcher at International Crisis Group.
In the last year, Russia has shown increased concern for Yemen. Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, pledged Moscow’s support for the UN peace efforts in early 2019. In April, STC President Aidarous al-Zubaidi visited Moscow upon invitation, claiming there was a “collective agreement on the goal of a credible political solution,” while discussing the potential for strategic cooperation.
While Russia has yet to act decisively in Yemen, Moscow is exploring the possibly of negotiating with southern secessionists. Katz said that “Putin seems to want to regain everything that the USSR had,” suggesting this could cause him to reignite old ties with southern Yemen. “The STC is undoubtedly quite willing to work with Moscow, and that alone makes Moscow willing to work with it,” he added.
The STC has already established itself as a dominant political faction in southern Yemen. Working with its military wing, the Security Belt—an umbrella network of southern militias backed by the United Arab Emirates, along with generous Emirati support, the STC outmatches the Hadi government in strength and troop numbers. The STC has therefore gained a stronghold in Aden and outmaneuvered the little authority that Hadi possesses.
As the STC secures its position, that could prompt Russia to step in and offer support, if not outright recognition. Katz adds that backing the STC could help bolster Russia’s soft power in the region: “With so many other states having naval bases along the Red Sea, Russia’s not having one must be irksome to Moscow, and an independent South Yemen might well be willing to offer one.”
In addition to the benefits an independent South Yemen could offer Russia, Moscow must also consider that the Hadi government has lost most of its influence, meaning his rule does not serve Russia’s ambitions well. If Moscow could establish itself as a peacemaker in Yemen, that would grant it the freedom to further intervene in the Yemeni affairs. This would complement Russia’s growing ambitions for influence in the Red Sea and East Africa—particularly in Sudan and Eritrea, where it has sought greater economic and military ties.
The UAE Factor
Another factor is the relationship between Moscow and the UAE, which has supported the STC and its military wing. Both states have become increasingly supportive of one another, and here their interests appear to further align. “It seems that Russia and the UAE have mutually supportive interests in South Yemen just as they do elsewhere in the Middle East,” said Katz.
Russia and the UAE have found common ground in Libya by supporting Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar. In a further alignment with Moscow, the UAE has become more receptive to Bashar al-Assad’s government, reopening its Syrian embassy last December. Both have shown support for the military status quo in Sudan. Abu Dhabi has even eased its opposition towards Russian ally Iran, questioning claims about Tehran’s role in an attack on several oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in June.
Russia and the UAE have increasingly consolidated ties in recent months, with UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in June. They discussed Yemen as well as strengthening Russian-Emirati relations in other areas.
“We shall continue to work hand in hand to fight terrorism and extremism in the Arab region as we also look forward to political solutions and dialogue in the countries like Syria and others that face conflicts,” said Lavrov after a March meeting with Abdullah bin Zayed. Russia could seemingly continue to tolerate Abu Dhabi’s ‘counter-terrorism’ intervention in southern Yemen, seeing it as a security tool to contain militants.
Russia and the UAE both tend to support ‘stable’ and authoritarian rulers, under the guise of counter-extremism, which could apply to the STC in Yemen. There have been indications of an authoritarian bent within the STC, chiefly through the extensive prison network its military wing has been operating. While supposedly established to counter al-Qaeda, Amnesty International has documented countless human rights violations in these prisons.
While aggravating U.S. and Saudi sensibilities is a concern, said Salisbury, this will not prevent Moscow and Abu Dhabi from establishing stronger links with the STC and other factions. “I think it’s fair to say that they will work to keep lines open to all of the parties to the conflict, and that there is an opportunity with the STC to work with an ally that is shunned by the U.S. but is close with the UAE, which in turn has good relations with Moscow,” added Salisbury. He suggested that if Russia were to provide support and legitimisation to the STC’s cause, that would make the secessionist faction more receptive to cooperation with Moscow.
While seeking to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Hadi, and the STC, Russia has also received requests from the Houthis to act as a mediator in Yemen. Moscow is clearly set for further intervention in the country, which could strengthen its regional and global clout.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a roaming journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, international relations, and humanitarian issues within the Middle East and North Africa. He has particularly focused on the Yemen conflict, Libya and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regional foreign policy. He has also studied history and Middle East studies at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. Follow him on twitter: @jfentonharvey.