Putin during a visit to Abu Dhabi in October 2019 (official Emirati media)

Will Russia Play a Bigger Role in Yemen?


Sat, 18-03-2023 09:29 PM, Aden

With the growing global tensions due to the Ukrainian war which has turned into a proxy war between Russia and the US-led NATO, the Yemeni file has recently received more Russian attention than ever.

Abdullah Al-Shadli (South24)

Despite the presence of several parties in the Yemeni crisis, Russia has maintained a close relationship with all of them as being one of the   five permanent members in the UNSC. Although it has not played a direct role in the conflict’s phases or to stop it, Moscow conveyed its keenness and support of a political solution regarding the Yemeni file on more than one occasion.

Along with its recognition and dealing with the internationally-recognized government as well as its strong ties with Iran which supports the Houthis, Moscow was the closest decision- making capital internationally for the Southern Transitional Council (STC). The city received Southern leader Aidrous Al-Zubaidi twice in March 2020 and Jan 2021.

Recently, and with the growing global tensions due to the Ukrainian war which has turned into a proxy war between Russia and the US-led NATO as well as Taiwan's crisis with China which is rising to the global economic and political pinnacle, the Yemeni file, along with other regional files, has recently received more Russian attention than ever.

The latest reconciliation sponsored by China between the two archenemies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has raised questions about the impact of the growing roles played by the new Eastern camp, led by Beijing and Moscow on the small and big files together. This is amid what appears as an accelerated approach towards a multipolar world decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US hegemony.

Previous positions

In August 2016, a Russian veto thwarted the issuance of a UNSC statement which had called   the delegation of the Houthis and their ally Saleh to cooperate with the then UN Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh and called for the UNSC's intervention to impose a peace agreement proposal in Yemen.

Prior to that, in April 2015, Moscow had opposed and threatened to use veto against a Gulf draft resolution in USSC about Yemen which proposed sanctions against Houthi leaders and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh as well as imposing an arm embargo.

Russia demanded to impose an arm embargo against all parties including the internationally-recognized government. However, the resolution was later passed in the UNSC. In March 2021, press sources quoted reports about Russia's opposition to the issuance of a UNSC statement which calls for halting the Houthi attacks against the gas-rich Marib.

Parallel to these apparently pro-Houthi  positions, Russia has been keen on making constant contact with the Yemeni government via Ambassador Vladimir Dedoshken who moved between Aden and Riyadh during the first years of war and Chargé d'Affaires of Russia to Yemen Evgeny Kudrov.

In March 2019 and January 2021, STC President Major General Aidrous Al-Zubaidi made two visits to Moscow by an official invitation along with high-level STC’s delegations. Ali Al-Kathiri, STC’s Spokesperson said then that: “Al-Zubaidi’s visits to Russia constituted a specific development in the council’s relationship with Russia”.

In September 2018, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Dedoshken talked about the importance of South Yemen’s engagement in peaceful settlement.

Despite the early Russian positions which prevented major international moves against the Houthis, the group has not felt enthusiasm towards the Russian role which apparently was derived from Moscow’s disagreement with the West and their Saudi allies rather than a strategic stance adopted by Moscow in favor of the Northern militia similar to  the Russian support of  the Syrian regime.

In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper, “Al-Akhbar”, the Houthi leader Abdulmalik Al-Houthi said: “Russia has its own calculations, interests and policies. We don’t pet or count on it. I wish that the American fire would make the Russian bear get up from its winter hibernation”.

The escalation of interest

On March 9th, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received his Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan, in Moscow. During the meeting, Lavrov hailed the international relationship between the two countries and the efforts exerted by Riyadh towards the crisis in Yemen.

Lavrov expressed Moscow’s appreciation of Riyadh’s balanced position towards the Ukrainian crisis and its efforts in the prisoner exchange deals. Moreover, Faisal bin Farhan declared that the kingdom is ready to serve as a mediator in the Ukrainian crisis during a press conference in which he also talked about Yemen.

Farhan said: “There has been continuous efforts to launch a political operation among the Yemeni parties. There had been ongoing coordination in the Yemeni file.  The priority is cease-fire and ending fighting permanently”. Prior to this visit, Saudi Ambassador Mohammed Al-Jaber arrived in Moscow on February 27th and met with Mikhail Bogdanov, Special Representative of the President of Russia for the Middle East and African countries.

Prior to these meetings, Bogdanov met with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Head of the Houthi negotiation delegation, on February 25th in the Omani capital, Muscat. This came as part of the Saudi talks with the Iran-backed group.

In an urgent meeting, on Thursday, STC announced a visit by its President and PLC’s Member Airdous Al-Zubaidi to Moscow following an official invitation. The statement said: “The visit comes within the context of the distinctive historical relationships between our country and Russia. We are open to different friend countries to push the issue of South Yemen in a way that ensures the return of the two state solution to the pre May 22nd 1990 borders”.

A bigger role?

Dr. Mohammed Al-Afifi, Deputy Head of STC’s Foreign Department in Russia believes that Russia is about to play a bigger role in Yemen. He told “South24 Center”: “Russia seeks to build alliances, open communication channels and to stay ahead of developments. There has been an international crisis that required Russia to seek for impact in new places”.

He added: “The Russian political, military and economic weight is effective and can’t be bypassed anyway in the arrangements of the hot conflict arrangements in the world and our region in particular. The Russian diplomatic moves put us in front of a fact that the Russian role is important and vital in Yemen. The momentum of the latest visits to Moscow confirms that”.

In this regard, Yemeni political analyst Riyadh Al-Ahmadi told “South24 Center”: “Currently, any Russian move in Yemen or others can’t be separated from the Moscow’s agenda which is linked with its conflict with the West, the influential cards, and the relationships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others as active regional parties”.

He added: “Russia is keen on being close to any region which has hot political and armed conflicts such as Yemen”.

Saudi expert, Brigadier General Hassan Al-Shehri, believes that the Russian moves and meetings with Yemeni parties’ representatives “are not a surprise”. He told “South24 Center”: “Russia is a major country. It began priorly its attempts to return to the region. Its presence in Syria is the most prominent proof of this tendency”.

He also said: “Russia has a presence in many African states. Yemen is not incidental in the Russian policy. The Soviet Union’s legacy is still present in South Yemen even if it is no longer effective. Russia will keep an eye on Yemen for its important location, even though it does not currently constitute a priority for Moscow which is busy in the Ukrainian war".

However, Al-Shehri does not believe that Russia this time “can play an active role in Yemen beyond the Western states, led by the US and the European Union”.

Abdulaziz Al-Oqab, Head of “Fekr Organization for Dialogue and Freedoms”, believes that “Russia has to be an important guarantor in the Yemeni file due to its good relationships with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Iran”. He told “South 24 Center”: “The obstacle of the peace operations in Yemen is the lack of trust between the local parties and the absence of the neutral international guarantor”.

In July “Future Center for Advanced Research and Studies”  published an article authored  by  Russian Parliament’s   advisor Leonid Isaev who wrote”: “It can be said that the cost of the Russian involvement in the Yemeni affairs, whether by showing more influence or by outright military intervention is much more than  the expected interest”.

The Russian official added: “The current Russian stance towards the crisis in Yemen serves the short term and long term Russian interests. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that all the internal forces in Yemen as well as the neighboring countries believe that Moscow can play a very important role in resolving this conflict. However, Moscow is satisfied with its current role, which does not constitute a huge burden on its resources”.

Yemen between Russia and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, which has been long considered among the powerful  strategic allies for the US in the region, has demonstrated neutral stances towards the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian military operation declared by Putin in  February last year. In October, OPEC+, which includes the global oil giants, led by Moscow and Riyadh, announced reducing oil production by 2 million barrels per day amid a global energy crisis.

This move came 4 months only after the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in the presence of Biden and Arab and Gulf leaders in which the Democratic President failed to convince Riyadh to increase its oil production. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said then: “Saudi Arabia won’t be able to increase its production beyond 13 million barrels a day”.

Opec+’s decision and the Saudi stance towards the Ukrainian war have been seen as indicators of a change in Riyadh’s policy towards a more pragmatic horizon instead of the traditional policy based upon usual political and diplomatic routine. In a seminar, held by “South24 Center”, political researcher Hussam Radman pointed to his belief that KSA began to move towards the East regarding Yemen.

In this regard, Saudi security and strategic researcher Brigadier General Dr. Matir Alarwahily told “South24 Center”: “The Yemeni file has long been present in different meetings between the Russian and Saudi leaders. We count a lot on the outputs and the results of the Russian-Ukrainian war. This will determine the fate of many relationships, issues and international interests”.

He added: “To a large extent, Russia enjoys a clean history unlike the history of the United States which has supported wars and disputes whose victims are   many countries that have become marginal and ineffective because of Washington’s policy”.

Al-Shehri described the latest Russian-Saudi meetings including the discussions about Yemen as being “very important”. He added: “The Yemeni affairs are not just Yemeni. Yemen, according to Chapter VII, exchanges views to try to reach very useful approaches and solutions to all influential international parties provided that the Yemeni parties interact with that”.

Russia’s impact and interests

In an interviews with “South24 Center”, political analyst Abdullah Al-Hanbasi, who has close ties with the Houthis, said: “One of the most important Russian interests in Yemen is to reduce Western pressure in Ukraine by playing a role in other hotspots of tension in the world, such as Yemen”.

He criticized the former Russian role in Yemen adding that “Moscow took into consideration its economic interests with Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the expense of the humanitarian consideration in Yemen. This includes its silence towards USSC Resolution 2216[...] It also helped in destroying the Yemeni economy by printing trillions of local riyals without a cover’.

Al-Oqab said: “Talking about the Russian interests in Yemen, we have to look deeply at the determinants of the Russia’s foreign policies in the Middle East and link this with the important strategic location of Yemen in the path of the international commerce, the Silk Road and the safety of the global oil and gas supplies”.

While STC’s official Mohammed Al-Afifi feel optimistic by  the Russian role towards the issue of Southern people and expresses the council’s partnership aspiration with Moscow, Matir Alarwahily believes that the Russian focus will revolve around the “interest of the Yemeni state and end the conflict”. He added”: “The Russian impact on the Yemeni file will be effective”.

Al-Shehri believes that “the Russian Position towards South Yemen and STC can’t be evaluated in this phase”.

Political analyst Riyadh Al-Ahmadi noted that “whatever Moscow’s agenda is, the determination of a position within it is not linked to Yemen but it is related to big international and economic calculations including exporting oil”. He concluded: “Therefore, we have not seen Russia, for example, supporting Iran in the Yemeni file, like some claim, but it is keen on maintaining a balanced position which can change according to developments”.

Abdullah Al-Shadli
Journalist at South24 Center for News and Studies

RussiaNATOYemenSouth YemenSouthern Transitional CouncilYemen War