While Russia maintains close contact with all conflicting sides in Yemen, it has thus far been non-committal about which side it supports. That could change, however, if the crisis begins to escalate further.
A boy holds a weapon while Shiite rebels known as Houthis protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Photo: AP
On March 28, Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Vladimir Putin’s Mideast envoy, said that the conflicting sides in Yemen had asked Moscow for help in resolving the crisis. While Russia certainly has a potential role to play, it is still unclear how much leverage Moscow has with either of the sides, or even which side Moscow supports.
The Yemen conflict, which on the surface looks like a standoff between Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Shiite Houthis, is in fact more complex, with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Yemeni tribes playing a significant role. According to Bogdanov, Russia is maintaining close contacts with all conflicting sides in Yemen, but he did not elaborate on who exactly approached Russia asking for help.
The conflict in Yemen is usually interpreted as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran and many mistakenly argue that Russia, Tehran’s ally, has vested interests in supporting the Houthis, Iran’s Shia proxies, in Yemen. However, the leverage that Moscow once had over Yemen has largely faded away since the country’s unification.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the Communist South Yemen remained strongly in the Soviet orbit and was commonly referred to as a Soviet satellite state. It is estimated that over 5,000 Soviet military advisors worked with the local government and over 50,000 Yemeni professionals (President Hadi being one of them) were educated and trained in the USSR.
In November 2014, South Yemeni rebels delivered a letter to the Russian consulate in Aden asking for help in their attempts to secede from North Yemen. Moscow, however, did not honor this request, which largely represents Russia’s position towards the entire conflict in this country. Russia has avoided aligning itself with any of the sides and wants to wait the conflict out.
The logic of non-involvement in this crisis has guided Moscow’s strategy ever since Ansarullah, more commonly known as the Houthis, started advancing in Yemen. Russia, however, has sent a number of mixed signals that were interpreted as its support for one of the sides. In February, a Houthi delegation met with Russian members of parliamnet in Moscow and asked them to recognize Ansarullah’s authority in exchange for deals for Russian companies in Yemen. The meeting came two days after President Hadi withdrew his resignation, meaning that Houthis were desperately looking for a partner in Moscow.
The Russian government, however, was adamant and two weeks after this meeting, the Russian Ambassador to Yemen met with President Hadi in Aden and expressed Russia’s support for his legitimacy. Russia has even expressed indirect support for Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin, who met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Egypt last week, told journalists that Russia expressed understanding toward the military operation currently underway.
This, of course, further complicated the understanding of what Russia’s position on Yemen is.
In February, several countries, including the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia and China, decided to relocate their embassies from Sanaa to Aden or evacuate diplomatic staff altogether, fearing the Houthi advance. Russia’s diplomatic mission, however, remained one of the only ones that decided to keep its Embassy in Sanaa as well as the Consulate in Aden open and said that there are no plans to evacuate the 2,000 Russians currently residing in Yemen. This means that, despite its seemingly pro-Hadi position, Russia doesn’t feel threatened by the Houthis in the face of growing unrest across the country.
Moscow’s neutral position does not mean, however, that it refrains from criticizing Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, especially given that a recent airstrike campaign that hit a refugee camp possibly left 40 civilians dead. The Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Alexander Lukashevich particularly said that "the armed methods of resolving internal Yemeni problems are categorically unacceptable” and once again reiterated that the conflict in the country “can be settled only based on a broad nationwide dialogue.”
Unlike in Syria, Russia is not invested enough in the Yemeni crisis to provide meaningful support to any of the sides, which is why Moscow feels comfortable discussing what many call a “proxy war” with both camps, Saudi Arabia and President Hadi as well as Iran and the Houthis. Just last week, Russian officials of different levels were in touch with Riyadh and Tehran discussing the situation in Yemen.
The fact that Saudi Arabia – the nation that recently slammed Russia for its “hypocritical” Mideast policies - is ready to talk Yemen with Moscow, its geopolitical opponent, means that the country does not fear Russian involvement in this crisis. Moscow’s diplomatic contacts with Riyadh and Tehran, in which all parties routinely note that a political solution needs to be found to the conflict in Yemen, highlight how little leverage Russia has over their Yemen strategies.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.