How Does Russia Look At South Yemen Developments?
While the Saudi efforts to restore Riyadh agreement between the resigned Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Southern Transition Council (STC) have totally failed and a new round of clashes is expected –as media on Monday reported that Hadi’s new cabinet members have fled from Aden to Saudi Arabia– the southerners in a move that shows they are preparing for a new stage of the country’s developments sent a delegation to Moscow.
This, in turn, raises questions about the Russian strategy towards the southern Yemen case.
Moscow-Southerners’ historical relations
The most important driver that took the southerners to Moscow after the breakdown of the agreements with Hadi, and with Saudi Arabia to be precise, was gaining an international power’s backing for the future based on historical bilateral ties.
Relations between Yemen and Russia date back to 1928. The Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen was one of the first countries in the region to establish relations with the Soviet Union. The representative of Imam Yahya Mohammad Hamid ed-Din of the Yemeni kingdom met with Russia’s envoy in Jeddah and handed him a letter according to which a cooperation agreement was established between the two countries. But diplomatic relations were not established between the two countries until 1955.
During Yemen division into north and south, Moscow also developed relations with both sides. Although during this period, due to the socialist rule in the south, Aden had closer relations with Russia, the Soviet support for the southerners was less than that for other socialism subjects in the region. At the time, Russia signed friendship and economic cooperation treaties with the Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1979 and with the Yemen Arab Republic in the north in 1984. After Yemen reunion in 1990 and the formation of the new Republic of Yemen, although Sanaa moved closer to the West, Russia also developed ties with the new political system. The Kremlin has always had a desire to use naval and air force facilities in southern Yemen.
The Soviets sent military advisers and equipment to Yemen since 1962 at the behest of Egypt, which supported the republicans in Yemen. This assistance and presence even expanded after 1968. Moscow specifically was authorized to establish a naval base in Socotra island. The base in the Gulf of Aden allowed the Soviet Union military to operate in the Indian Ocean until 1985. From 1968 to1991, the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union, at least 5,245 Soviet military technicians served in Yemen.
In recent years, Russians sought to maintain close ties with southerners. In September 2018, Russia’s ambassador to Yemen, Vladimir Didoshkin, said that southern Yemen was an important part of the country and should have representatives in any peace accord. This view was welcomed by STC leaders. In March 2019, the Russian foreign ministry was the first party to invite STC officials for a Moscow visit.
Also, Russia still commits to a 2017 agreement with Hadi’s government to print and safely transfer banknotes from Moscow to Aden. The arrangement has helped Aden pay its military and security personnel. In 2016, Hadi had relocated central bank to Aden from Sanaa the capital that is now held by the National Salvation Government.
Moscow seems to look at Yemeni developments as a gate for restoring Russia’s influence in the region— a policy strongly influenced by the ideas of Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, a Soviet-era diplomat who served in the post from 1998 to 1999.
Russia’s geopolitical objectives in southern Yemen
Certainly, Moscow seeks geopolitical goals behind close and strong ties with the southerners. Russia’s goals in the Red Sea were first given publicity in January 2009, when a senior Russian military official spoke of the need to establish a military base near the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Also, in 2017, former Russian navy commander Feliks Nikolayevich Gromov called for a Russian naval base near the Gulf of Aden trade routes. Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies described the Socotra an ideal location for such a base.
The importance of having such a base in the region for Moscow’s geopolitical interests is growing as the Russian leaders see southern Yemen as a gateway to broad influence in the Horn of Africa.
When the Cold War ended, Russians abandoned their military bases in the south, evacuating their once-strong position in favor the Americans. The southerners’ differences with the UAE on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other hand paved the way for Russia’s toehold restoration in the region, amid diminishing US weight in West Asia.
Russia is hopeful it would realize— through ties with a wide range of southern Yemeni factions, such as the STC-affiliated Yemeni Socialist Party and the separatist Hirak movement— a suggestion by the late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Moscow to set up a military base on Yemen’s soil.
“In the fight against terrorism, we call provide all the facilities. We are ready to open our airports and ports to the Russian Federation,” Saleh said in an interview with Russia 24 network in August 2016.
The Russian optimism about realization of this proposal has another supporting source: The UAE.
In 2017, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and the UAE de facto ruler and decision-maker Mohammed bin Zayed visited Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Bin Zayed offered Moscow for its naval vessels to anchor in the Gulf of Aden, according to intelligence sources. The Emirati foreign policy czar also promised the Russian leader a fourth “stop station” from the Suez Canal in the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea – other bases include Alexandria, Aqaba and Fujairah. Russia seeks a brisk and fast naval force establishment in the warm waters. This requires naval maintenance stations in regional waters. Such countries as Djibouti have more than once rejected Russia’s requests to build a naval base on their soil for fear of tensions with US and Chinese bases.
From another dimension, presence in southern Yemen can give Russia a significant tool in the energy competition.
In March 2020, a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia as two major oil producers over the crude’s output brewed. The despite remains latent though the two countries said they cooperate under OPEC Plus platform. Therefore, Moscow may consider a proper option the support to the STC and even the powerful Sanaa-based Ansarullah revolutionary movement to gain control in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait for affecting Saudi oil exports.
Russia and terms of the policy of balance of power in Yemen
Despite the geopolitical benefits Russia may achieve from Yemen, Moscow does not directly support the independence of southern Yemen, as this would create cleavage with Saudi Arabia. Russia finds south’s stable conditions as an essential precondition for realizing expansion of its sphere of influence in the Red Sea. To this end, the Kremlin has so far tried to play as a credible mediator and thus maintained close ties with Hadi and unofficial ties with leftist politicians in the south. The Saudis are happy with this approach as they are desperate to bring Hadi and the STC to a sustainable peace.
The Russian foreign ministry in January 2018 officially voiced its readiness to mediate between the separatists and Hadi camp.
In addition, Moscow is careful to maintain relations with Ansarullah and occasionally support Sanaa in the Security Council all to maintain its balance-making weight in Yemen equations.
The UNSC resolution 2216 on Yemen was the first test for Russia. Designed by Western and Arab countries, the draft resolution called on Ansarullah and the popular committees to quit all the regions they captured. It also endorsed the authority of fugitive government of Mansour Hadi. Moscow abstain. In 2018, the Supreme Political Council of Yemen, the executive body of the revolutionary forces and led by Mahdi al-Mashat, sent a letter to Putin urging the president to push for war and blockade end and also help the Yemenis counter the US-led Western intervention.
Maintaining positive relations with Riyadh and Tehran will help Russia become an “honest agent” in the regional conflicts and rivalry cases between the two regional powers, the Russian leaders think.
In mid-2019, Russia re-raised its plan for collective security in the Persian Gulf region, with Yemen playing a prominent place in the design. Russia believes that as the US presence and role in regional developments declines, such an approach will enable Russian participation in crisis settlement processes and hence pave the ground for its influence boost.
Therefore, Russia’s Yemen policy framework revolves around support to the ceasefire, pursued through maintaining ties with all home and foreign actors. Through a policy of balance of power, Russia thinks it can build a more effective presence in Yemen and next to Bab al-Mandab, to facilitate naval operations and ensure regional security in compliance with its Persian Gulf collectible security initiative.