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Russia’s role in the Yemen conflict

January 22, 2016 at 10:08 am

Russia’s presence in the Middle East has for long been viewed as a controversial matter. Its actions in Syria and Iraq, and facilitation of Iran’s expansionist policy, have become a favoured topic of discussion. Because of its support for dictatorial regimes and its openness about ensuring its sphere of influence, to many, Russia is the foreign antithesis of the Arab Spring. These sentiments arise mainly from the Kremlin’s staunch support of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, but Moscow has not shown such strong public support for any party in Yemen. Despite this, Yemen’s ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis have made numerous attempts to warm their relations with Russia in order to build some support for their plight within the international community.

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Russia’s policy on Yemen has not changed much since the start of the Arab Spring. While openly backing one party in Syria, in Yemen Moscow prefers to take a lighter approach, by ensuring good relations with whoever is in power at the time. When Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi became president in 2012, there was no resistance from Moscow. In fact, he was recognised as someone who was educated by the Soviet Union, where he received his military education, and as a potential partner, which came to pass. In April 2013, Hadi visited Putin in Moscow where the Russian president acknowledged that trade between the two countries grew by 43 per cent in 2012 his guest’s first year as president of Yemen.

When it came to the start of the Saudi-led coalition air strikes against Saleh’s forces and the Houthis, Russia’s official stance was in line with its general anti-Saudi rhetoric. Speaking to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Putin slammed the Saudi move and called for the “immediate cessation of military activities in Yemen.” Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich also referred to the coalition operation as “a very serious threat to regional security” at a media briefing in Moscow. Although the Russians have not expressed covert public support for any warring Yemeni side, their language suggests that they are not as impartial as they like to portray themselves to be.

A recent comment by the ministry of foreign affairs in Moscow illustrates this. The language and means used to describe events in Aden and Taiz reveal Russia’s underlying position. The reference to the advance by anti-Houthi forces in mid-October last year as “hostilities [which] have been going on for a month and a half” ignores the context completely; none of the pre-October violence by the Houthis was mentioned. Nor was the months-long Houthi siege of Taiz referred to by the ministry.

The same happened with comments about Aden, with no context contained within the Russian comments. The ministry highlighted that Aden is facing a security threat because of the growth of Al-Qaeda and the failure of the Yemeni government to protect the city, post-Houthi invasion. Indeed, it was the Houthis who created the security gap by destroying Aden’s security and civilian infrastructure; this was not mentioned. The fact that the Houthi retreat from Aden left Al-Qaeda to prosper instead is also the argument that many pro-Houthi analysts make, with a liberal dose of half-truths.

Although the Kremlin does not shy away from hinting at its subtle bias, it is still hesitant about responding to Saleh’s attempts to get Moscow to form an Assad-style alliance with him. Pro-Saleh and Houthi officials have been putting all of their efforts into finding a diplomatic route, with many visits to the Russian embassy in Sana’a. It was even reported that, in early November, Saleh begged the Russians for anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

So why isn’t Russia showing the support for one side or another that they are showing for Assad, despite its obvious sympathy for the Houthis? At this stage, it is clear that Russia is unable to do so simply because of the way that Moscow was dragged into the Syria conflict. If the Kremlin was to expand its military operation in the Middle East overtly, it would be over-stretching its capabilities at a time when Assad is relies completely on Russian and Iranian military and diplomatic backing.

This will also undermine Russia’s policy to make peace with whichever government comes into power in Yemen. It is not ready to put up a staunch fight because, unlike other countries, the tribal element of Yemen’s political system means putting all of one’s efforts into securing the support of one particular party is very risky compared to a country that lacks such deeply-embedded tribalism. When the risk of retaliation through terrorism is high in such a strategic location, that risk is magnified.

The Kremlin is also showing signs of mirroring Iranian policy. Iran still denies training, arming or even supporting the Houthis or Saleh’s forces, despite the evidence that they have been in contact for years. Top officials in those forces have close relations with their Iranian counterparts: Abdel-Malek Al-Shami, for example, died in Tehran after he was sent there for treatment following an attack on a mosque in Yemen and was buried in a Hezbollah cemetery in Beirut, in the same cemetery, in fact, as Hadi Nasrallah, the son of the Lebanese militia’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. On many occasions, Iran has been caught arming the Houthis, including one famous incident when Tehran was caught supplying the militia shortly after the takeover of Sana’a in 2014.

It’s clear that Russia is going to remain cautious about presenting its position in Yemen, but its bias is very apparent. It is unlikely that the Russians will seek to support Saleh openly, despite his recent attempts to convince them to do so. Their involvement in Yemen has been subtle and, at this point in time, there are no indications that they plan to change this approach.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.