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What does a diplomat’s pro Houthi stance say about Russia’s Yemen policy?

August 19, 2016 at 11:21 am

With the military crisis in Yemen showing no signs of de-escalation, the political situation is regressing rapidly. Just before the UN-sponsored peace talks faltered, Houthis and ex-President Saleh declared the formation of a “Supreme Council” that aims to run the affairs of the country instead of the Hadi government. The latter has been governing from exile in Riyadh since 26 March last year.

When the Houthis took over Sana’a in their 22 September 2014 coup, the international community was quick to reiterate its support for the legitimacy of the Hadi government. Even the regional allies of the Houthis stayed relatively quiet when it came to endorsing the coup but continued to support it covertly. Now, however, the Russian Chargé d’Affaires in Sana’a, Oleg Dremov, has endorsed the de facto government openly in an interview with Yemen Today.  

He stated that the formation of the council is a step in the right direction and urged the Yemeni people not to fall into dispute over its legitimacy. Dremov explained that the Russian standpoint is for all parties to agree on a peace deal, including the Supreme Council as a legitimate party for negotiation. In other words, he personally endorsed a new dimension to the culture of coups that is becoming increasingly normalised in Yemen.

Al Sharq Al Awsat contacted Dremov and asked for clarification. Despite the fact that there is video evidence of his personal endorsement of the de-facto government, he assured the Saudi newspaper that the official Russian standpoint has not changed to undermine the legitimacy of the Hadi government. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi then reiterated that the Russian standpoint remains on the side of “legitimacy”, meaning support for the Hadi government.

Compared to other warring countries in the rest of the region, the Kremlin has been relatively discreet in its stance on Yemen. It seems that officials are attempting to sustain an outwardly neutral approach, not straying far in public from the demands of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which reiterates support for the Hadi government and demands Houthi disarmament. They have not, however, tried to implement their policy of support in any meaningful way.

When it comes to their dealings with pro-Saleh and Houthi officials, matters are more complicated. At the end of last year, Moscow refused to supply Saleh’s forces with rockets, despite him begging officials to do so. A similar movement by the Russians occurred more recently in March when they rejected his request to be received in Russia for medical treatment. On that occasion, Dremov even clarified that Russia will never grant political immunity to Saleh and stressed Moscow’s commitment to Resolution 2216.

However, when it comes to military action in Yemen, Russia is more likely to jump to criticise the civilians killed by Saudi coalition air strikes than they are to condemn Houthi and Saleh violence. This was highlighted in October 2015, when local resistance groups in Taiz made significant advances that led to many thinking that the area would be freed from Houthi and Saleh control and the siege (which has now intensified according to local reports) would end. Towards the end of the year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow issued a comment on Yemen and included its concerns on Taiz, notably that the Hadi government was “unable to counter terrorists from Al-Qaeda and other extremist organisations.” The ministry also stated that hostilities have been “going on for a month and a half” and cited the local resistance groups’ advances against Houthi and Saleh forces; it completely omitted any mention of the siege, which began shortly after the air strikes began. Just as the Russians do with their rhetoric about Syria, they lumped together the local resistance to the Houthi-Saleh coup under one extremist umbrella in order to suit their narrative on the ground.

It is clear that there is more going on than meets the eye with Russia’s strategy in Yemen. On one hand, the official rhetoric does not stray from the norms of the international community and Moscow is wary about offering Saleh any overt support. On the other hand, there are Russian diplomats in Sana’a speaking openly of their pro-Houthi and Saleh position. The Kremlin is refusing to engage with the dynamics on the ground when it comes to local resistance fighters and are quick to label them all as extremists. When it comes to condemning violence, Russia needs to be as vocal against Houthi-Saleh crimes as it is about civilian casualties of Saudi coalition air strikes, otherwise Moscow’s claim to be backing the UN Security Council is meaningless.

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