As events in Yemen become increasingly complex, Russia’s policy there looks increasingly simple: support the government, whoever it is, and encourage dialogue among the country’s many factions.
In trying to understand and explain Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East, many outside observers turn first to Soviet policy. The USSR supported Syria’s longtime dictator Hafez al-Assad, this argument goes, so Russia today supports his son. Soviet Communist leaders backed the Palestine Liberation Organization, so Putin’s Kremlin does too. But while this approach may be subtly misleading in thinking about Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, it is obviously wrong in Yemen.
The clearest evidence of this is Moscow’s utter disinterest in supporting separatist rebels in the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, commonly known as South Yemen until its unification with the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1990. Russia’s leaders have essentially ignored pleas from southern rebels, recently outlined in a letter to the Russian consulate in Aden. The fact that the rebels had to remind Moscow of its Cold War support for the south in a letter — rather than in a meeting with even a junior Russian diplomat in Aden, much less a Foreign Ministry official — speaks volumes.
One big problem for the south Yemeni separatists is that Yemen is not a top foreign policy priority for Russia. Russia’s and Yemen’s presidents have met only four times in 15 years, always in Moscow. Before Vladimir Putin met with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in April 2013, the last meeting was a 2009 conversation between Putin’s and Hadi’s predecessors, Dmitry Medvedev and Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Putin previously met Saleh twice, in 2002 and 2004.) As a practical matter, the Russia-Yemen relationship is largely in the hands of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who has many other pressing responsibilities. A deputy communications minister apparently led Russia’s delegation to the December session of the Joint Yemeni-Russian Committee, a bilateral effort to improve economic and other ties, and met with Prime Minister Khaled Bahah.
Even more significant, however, is the reality that Soviet policy is not Russian policy. Unlike the Soviet Union — which was committed to a global existential struggle against the United States and fomented violence in the Middle East to undermine America and its allies — today’s Russia sees instability as a danger, not a tool. Thus, Moscow’s principal objective in Yemen is containing Sunni Muslim extremist groups, especially al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Helping south Yemeni rebels to disrupt the status quo would undermine this aim; Russia’s diplomats are more interested in encouraging them to work with Hadi and to pursue dialogue rather than conflict.
This was why Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling on “all national political forces” to unite around Hadi after Saleh’s 2013 ouster in an effort to “prevent the recurrence of intra-Yemeni confrontation.” And it is why the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to the Shiite Houthi forces’ seizure of Sanaa in September 2014 by stating that resolving “the current sharp political crisis in Yemen is possible only on the path of searching for mutually acceptable compromise.” In both cases, Russia sought stability through negotiations including major political groups; Moscow’s goal has been for whatever viable authorities exist in Sanaa to preserve order in the country and prevent Yemen from becoming a failed state. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich made a similar statement in November after Prime Minister Bahah assumed his post.
Lukashevich’s comment reflects Moscow’s comparatively benign attitude toward the Shiite Houthis, whom Russian officials have accepted as a player in Yemen’s politics to strengthen stability and limit opportunities for Sunni extremists. Here, as in some other regional conflicts, Russia’s interests align with Iran’s in many respects — though Russia’s leaders would not likely welcome further efforts by the Houthis to improve their position at the expense of Yemen’s overall stability.
More generally, the Kremlin’s basic attitude toward Hadi looks positive — in his one meeting with the Yemeni president, Putin recalled Hadi’s “personal ties” to Russia due to his training at the Frunze Military Academy of the General Staff, the Soviet Union’s premier academy for up-and-coming junior officers, now integrated into Russia’s Combined Arms Academy in Moscow. In contrast, Medvedev’s public appearance with Saleh in 2009 appeared more formulaic and lacked any personal element. Russia is also a member of the “Friends of Yemen” group; Bogdanov led Russia’s delegation to its session during the UN General Assembly in September.
Taking into account Russia’s focus on stability in Yemen and Putin’s frank statement in his meeting with Hadi that Russia-Yemen bilateral trade is “not very high,” Moscow likely sees security as a key component of its relations with Sanaa. Indeed, according to Yemen’s official news agency, Russia’s military attache in Sanaa recently offered to “double” Moscow’s assistance to the Yemeni armed forces in a meeting with Yemen’s air force Commander Maj. Gen. Rashed al-Janad. The report suggests that Russia will focus on air force and air defense training. Of course, doubling modest support — and revealing after a conversation with a locally based officer — is not a major new initiative.
At the same time, in a manner consistent with Russia’s positions on Syria and other regional issues, Bogdanov has objected to “US calls for active outside interference in Yemen’s political process, including through the adoption of harsh reprisals against the ‘Houthis’ as well as former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his General People’s Congress Party.” Hadi may not fully appreciate this position, but it certainly keeps Moscow’s options open. Short of a victory by al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula, Russia remains situated to support Yemen’s government, whatever it might be.
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