How Russia maneuvers between Saudi Arabia, UAE in Yemen

Moscow exercises hedging strategy in Yemen to preserve good times with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

al-monitor Supporters of Yemen's UAE-backed southern separatists march during a rally in the southern port city in Aden, Yemen, Aug. 15, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Fawaz Salman.

Aug 19, 2019

On Aug. 10, Russian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy told reporters that Russia views the conflict in Yemen as “one of the most concerned topics on our agenda,” but he refused to comment on the Southern Transitional Council's (STC's) seizure of Aden. Polyanskiy’s ambiguous remarks did not include a reference to Russia’s support for Yemen’s territorial integrity and differed from the pro-unity statements released by the United States and the European Union in response to the clashes in Aden.

Russia’s cautious reaction to the STC’s triumph in Aden reveals its desire to remain nonaligned as the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) diverge in Yemen. Moscow’s hedging strategy also reflects the Russian expert community’s uncertainties about the depth and longevity of Saudi-UAE disagreements on Yemen. On the pessimistic end of the spectrum, Sergey Serebrov, a Yemen expert at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies, recently argued that the conflict in Yemen was no longer a “civil war” but the “product of the military intervention of the Arab coalition.” Other Russian analysts, like defense expert Kirill Semenov, dismissed the prospect of an “open Saudi-UAE conflict in Yemen” and noted the UAE’s cautious public statements on events in Aden.

Although Russia does not wish to interfere in the internal conflicts besetting the Arab coalition, Moscow also wants to preserve its growing stature as a diplomatic stakeholder in Yemen. In early July, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths traveled to Moscow for discussions on Yemen’s peace process, and Russia subsequently met with senior officials aligned with Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government and the Houthi movement. As Russia has adhered to a policy of strategic nonalignment in Yemen, the Houthis and the STC view Russia as a valuable partner in their quests to obtain international legitimacy.

As Russia has consistently engaged in diplomacy with Houthi representatives since early 2015, Houthi officials hope that recent events in Aden will cause Moscow to endorse a new peace settlement that legitimizes the Houthis’ authority over Sanaa. Nasser Arrabyee, a prominent Sanaa-based commentator, told Al-Monitor that Houthi negotiators plan to draw attention to the “near war” between Saudi and Emirati allies in Yemen when engaging with Russian officials and emphasize that “only the Houthis can act like a state and can be trusted.” Arrabyee also stated that the contrast between the apparent cohesion of the Houthis and the “fragmented” Hadi coalition could convince Russia to lend support to the Houthi cause.

To complement these displays of strength and gain a favorable reception in Moscow, Houthi chief diplomat Mohammed Abdulsalam has publicly praised Russia’s collective security plan for the Persian Gulf. The Houthis also hope that Abdulsalam’s recent meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran will act as a gateway for normalized diplomacy on the world stage, and they positively view Russia’s frequent engagement with Iran on ending the war in Yemen. In spite of these positive signals, Houthi outreach efforts to Russia are unlikely to succeed unless the militant group suspends its destabilizing activities such as drone strikes on Saudi territory and efforts to sabotage oil shipments.

The STC believes that its swift triumph in Aden will convince Russia to back the creation of an independent south Yemeni state. When asked about the possibility of Russia supporting the STC’s participation in UN-backed peace negotiations, Ahmed bin Fareed, the STC’s chief diplomat in Europe, told Al-Monitor that “there is a new reality on the ground and the world has seen this reality.” Bin Fareed believes that the recent outpouring of popular support for the STC will force major world powers, like Russia, to stop ignoring southern Yemen’s demands. 

Bin Fareed’s optimism is not unfounded, as STC leader Aidarous al-Zubaidi visited Moscow in March and Russian Ambassador to Yemen Vladimir Dedushkin has frequently highlighted the importance of resolving the question of southern Yemen’s status. Yet Russia has not publicly supported the STC’s inclusion in a peace settlement, as it is officially committed to Yemen’s unity and does not wish to be seen as an enabler of the UAE’s hegemonic aspirations on the Red Sea. Looking ahead, however, the stagnation of Yemen’s peace process could change Russia’s policy toward the STC. Former Russian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Andrei Baklanov told Al-Monitor that if warring parties in Yemen “do not exercise the proper degree of readiness to compromise,” Russia could allow southern Yemen to “establish its own government to bring peace to the people of the region.”

Although events in Aden could encourage Russia to establish closer relations with the Houthis and the STC, Moscow’s freedom of action is constrained by UN Security Council Resolution 2216. That resolution, which was adopted in April 2015, renders the Houthi occupation of Sanaa illegal and unequivocally supports a unified Yemen. Russia was the only country to abstain from voting on UNSC Resolution 2216, as it feared that the imposition of sanctions against the Houthis would escalate the conflict, but Moscow has not attempted to overhaul the resolution since it was implemented. 

In spite of Russia’s public adherence to UNSC Resolution 2216, there are signs that Moscow could be willing to support the replacement of this resolution with a more inclusive framework. In February, Dedushkin implicitly criticized UNSC Resolution 2216 for allowing the use of force in Yemen and argued that the Houthis were unlikely to be dislodged from Sanaa through popular unrest. Baklanov said that resolving the Yemeni civil war is an “integral part” of Russia’s new collective security plan in the Persian Gulf. As Russia’s collective security vision hinges on the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders, Moscow could lobby for a peace settlement in Yemen that is more accommodating to the Houthis and the STC’s interests than current proposals.

Although Russia has treaded cautiously in the aftermath of the STC’s victory in Aden, the Houthis and the STC view Moscow as a potentially helpful partner in their efforts to gain international legitimacy. As divisions within the Saudi-led coalition sharpen and UNSC Resolution 2216 appears increasingly out-of-step with developments on the ground, Russia could step up its support for a more inclusive peace settlement in Yemen.

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