Analysis - Political Transformations
The Perfect Conflict
The Russian strategy in Yemen
Monday، July 05، 2021
The operation of the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria was perceived by the world community as a demonstration of strength, unveiling Moscow and the Kremlin's readiness to defend its interests in the Middle East by military means. It is not surprising that the Russian military presence in Syria has generated a lot of speculation about the possibility of a repetition of the Syrian ‘scenario’ in other hot spots in the region, such as Yemen.
We believe that such generalizations are inaccurate and simplify the multifaceted situation. First of all, the Syrian case is rather an exception for Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist ideology, Russia became more pragmatic, its policy got rid of the prefix ‘pro’, and, in principle, it is trying to serve its own interests. It is not surprising that the rejection of messianic ideas forced Russia to reconsider its attitude to conflicts, including ones in the Middle East. The best example of Russian pragmatism is the Kremlin's policy on the Yemeni crisis since its beginning in 2011 until now.
Speaking about Russian strategy towards Yemen, it should be noted that it has been traditionally characterized by ‘friendly’ relations with all fractions involved the crisis. From the first days of the Arab Spring in Yemen, Russia tried to distance itself from internal inter-tribal or clan dynamics, to be able to stay neutral. To some extent, this still helps Moscow to maintain its constructive engagement with all the warring parties.
A similar approach applies to external forces, more or less involved in the Yemeni conflict. Russia is trying to balance its relations or allegiances to all parties involved in the conflict. That’s why Russia continuously aims to raise the role of the UN special envoy for Yemen. This testifies to Moscow's desire to rid itself of its responsibility for the decisions made and supports the collective ‘opinion’ of the UN. Consequently, Russia has never vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on Yemen proposed by Arab countries or the West. Hence, its position is ultimately different in the the Syrian case.
It is important to note one more feature of the Russian approach to the Middle East in general and Yemen in particular. As Russia aims to demonstrate to the international arena that its voice in the Middle East should be heeded, it became increasingly important for Moscow to create sustainable mechanisms to maintain its position in the region, while minimizing costs. Due to internal circumstances, Russia cannot (and does not want) to play the role of ‘first (and even second) violin’ in any of the conflicts in MENA region. Even with regard to the Syrian conflict, Russia in recent years has been trying to share the responsibility for the reconstruction and post-crisis development of the country and to find co-sponsors for the settlement of the Syrian crisis.
As for Yemen, Russia initially followed this tactic. Russia has never sought to play a leading role in the Yemeni crisis. Moscow was completely satisfied with the fact that it participated in the work of the Group of Friends of Yemen and the Group of Ten (the so-called guarantor states of the peace process), created in 2010. Russian Ambassador to Yemen Vladimir Dedushkin noted in February 2014 that the National Dialogue Conference participants “in accordance with the GCC initiative and UN Security Council resolutions 2014 and 2051 were able to lay the foundation for stabilisation and further development of the Republic of Yemen.”
Moreover, the dynamics of the relationships between the external forces that developed in Yemen, among which Russia by no means held a primary role, suited Moscow much more than that of the case of Syria. Indeed, Russian diplomats proposed to gain from the Yemeni experience of resolving the conflict to apply it to the situation in Syria, describing it as “the best way to resolve international crises that will go down in world history.” The most important role, according to Moscow, was played by the international consensus achieved within the framework of the Group of Friends of Yemen, but this was impossible within the framework of the Friends of Syria.
In 2018, in an interview with TASS, Ambassador Dedushkin was not pleased when asked whether Russia could become an intermediary in resolving the crisis in Yemen by initiating a process similar to the ‘Astana process’ in Syria. He stated, that in Syria and Yemen, everything is completely different. In both sides, the interests of the warring parties and the interests of external players vary. In this regard, “I [Russian Ambassador] am inclined to proceed from the fact that we need to find a way to a settlement in Yemen, moving along the beaten track, without reinventing the wheel, that is, relying on UN Secretary-General Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Martin and I had an excellent professional dialogue. The Russian side fully supports the Special Envoy.”
In terms of the pragmatic approach that Russia is trying to follow in the Middle East, Yemen is not a state of interest, evident in the following:
1. First, Russia has almost no economic interests in Yemen. Till the end of 2010s Yemen’s share in the total foreign trade turnover of Russia regularly decreased and was only 0.03 percent (even less than the 0.05 percent in 2017). At the same time, 85 percent of all Russian-Yemeni trade comes from the export of Russian wheat to Yemen. The main problem is the low interest of Russian business in the Yemeni market. With the exception of coffee, seafood and a limited range of construction materials, Yemen is hardly of any attention to the Russian economy. The same applies to the Yemeni oil sector, where volumes are low, the extent of oil reserves has yet to be assessed and the likelihood of their subsequent recovery is not high. In the case of private Russian oil companies, the very high costs of entering the Yemeni market are related primarily to security issues, the need to rebuild destroyed infrastructure and unresolved disputes between the various forces within Yemen, although the possibility of the Russian oil and gas sector participating in the exploration of new fields has been considered.
2. Secondly, noise about Russia's alleged desire to acquire military bases in Yemen is unfounded. Most often, they are based only on the fact that Russia is trying to regain its former influence in the region, including through the return of military bases in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Moreover, the idea that Russia could acquire military bases in Yemen are formed precisely among the Yemenis themselves. As they compete with each other, Yemeni politicians, wishing to gain Moscow’s favor, sometimes talk about Russian military bases in Yemen, usually in the run-up to negotiations with the Russian side. These statements are often picked up later by Russian political actors to promote Russian influence in the region and become an instrument of polemics with the West. However, Russia does not feel the need to deploy military bases in Yemen, especially because of the high cost of such a project and its low potential efficacy from the point of view of Russian military interests. Another reason is that the presence of military bases in the Red Sea and on the coast of the Gulf of Aden can be justified only if the Russian Navy is permanently based there. However, the size of Russia’s Black Sea and Pacific fleets (the most relevant for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden) does not allow for large forces to be deployed off the coast of Yemen. In addition, there is no current economic or political need to implement long-term forms of military presence in Yemeni ports in the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden.
3. Third, if we generally talk about Russian policy in the Gulf, then Moscow prioritizes primarily maintaining relations with the Arabian monarchies, rather than playing an active role in Yemen. Recently Russia focuses on finalizing agreements to boost economic, energy and investment cooperation with the countries in the region. This explains the very restrained position of Moscow on the Yemeni crisis, such as its actions with the UN Security Council on resolutions 2216 (2015) and 2342 (2017); or the fact that Russia has not rejected any of the Yemen initiatives proposed by the Gulf states. Hence, for Russia its cooperation with the countries in the region is vital and serves its economic interests.
Thus, for Moscow, the costs of a possible active (or military) involvement in the Yemeni crisis seem to be significantly higher than the possible advantages. The positions that Russia currently has in Yemen fully meet not just its short-term but also long-term interests. Moscow, is perceived, as an important player in the Yemeni settlement, however, the Russian leadership won’t allow its involvement in the Yemeni crisis to require significant resource expenditures, superseding such an involvement advantages.