On August 21, 2016, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh urged Yemen’s Houthi government to give the Russian military access to all of Yemen’s bases, ports and airports. To justify this bold policy suggestion, Saleh praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “positive attitude” in the UN Security Council, and described Russia as Yemen’s “closest kin” in the international community.
As the Bush administration viewed Saleh’s Yemen as a reliable US counter-terrorism partner after 9/11, Saleh’s pleas for Russian military assistance represent a striking break from his foreign policy approach as president. Even though Russia is unlikely to intervene in Yemen on Saleh’s behalf, Moscow’s tacit support for Saleh and Yemen’s Houthi government reveals a great deal about Putin’s geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East.
Since Saudi Arabia began its airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen in March 2015, Russia has launched an information war against Riyadh. Russian state media outlets have condemned Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen, and criticized Western arms sales to Riyadh to further Moscow’s anti-Western foreign policy agenda. Russia has also tacitly supported the establishment of a durable Houthi-led government in Yemen. This position demonstrates Russia’s commitment to the restoration of stability in the Middle East.
Russia’s Normative Crusade Against Saudi Arabia’s War with Yemen
Even though Russian policymakers have carefully kept Moscow-Riyadh hostilities in check since the start of the Yemen civil war, the Russian state media has consistently depicted Saudi Arabia as a unilateral aggressor in the conflict. In April 2016, Russia Today featured an interview with Saleh, which stated that the Saudi monarchy is committing terrorist activities in Yemen that are comparable to atrocities perpetrated by ISIS and al-Qaeda.
The Russian state media has covered Saudi Arabia’s massacres of civilians in Yemen much more extensively than leading American and British news stations. By drawing attention to the women and children who have been displaced by Saudi air raids, the Russian state media has aggressively countered Riyadh’s argument that Saudi airstrikes are beneficial for Yemen’s long-term political stability. To highlight the double standards inherent in US and European foreign policies, Russian news networks have also scrutinized Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Pro-Kremlin commentators have used these arms sales as proof of the complicity of Western policymakers in Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
The Russian state media’s information war with Saudi Arabia and the United States over Yemen furthers Russia’s strategic interests in two main ways. First, by depicting Saudi Arabia as a savage aggressor in Yemen, the Russian government has strengthened its covert efforts to rally international support around the Houthis’ cause. Greater international solidarity with the Houthis could eventually help counter the impact of Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Russia abstained from the April 2015 UN resolution calling for an arms embargo against the Houthis. Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin argued that the embargo should be stretched to include Saudi Arabia and deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s forces.
The unwillingness of Western powers to chastise Saudi Arabia for its war crimes in Yemen has caused Moscow to sharpen its focus on the plight of Yemen’s Houthi forces. Russia is unlikely to sell arms to Yemen, as it believes that forming an Assad-style alliance with Saleh will overstretch its already strained military capabilities in the Middle East. Yet by emphasizing that Houthi rocket firings in Saudi Arabia are strictly defensive, Russia is trying to convince the international community to express outrage with Riyadh’s actions and rally around the Houthis.
Second, the Russian state media has promoted Iran’s narrative of the Yemen war to demonstrate that the Moscow-Tehran alliance can thrive outside the context of Syria. Pro-Kremlin commentators have tried to discredit Saudi Arabia’s claims that Tehran is actively involved in the day-to-day training and financing of Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Even though the Kremlin has insisted that it can build a diplomatic partnership with any Yemeni faction and has vowed to remain neutral in the conflict, the implicit pro-Iranian tone of Russia’s state media campaign has helped ease latent distrust between Russia and Iran.
Why Russia Views the Houthis as Guardians of Stability in Yemen
Even though Yemen’s Houthi government took power through a political revolution on September 21, 2014, Russian policymakers have tacitly concurred that allowing the Houthis to remain in power is the best outcome for Yemen’s future political stability. This swift acceptance of a revolutionary government differs markedly from Moscow’s resolute support for authoritarian incumbents like Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria during the Arab Spring. But Putin’s overall preference for stable authoritarianism in Yemen aligns closely with Russia’s broader Middle East strategy.
Russia’s desire for stability in Yemen is also rooted in its historical experience. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported South Yemen’s communist government and maintained cordial enough relations with North Yemen to gain a foothold on Saudi Arabia’s borders. The Saudi monarchy has traditionally viewed Yemen as its “near abroad” region, so an extensive Soviet presence on Saudi Arabia’s southern border helped prevent Saudi belligerence in Yemen.
The close proximity of Soviet military personnel to Saudi Arabia’s borders was particularly relevant during the 1980s. During the 1979-1988 Afghanistan war, Riyadh-Moscow relations were strained by Saudi Arabia’s support for anti-Soviet mujahideen militias. The USSR’s consolidation of an alliance with Yemen caused Saudi policymakers to fear Soviet retaliation for Riyadh’s interference in Afghanistan. To appease Moscow, Saudi Arabia allowed Brezhnev to use its soil to provide military support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War.
As Russia-Saudi Arabia relations have been strained once again over both countries’ divergent views on the Syrian civil war, Russian policymakers have shored up support for a stable Iran-backed Houthi government in Yemen to heighten Riyadh’s perceptions of vulnerability. Russian Charge D’Affaires in Sana’a Oleg Dremov confirmed Moscow’s preference for a pro-Tehran government in Yemen by openly endorsing Yemen’s Houthi government in an August 2016 interview with Yemen Today.
As stability is Russia’s overarching goal in Yemen, Moscow’s long-term loyalty to the Houthis is not assured. If latent tensions between Saleh and the Houthis undermine the Yemeni government’s cohesion, Russia could distance itself from the Houthis. To prepare for this scenario, Moscow has hedged its bets by keeping avenues of diplomatic dialogue open with Saudi-backed factions in Yemen.
As Yury Barmin noted in an April 2015 op-ed for Russia Direct, Russian diplomats have periodically supported Hadi’s legitimacy. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin has even claimed that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has expressed “understanding” towards the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.
To avoid alienating large portions of Yemen’s increasingly sectarian society, the Russian government has called for nationwide peace negotiations involving all factions in the civil war. By adopting a much more dovish and even-keeled approach to the Yemen crisis than the state media, Russian officials are hoping to ensure that Yemen remains an ally regardless of who takes power in the country.
Even though Russia is unlikely to instigate a Syria-style military intervention in Yemen, Moscow’s tacit support for the Houthis aligns closely with Russia’s broader strategy towards the Middle East. It remains to be seen if an eventual thaw in Russia-Saudi Arabia relations causes Moscow to soften its covert alliance with Saleh or if both countries’ divergent views on Yemen will continue to mar Riyadh-Moscow relations for years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani