In contrast with its assertiveness in Syria, Russia’s role in most conflicts in the MENA region consists of proclaiming its non-alignment and keeping all actors content. Moscow does not shy away from casting itself as a true power-broker in the region. It acts as an allegedly impartial mediator that gets along with all actors and respects each country's sovereignty, while trying to find a middle ground, or at least facilitate dialogue, between the stakeholders it deems reliable and important enough. Yemen, in that regard, represents a conflict-resolution opportunity in which other countries have failed and some of Russia’s allies seem trapped.
Russia is not an actor new to the Yemeni scenario, which epitomises Moscow’s ‘resurgence’ in the Middle East. Agreements signed between the Marxist-oriented People’s Democratic Yemeni Republic and the USSR allowed the soviet colossus to exercise considerable influence in the region and secured its position in the Red Sea. The events in the 1990s led to Russia abandoning its bases in Yemen, and to a loss of geostrategic influence in favour of the US. Those precedents partly illuminate one of Russia’s primary goals in Yemen: not just to counter Western influence, but to regain its military and geostrategic power in the Red Sea as well.
Stability in the Persian Gulf is critical for Russia’s strategic interests. This summer’s escalation represented an opportunity to broaden the country’s influence. Yemen plays a role in Russia’s collective security plan for the Gulf, perceived as a possible outline of the country's strategic – maybe also ideological – vision for the region, in opposition to the US-articulated ‘Arab NATO’, and therefore including Iran.
Russia’s strategy in Yemen runs simultaneously at three levels: local, regional and international. As it does with other regional conflicts, Moscow does not see the situation in Yemen as an actual regional war, but as a local conflict with regional dimensions.
At the local level, Russia maintains extensive contacts with all local actors, except for jihadist groups. The Houthis rely on Russia as the only broker capable of defending their interests. While Russia recognises Hadi’s legitimate government, Moscow is not keen on the president’s outstanding reliance on Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Russia also has good relations with a wide array of Southern factions. Its stance is in line with Moscow’s emphasis on respect for Yemen’s territorial integrity, a balancing act – one the UAE has not shown itself able to perform - that international actors see with a favourable eye.
At the regional level, Russia has struck a balance in the Gulf: it has consolidated its alliance with Iran, while at the same time having bilateral relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A success for Russia’s mediation in Yemen could help to recover part of the Gulf's shattered image without forcing Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, both desperate for a discreet way out, to give in and humiliate themselves publicly.
Russia’s support for Assad alienated Saudi Arabia, but 2015 led to a progressive shift, also in terms of the conflict in Yemen. The rapprochement has taken place mainly in the oil and counter-terrorism arenas, but also as a consequence of Moscow’s efforts to assert its neutral stance towards what has been called the ‘new Middle East cold war’. Russia has been careful not to harshly criticise Riyadh’s role in Yemen but has, at the same time, made clear that Saudi Arabia’s intention to follow the military path is counterproductive. The UAE-Russia relationship is shaping up to become an alliance of sorts in Southern Yemen and beyond, in countries such as Libya and Syria and, more importantly, in the Horn of Africa. Then there is the partnership between Russia and Iran, strengthened during the 2000s and consolidated in Syria. Even though Iran’s role in the Yemen war is still unclear, Russia’s refusal to unmistakably side with the Gulf monarchies seems to have contributed, at least for now, to a solidification of the bilateral relationship.
Russia’s strategy has also been deployed in the United Nations arena. UNSC Resolution 2216 was Russia’s first test and declaration of intent. The text urged the Houthis to withdraw from all seized areas immediately and reaffirmed the authority of Hadi’s ‘legitimate government of Yemen’. Moscow abstained, arguing the text was ‘not fully in line’ with the conditions for a political solution and called on all sides for a ceasefire. Russia has used its veto many times since then to amend resolutions and UN official statements and has opposed any attempts to pull the Issue out of the UN framework, as was the case with the US-led creation of a Quad for Yemen. Moscow’s ambivalent stance vis-à-vis the conflict before the international community, selectively picking its carrots and sticks not to alienate any of its allies fatally, points at a refusal to embrace any of the official stances. Russia’s attitude casts light on its most significant advantage in helping to advance peace: a favourable relationship with nearly all stakeholders, both those that aim at getting a seat at the UN-backed negotiating table and those who already participate in the process.
Moscow has made clear that a political solution is the only alternative in Yemen. Cognisant of the need for inclusiveness, Russia could play a role both in regard to the 'main' conflict and in regard to the conflict in the South. The current context represents an opportunity for Moscow to not just advance its economic and political interests, but also demonstrate its will to be a positive force and a critical actor - from 'power-broker' to 'problem-solver' - towards regional stability. Russia’s success could furthermore guarantee not only improved relations with both sides of the Persian Gulf, but also a beneficial role in the reconstruction process. Russia’s added value stands in contrast with the lack of legitimacy – and sufficient leverage - of actors such as the UN, the US and the EU. Moscow has yet to act decisively, though, with all eyes on it now.