Russia is emerging as an important and unexpected mediator in the ongoing war in Yemen, epitomising its resurgence in the Middle East. Yemen plays a crucial role in Moscow’s collective security plan, which is at the forefront of Russia’s diplomatic agenda in the wider Gulf. Ending the war in Yemen and thus achieving regional stability is a prerequisite for the plan’s endorsement and implementation, compelling Russia to continue its diplomatic cooperation with each party involved in the conflict. In the longer term, there are strong indicators that the Kremlin seeks to establish itself as a major stakeholder on Yemeni ground by consolidating its ground presence in southern Yemen and boosting control over the Bab al-Mandab strait, as well as by employing its Private Military Companies (PMCs) to assist the conflict’s numerous warring sides.
The volatile Bab al-Mandab strait is central to Moscow’s regional aspirations. The strait is a crucial maritime chokehold at the mouth of the Red Sea, through which around 9% of seaborne-traded petroleum flows. Russia’s desire to re-establish its Cold War era geopolitical and military presence in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa and Yemen have become increasingly apparent in recent years, and were publicly first expressed in the statement of a senior Russian military official in 2009. While multiple powers have consolidated ground presence on the coast of the Horn of Africa, only Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a significant military presence on Yemeni ground. Therefore, if Russia secures ground presence east of the strait, it will gain a strategic advantage over other major powers like China, the U.S., France, and Japan, which all conduct operations out of Djibouti. Obtaining access to naval and air facilities in southern Yemen would further enhance Russia’s operational capabilities in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, whilst serving its interests in the base race currently being contested by competing powers in the region.
As for the immediate future, Russia has been advocating its ‘collective security’ plan in the Middle East as a tool for exerting soft power. Following the appointment of the first Yemeni ambassador to Russia since the fall of Yemen’s former President Saleh, Ahmed al-Wahishi, Russia has moved its diplomatic strategy away from merely condemning armed intervention in the country to seeking actively a ceasefire through Russian-led mediation. Indeed, the Persian Gulf security plan was at the forefront of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s agenda during his recent tour of the Middle East, and Yemen is at present contemplating Russia’s security proposal.
Maintaining strategic neutrality and common ground with all regional stakeholders is central to this objective. This is particularly true when considering the fractured state of Yemen today, with the Hadi government’s authority over Socotra, the Southern Transitional Council’s (STC) de facto authority over Aden, and the Houthis’ occupation of ports on the Red Sea. Supporting the legitimacy of Hadi’s government and taking on a public ‘peace-maker’ role may also realise a secondary Russian aim: improving its negative image amongst Arabs, which stems from Moscow’s support for Assad’s regime and bombing campaign in Syria. Russian state media has in the past underscored Washington’s role in coalition airstrikes and civilian deaths, while depicting Russia as a ‘leading advocate’ for peace.
Despite this strategy, Russia’s security and mediation proposals may be viewed as lacklustre due to the Kremlin’s limited ability to influence events on the ground in Yemen. Given that, an effective solution for Russia would be to cooperate with Iran and the UAE and employ Russian private military companies (PMCs) to arm and train the Iran-backed Houthis and the Emirati-backed STC. This move would prove effective on three fronts: consolidating Russia’s ground presence near Bab al-Mandab; exerting Russian influence on future Yemeni politics; and applying indirect economic and military pressure on Riyadh and Washington. Utilising PMCs to assist opposing sides would be a means of providing unofficial and deniable military aid in return for influence, whilst avoiding becoming an active party in the conflict. Open-source intelligence and Russian media reports show that Russian PMCs have already been employed in Yemen since 2018. Information on the full extent of Russian PMC activity in Yemen remains sparse, however, despite the common knowledge that Russian PMC presence around the world doubled between 2015 and 2020.
An alternative strategy would be to focus on cooperation with the UAE and increase aid to the STC. This would propel Moscow’s leverage to bring this side to the negotiating table. Russian relations with the STC are amicable, with STC officials visiting Moscow for high-level talks as recently as January. While Moscow will not directly support the party’s separatist ambitions due to the likelihood of a consequential and dramatic fallout with Saudi Arabia and Oman, it can facilitate the STC’s participation in peace negotiations. The US government reported in November 2020 that the Emiratis are funding Russia’s infamous Wagner group PMC in Libya, and the countries have a history of close security cooperation. Furthermore, a diplomat indicated that the UAE would grant Russia military establishments on Yemeni territory, in exchange for furthering Emirati interests and aiding the STC. Conversely, backing one side alone would bring diplomatic losses for the Kremlin, as a proliferation in Russian military bases in Yemen would be unacceptable to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
We expect Russia to continue its policy of intelligent neutrality in the Gulf, and we will likely observe a strong Russian presence in future mediation efforts. In the long run, Russia desires the return of its Cold War level of regional influence, and also to inflict economic pressure on the Saudis. To achieve this, Russia may choose to introduce more PMCs in Yemen to consolidate ground influence and foster relations with the Houthis, STC, and Hadi’s government. If negotiations between the Saudis and Houthis ever succeed, Russia would be well positioned to secure strong influence in the north of the country and, in the long run, we may witness a Russian attempt to establish a stronger military presence in the south.