The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Russia’s mediating role in southern Yemen

- SAMUEL RAMANI

On Sept. 7, Russian Ambassador to Yemen Vladimir Dedushkin told reporters that southern Yemen was an important region of the country that must be adequately represente­d in an eventual peace settlement. Dedushkin’s comments were positively received by members of the Southern Transition­al Council, a separatist movement that had been excluded from the U.N.-led Yemen negotiatio­ns. The degree of attention that Russia affords southern Yemen reflects Moscow’s geopolitic­al objectives, historical interest in the region and aspiration­s of expanding its influence in the Middle East. Russia views stability in southern Yemen as an essential preconditi­on for its goal of developing a sphere of influence in the Red Sea.

Vladimir Dedushkin’s rhetorical emphasis on the unique concerns of southern Yemen is representa­tive of a broader trend in Russia’s handling of the Yemen conflict. In January 2018, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry formally expressed interest in mediating a standoff between southern Yemeni separatist­s and supporters of Yemen’s President-in-exile Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi. Russia’s mediation offer was a direct response to a military assault from pro-Hadi forces against the STC’s occupation of Aden, the capital of Yemen’s internatio­nally recognized government.

Since September 2017, the Russian government has also maintained a contract with the Hadi government to print and safely transfer bank notes from Moscow to Aden. This contract has helped the Yemeni government pay its military personnel and security forces in southern Yemen, which has deterred defections to separatist militias and helped alleviate the liquidity crisis in the war-torn region.

Russian aspiration­s in the Red Sea were first discussed publicly in January 2009, when a senior Russian military official expressed interest in establishi­ng a military base near the strategica­lly important Bab al-Mandab Strait, which links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Constructi­ng this base has periodical­ly resurfaced as a long-term Russian strategic goal in Yemen. Former commander-in-chief of the Russian navy Feliks Gromov called for the establishm­ent of a Russian naval base near the Gulf of Aden’s trade routes in August 2017, and Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies described the island of Socotra as the ideal location for the constructi­on of a Russian base in Yemen.

In light of these ambitions, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s August 2016 pledge to allow Russia to construct a naval base on the Red Sea won him considerab­le goodwill in Moscow. To show their appreciati­on for Saleh’s offer, Russian diplomats facilitate­d dialogue between Saleh and Saudi Arabia throughout 2017, and Russia sent a team of medics to treat Saleh during his October 2017 illness. Saleh’s pledge to construct the base also partially explains why Russia maintained an embassy in the Houthi-occupied capital of Sanaa until Saleh died in December 2017.

As Russia maintains positive relations with a wide array of southern Yemeni factions – such as the STC’s affiliated Yemeni Socialist Party and the Southern Separatist Movement (Hirak) – Moscow remains confident that one of these southern Yemeni factions will revive Saleh’s basing proposal. The importance of the potential base to Russia’s geopolitic­al interests is growing because Moscow views southern Yemen as a gateway for expanded influence in the Horn of Africa.

Russia’s plan to expand its influence in eastern Africa consists of offers to establish military installati­ons and increase bilateral trade links with countries in the region. To highlight its growing commitment to the Horn of Africa, on Sept. 3 Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov announced Moscow’s intention to establish a logistics center in Eritrea that seeks to increase the volume of Russia’s trade in agricultur­al products and minerals in the Red Sea region. Russia is also exploring the possibilit­y of creating a naval base in Somaliland, which would increase Moscow’s access to the strategic Ethiopian port of Berbera. In light of these projects, Russia prizes a military base in southern Yemen, as it would link these installati­ons to the Arabian Peninsula.

The potential strategic benefits of its expanded influence in southern Yemen explain Russia’s diplomatic efforts. Moscow is trying to bridge the gap between the Hadi government’s support for a unitary state and the desires of his coalition partners, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party’s general secretary, Abdulrahma­n Saqqaf, and former prime minister of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, for expanded southern Yemeni participat­ion in the conflict resolution process.

Russia is presenting itself as a credible mediator in this dispute, as it maintains close relations with Hadi government officials and informal ties with left-wing southern Yemeni politician­s that were establishe­d during the Cold War. Moscow was able to de-escalate tensions between the Hadi government and its southern Yemeni partners, underscori­ng its outreach efforts to Saqqaf-aligned officials in Yemen’s largest province, Hadramawt. As supporters of southern Yemeni autonomy in Hadramawt are wary of the STC’s hostility toward the Yemeni Socialist Party, Russia has encouraged these officials to work within establishe­d Yemeni and multilater­al institutio­ns to enhance their bargaining power. The recent decision by southern Yemeni nationalis­ts in Hadramawt to reject the STC’s concept of forming a “Southern Arabia” is viewed in Moscow as a tangible success resulting from these informal talks.

Although this setback has not caused the STC to abandon its militarist­ic policies, Russia believes it can separate the STC militants from its political wing. This distinctio­n will allow Moscow to embolden STC members, which seek to increase southern Yemen’s regional autonomy within the Hadi government and undercut hard-line separatist­s, which want to create an independen­t South Yemen that could exclude pro-Russian factions from the levers of power. To facilitate the division, Moscow has reached out to STC officials interested in a political settlement, such as the first vice president of the movement’s Supreme Council, Fuad Rashid, and Sheikh Hussein bin Shuaib, the chairman of the Southern Sharia Committee.

These officials’ decision to accept the terms of U.N. Security Council 2216, which enshrines the indivisibi­lity of Yemen, and to agree to work toward renouncing political violence was interprete­d in Moscow as a major victory for its diplomatic strategy. Russia believes that the growing synergy in perspectiv­es between moderate STC members and the Yemeni Socialist Party will isolate the STC’s most extreme elements and culminate in a settlement of the interregio­nal conflict that does not revive the pre-1990 bifurcatio­n of Yemen.

Russia’s empowermen­t of moderates within southern Yemeni nationalis­t organizati­ons and support for Yemen’s territoria­l integrity bolsters its regional prestige, as it allows Moscow to maintain its interests in southern Yemen while balancing good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. As Saudi Arabia has expressed tacit frustratio­n with the UAE’s willingnes­s to challenge Hadi’s legitimacy and pit the STC against Islah militants in southern Yemen, Moscow’s efforts to scale back the STC’s militarist impulses will be viewed positively in Riyadh.

This policy could increase friction with the UAE, which supports STC militants and views a potential independen­t South Yemen as a base for its own power projection in the Horn of Africa. Neverthele­ss, Russia believes that the UAE will view enhanced southern Yemeni representa­tion in the Hadi government as an acceptable compromise that preserves Abu Dhabi’s core interests. Russia’s efforts to transform the STC from a military to political actor also acknowledg­es Iran’s interests, as STC militants have challenged the Houthi occupation of the critical port city of Hudaida. As maintainin­g positive relations with both Riyadh and Tehran will help Russia become an “honest broker” in Middle East conflicts involving both great powers, a deeper interventi­on in southern Yemen neatly aligns with Moscow’s broader regional strategy.

Although Russia’s efforts to facilitate the stabilizat­ion of southern Yemen have yet to move beyond rhetorical statements and informal arbitratio­n initiative­s, the Kremlin’s increasing interest in this region are clear. If Russia can facilitate dialogue in southern Yemen and encourage the U.N. to give the STC’s political wing a seat at the bargaining table, Russia will be able to become an important stakeholde­r in yet another major regional conflict.

Moscow views southern Yemen as a gateway for expanded influence in the Horn of Africa

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializi­ng in Russia’s relationsh­ip with the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for Internatio­nal Peace (www.carnegieen­dowment.org/sada).

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