Russia’s position on the fighting in Yemen needs to be understood in terms of its overall approach to the Middle East. And Moscow’s approach to the region has become more confident and strident, as Washington’s has become ever more confused and disjointed. Vitaly Naumkin, a leading Russian analyst, observes that Russia seeks to play an ever more active and independent role in the Middle East and to stake out a position on all the conflicts roiling the area while establishing contacts with as many of the players in these conflicts as possible. And this tactic is not confined to Yemen. Moreover, Moscow no longer shies away from opposing Washington in the region (Al-Monitor.com, April 1).
But even as Moscow seeks to forge lasting contacts with as many players as possible, it also has come out in favor of certain actors—and, again, not in Yemen alone. Thus Russia’s stance in Yemen is directly tied to its staunch support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and to Russia’s visible eagerness to reenter Iran’s nuclear energy and arms markets while championing Iran against the US (though not necessarily to the point of supporting Iranian nuclearization) (Russia Direct, April 1). Illustratively, on April 13, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree lifting Russia’s previous self-imposed ban on selling S-300 air defense systems to the Islamic Republic (TASS, April 13).
Russian analysts display a good grasp of the internal dynamics setting faction against faction in Yemen and understand quite well that it has always been a precarious country that often hovered close to state failure. And they also understand that the confrontation between the former government and the rebel Houthis is not exactly identical to a simple Sunni versus Shi’a split (Valdaiclub.com, April 6). Nevertheless, the external dimension is that Saudi Arabia clearly (and with good reason) sees Iran trying to add another capital to its list of pro-Iranian or pro-Shi’a regimes and, therefore, launched bombing raids against the Iranian-backed Houthis. These analysts also claim that Riyadh’s intervention may not be legal since it does not have United Nations authorization (obviously, they do not count Ukraine as exemplifying this pattern). They also fully understand that Washington has thrown its support behind Saudi Arabia (Valdaiclub.com, April 6, 7).
Furthermore, Moscow now feels it needs Chinese support in the Middle East. Thus it issued a joint call with China to support the peaceful resolution of conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen (Interfax, April 7). This joint summons and the juxtaposition of these three conflicts suggest important aspects of Russian policy in the greater Middle East: First, just as Moscow organized joint Sino-Russian naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean last year, it clearly feels it needs to elicit Chinese support for its position here. Second, it aims at conflict resolution where its clients—whether they be the so-called separatists in Ukraine who are actually under Russian direction or al-Assad—prevail. For these reasons Russia apparently has expressed its readiness to play a supposedly “mediatory” role in Yemen, not unlike what it has periodically sought to do in Syria (Al-Safir Online, March 30). Specifically, Russia’s foreign ministry has repeatedly advocated swift action to end the violence in Yemen and launch a political dialogue between the parties there (Interfax, April 8). And for the same reasons, Foreign Minister Lavrov has expressed Moscow’s mounting concern about Shi’a-Sunni tensions, which, he claims, are the focal point of the geopolitical situation in the Gulf. Lavrov claims to have warned the world about the dangers of this internecine strife and actually asserted that in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, there was supposedly “peaceful coexistence between these groups” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, April 8). This statement, which fundamentally misrepresents the true situation in Saddam’s Iraq, tells a great deal about Moscow’s political preference for dictators.
Lavrov also noted his and Russia’s opposition to any foreign intervention in Yemen, invoking the examples of interventions against Libya’s Muammar Qadaffi and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. More practically, however, he clearly has indicated his support for the Iranian and Syrian viewpoint that wants the Houthis to prevail politically there (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, April 8). Indeed, Moscow has had to issue multiple denials of unconfirmed claims by Yemen’s foreign minister that Russia is transferring weapons to the Houthis (Uatoday.tv, April 6; Xinhua, April 5)
Whether or not Russia is supplying weapons to the Houthis, it is clear that it sees this conflict much as its partners Syria and Iran do. Iran’s support for the Houthis has been critical—indeed, it led the Saudis, with US backing, to militarily intervene in Yemen. Thus, despite Lavrov’s and others Russian officials’ disavowals of a stance for or against one or another Yemeni faction, it is clear that Moscow is doing in Yemen what it does in every other Middle Eastern conflict: it seeks to exploit that conflict for its own interests. Bringing about a genuine peace or political resolution to this strife is of significantly less importance to the Russian government.