Demonstrations against Ali Abdullah Saleh started in January 2011 with the Yemeni people asking him to resign. Under pressure from foreign interventions, Saleh eventually transferred the administration to Mansur Hadi on November 23, 2011 to became the fourth Arab leader forced from power in the so-called Arab Spring.
However, the subsequent events went against the desires of Hadi and the Houthis captured the capital city of Sanaa on September 21, 2014. As a result, the balance of power changed strongly in favor of the Iranian front and at the end on March 23, 2015, Saudi Arabia started attacking the Yemeni Houthis to ejection them from Sanaa.
What is important is that Russia was neutral in the Yemen crisis. The first sign of Russia’s neutral position appeared when the UNSC issued Resolution 2216 on the Yemeni crisis, which was passed by “by 14 affirmative votes to none against, with one abstention (Russian Federation)”.
Vitaly Churkin said that the resolution was “not fully in line with the requirements which were put forth into the international community conditioned by the crisis in this country”. Instead, Russia avoided interfering in the conflict and preferred to observe events in Yemen from the outside — events that led Saudi Arabia to start its catastrophic intervention in Yemen. After that the Security Council issued Resolutions 2266 and 2342, and still Russia remained neutral in the UNSC.
Why has Russia held a neutral position in the Yemen crisis? Many analysts consider that Russia has miscalculated its Yemen position. In November 2015 the rebels in Southern Yemen sent a letter to the Russian consulate asking them to support their attempt to secede from northern Yemen. However, Russia’s inaction showed that it did not support their desire to secede from Yemen.
In February 2015, a delegation of Houthis visited Moscow in effort to gain recognition. “During the meeting, the Houthi delegation promised an array of lucrative contracts in exchange for Moscow’s recognition of the Ansarullah’s authority”. Nevertheless, Russia did not announce its support for the Houthis because Moscow knew that in doing so this could give birth to a crisis in its relations with Saudi Arabia.
Two weeks after the Houthi visit the Russian Ambassador to Yemen met with President Mansur Hadi in Aden and expressed Russia’s support for his government’s legitimacy.
Russian policy on Yemen is based on dual impartiality. When Saudi Arabia started to bomb Yemeni Houthis, Russia condemned the Saudi airstrikes, but Moscow did not move its embassy from Sanaa. At the same time there were other increased regional crisis such as the Syrian conflict and ISIS war on Iraq — and Russia was not sure about their position. Vladimir Putin chose Syria for the arena for his country’s intervention because he knew that Russia did not have wide possibilities of success in Yemen, and this explains why Russia was neutral with regard to the Yemen crisis.
Not only did Russia not cut relations with the Hadi government, but indeed Hadi appointed a new ambassador to Moscow in July 2017 (a position that had been vacant for more than six years). This Russian multidimensional strategic aspect must be viewed in upon the backdrop of it wanting to keep Saudi Arabia satisfied. It is clear that Moscow is following patience as a regional policy.
Russia’s policy of neutrality actually supports Saudi Arabia in its attacks on Yemen. Russia has some limitations with regard to its policy toward Yemen. The first one is oil prices. In 2014 the average OPEC crude oil price was 96 US dollars, but in 2015 oil prices fell sharply to 49 dollars as Saudi Arabia started its oil war against Russia and Iran. In response, Russia supplied more oil to compensate for losses, which also lowered prices. Russia’s fragile economy was badly damaged and in this case Russia lost its oil war with Saudi Arabia.
The other reason is Iranian influence in the Middle East. Russia wants to create a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The prolonged war on Syria damaged Russian sources and Russia is looking for diversification of its allies. Russia trusts Iran in a range of complex conflicts in the Middle East and yet, Russia needs to control Iran by a rival such as Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, Russia knows that Saudi Arabia could fuel Russian extremist groups.
According to Huffington Post, in a conversation between Vladimir Putin and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan about Syria in 2013, Bandar threatened Russia by saying, “The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us” and Putin replied “We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade”.
It should be noted that Russia has not forgotten Saudi Arabia’s role in the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Saudi role in the 9/11 attacks on the US, and Putin knows that Saudi Arabia has the ability to support extremist groups.
The recent proximity between Russia and Saudi Arabia proves that Russia, although dissatisfied with some actions in Saudi policies, still needs to improve relations with them. After a hard period of relations, in the October 2017 the King of Saudi Arabia visited Moscow. During that visit Russia agreed to sell armament worth three billion US dollars. This showed that while Russia could not be active in the Yemen crisis, at the same time it could not ignore the profits of close relations with Saudi Arabia.
The important issue is that Russia can play a mediating role between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia to ending the unnecessary and inconclusive war on Yemen. In case Russia can play this role, its influence will increase in the Middle East as Russia similarly was able to manage control in the Syrian crisis. It seems that if Saudi Arabia does not enable the defeat of the Houthis, Russia could have the power to manage both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis and the future will show us how Russian creates a balance between complex actors of the war while the US is absent in Yemen’s increasing conflict.
*Sayyad Sadri Alibabalu is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle East studies at Sakarya University in Turkey. His studies focus on foreign policy of Iran, Turkey and great powers, terrorism and security issues in the MENA. Twitter: @SayyadSadri