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What does Russia want in southern Yemen?Which has priority, geopolitical or political interests?

By MOHAMMAD SALAMI


In recent months, the visit of officials from the “Southern Transitional Council” (STC) to Moscow shows the group's growing ties with Russia. Moscow's goal from the beginning of these relations is to secure its geopolitical interests and, of course, pursue economic and political goals along with geopolitical goals.


Russia's relations with Yemen are of long standing. The USSR was closely allied with South Yemen - officially the "People's Democratic Republic of Yemen". South Yemen was the first Arab country to officially adopt communist ideas between 1967 and 1990, and thus had extensive relations with the Soviet Union. In 1990, South Yemen united with North Yemen and the Republic of Yemen was established.


Russia's geopolitical goals in southern Yemen


Russia seeks to achieve its geopolitical goals through close cooperation with the Transitional Council. In Yemen, it is trying to maintain its extensive relations with all parties involved in Yemen. Moscow's policy is not to side with any particular party in the Yemeni political-military scene. It legitimizes the administration of Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and maintains ties with the Houthis and respects the power-seeking attitudes of the southern movements. However, Russia's main goal in southern Yemen is to ensure a military presence in the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.


Yemen was one of Moscow's main priorities in the Middle East during the Cold War. Beginning in 1962, at an invitation from Egypt, which supported the Republicans in Yemen, the Soviet Union sent military "advisers" and equipment to Yemen. This presence was expanded after 1968, when Russia had a presence in the south of the country. Moscow was allowed to specifically establish a naval base on Socotra. The base received 120 Soviet ships during its duration. The base in the Gulf of Aden enabled the Soviet Union to conducted continuous operations in the Indian Ocean until 1985. Moreover, during the period 1968-1991, at least 5,245 Soviet military specialists served in Yemen. With the unification of the two Yemens in 1990, Russia lost the base and the equation changed in favor of the United States, but Russia has the goal of re-establishing a base on the island of Socotra.


The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is strategically important to Russia and is Russia's entry point into the Horn of Africa.

In this regard, the former commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Feliks Gromov, and academics at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies advised Russian authorities to regain former Soviet influence in Yemen. Russia held the first talks with then President Ali Abdullah Saleh in order to have a base in the Red Sea. Ali Abdullah Saleh said in an interview with Russia 2 TV “In the fight against terrorism we reach out and offer all facilities. Our airports, our ports... We are ready to provide this to the Russian Federation.”


The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is strategically important to Russia and is Russia's entry point into the Horn of Africa. The Horn of Africa is a trade and investment gateway to a continent brimming with economic potential that has drawn the attention of traditional partners and new entrants. Putin is developing ties with states in the area of the Horn of Africa and has begun extensive economic and political relations with Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The long-term goal of Moscow's foreign policy in the Horn of Africa is to establish military bases and increase trade with the Horn of Africa. To this end, Moscow seeks to establish a logistics center in Eritrea to increase trade with the country. Russia is also exploring the possibility of creating a naval base in Somaliland, which would increase Moscow’s access to the Port of Berbera, co-owned by Somaliland, Ethiopia, and a UAE company. In light of these projects, Russia prizes a military base in southern Yemen, as it would link these installations to the Arabian Peninsula.


Political and economic goals of Russia's presence in southern Yemen


One of Russia's political goals in Yemen and, more broadly, the Middle East is to reduce US influence in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf sub-system. After the two countries of North and South Yemen united, the role of the Soviet Union and later Russia in Yemen and the Persian Gulf diminished, and the United States replaced Russia in the Persian Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula. Russia is now seeking to revive its traditional influence in the Persian Gulf, particularly Yemen, with the "Persian Gulf Peace" plan.


Russia hopes to compete with the United States in Yemen by acting as a mediator between different groups in Yemen, something the United States could not do. This approach was actively implemented by a former prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who in his political activities favors not taking the side of any of the participants in regional conflicts, preferring to be a ‘friend’ to everyone. This allowed Moscow through its intermediary role to promote its own interests. China also supports Russia's peace plan in the Persian Gulf. It seems that the Arabs of the region are confused in a dilemma from peace (JCPOA agreement) to US-Iranian tensions and are ready to welcome a third party in the Persian Gulf.


One of Russia's economic goals of its presence in southern Yemen is to increase its bargaining power in the oil war with Saudi Arabia. In March 2020, the two countries started a war over oil prices, and the world saw a 65% drop in oil prices. In this war, Russia, which had less oil reserves, suffered significant losses and its economy suffered. Russia's goal is to use the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to put pressure on Saudi Arabia in the oil war, as 4.8 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait daily, and the Saudi oil industry is dependent on the Strait.


The key to Russia's active role in Yemen is in its intelligent neutrality. Russia acts as a mediator between the various groups involved in Yemen and has friendly relations with all the powers involved in Yemen, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It seems that Russia is pursuing geopolitical interests and an official military presence in Yemen and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait above all else, and this presence takes precedence over other Russian political and economic interests in Yemen. Moscow is well aware that the United States has nearly 50,000 troops at 29 military bases in the Persian Gulf. Washington has more than 300 warplanes and hundreds of billions of dollars in arms sales in the region, and the key to resolving the balance of power on the Arabian Peninsula in Moscow's favor is to have a physical presence in one of the world's most geostrategic regions, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.


The author has experience in journalism in various newspapers and writing political and international analyses, as well as living in the Middle East.


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