Saudi King Salman’s meeting with Russian President Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow earlier this month is likely to expand Russia’s role in Yemen. Image Credit: Reuters

Al Mukalla: The Russian-Saudi rapprochement following King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz’s visit to Moscow earlier this month might give Russia some leeway to broker a compromise in Yemen that could help end more than two years of conflict, analysts said.

Given its strong ties to key forces in the war-torn country, mainly with rebel forces that control Sana’a, Russia would not mind striking a deal in Yemen that could enable it to expand its influence in the Arabian peninsula.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is an opportunist, and the Yemen conflict presents Putin with another opportunity to expand Russian influence in the Middle East,” Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, told Gulf News.

“The Saudi Arabian-Russian rapprochement creates another opening by which Putin can attempt to exert Russian influence on the Arabian peninsula.”

Following the Al Houthi coup in late 2014, many countries shut their embassies in Sana’a. But the Russians and Iranians kept their embassies and the Russian ambassador publicly met Al Houthis and the ousted president despite recognising Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the legitimate President of Yemen. The Russians have recently sent doctors to treat Saleh in Sana’a.

The rebels have consistently blocked efforts by the UN envoy to Yemen, Esmail Ould Shaikh Ahmad, to broker a deal in Yemen by rejecting his proposal for exiting the western port city of Hodeida. To ease international isolation, Saleh invited the Russians last year to militarily intervene in Yemen and vowed to reactivate old military treaties with Russia and give them access to military bases in the country.

In south Yemen, where there is a pro-independence sentiment, there are key leaders who graduated from Soviet military academies. The former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen had strong military ties with the Soviet Union. “Yemeni actors engage with Russia because of the influence it wields: For the Al Houthi-Saleh faction, Russia was the only country to abstain from UNSC Resolution 2216. Russia is the counterweight to the US in the UN,” Zimmerman said.

Not a priority

Other Yemen experts argue the rapprochement would not greatly change the situation in Yemen as it is not a priority for both countries. “For the moment, I think that at most you’ll see the Saudis try and use Moscow as a back channel with Saleh and Al Houthis, as the UN process has largely lost momentum,” said Peter Salisbury, a senior consulting researcher at Chatham House and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“It seems the Russians negotiated with King Salman to bring medical staff into Sana’a to treat Saleh, but that’s about the extent of things so far.”

Despite having strong relations with the main players in Yemen, Salisbury argues, Russia did not play a big, supportive role that could lead to peace.

“Russia has not really played a role in Yemen so far beyond maintaining a diplomatic presence in Sana’a, and at times criticising Saudi actions at the UN Security Council.”

Saleh and Al Houthis have long criticised the Americans for selling arms to Saudi Arabia during the war. The rebels are reluctant to equally blast the Russians for selling missiles and guns to the Saudis.

Adam Baron, a visiting fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Gulf News that the Russian policy is based on maintaining strong ties with rival forces in the region. “This isn’t something strange when you look at Russian policy in the region — the Russians, for example, maintain strong ties with both the Israeli and Syrian governments. In many regards, this increases their power and standing as they’re able to talk to a variety of key players on different sides of the conflict,” Baron said.