The Kremlin Factor in the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis: An Analysis of Russia’s Role in the Yemen War 

Viddhi Thakker
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International (Deemed University)


Since the onset of the war in Yemen and the coup of the Saleh government, Russia has been involved in Yemen with the intention of navigating the complicated dynamics of the conflict. It has been engaging most stakeholders within the conflict, including the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the UN-recognised Hadi government, Iran and the Houthi rebels as well as the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of countries. Over the years, it has also maintained dialogue with Oman in relation to the crisis in Yemen in order to catalyse the process of negotiations in the country. 

Since September 2017, Russia maintained a contract with the Hadi government to print and transfer bank notes to Aden, which helped the Yemeni government pay its military forces and deter separatist militias (Ramani, 2018). In 2019, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzia, praised UN efforts to end hostilities in Yemen and emphasized Moscow’s support for peace negotiations by engaging all warring parties in the conflict (Ramani, 2019). In October of the same year, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with a delegation of Houthis led by Mohammed Abdulsalam to discuss potential means of peace settlement in Yemen which produced a positive outcome since the Houthi rebels had refused to attend peace talks in Geneva a few weeks earlier (Ramani, 2019). This talk created further positive outcome between the two parties, since the Houthis soon declared their preference for Russia to be the ground for future mediation regarding Yemen (Hashmi, 2018). In 2020, as the Southern Transnational Council declared independence and its relations with other stakeholders deteriorated, then-Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov contacted the STC President Aidarous al-Zubaidi, urging him to reinstate negotiations (Cafiero, 2020). Furthermore, while Russia has committed to recognise the Hadi government and Yemen’s legitimate government, it is seen as maintaining amiable relations between all parties, aiming to balance its stance across the conflict. As a result, Russia has played an important role in the conflict over the years, often portraying itself as an important party in the Yemen conflict.

Russia’s Interests

In order to further decipher Russia’s stance towards the Yemen conflict, it is crucial to understand its motivations regarding the same. As a result, this section highlights Russia’s geo-strategic, economic and political interests in the Yemen war and the larger West Asian region. 

Geostrategic Interests

Russia’s interests in the region are primarily based on the attainment of maximum influence and achievement of its own national interest, particularly by emphasising benefits of Russian strategic presence in the West Asian region. From a geostrategic standpoint, maintaining an influential presence in Yemen is crucial for Russia, given the former’s critical location at the intersection of the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, lying in the Southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula (Karasik & Cafiero, 2019). This is because, most major countries such as the United States, China, France and Turkey have military bases near the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden, both holding various important choke points (Russia’s return to Yemen, 2020). 

By undertaking efforts to ensure peace and stability in Yemen, Russia also aims to achieve its important geopolitical and historical interest in the region. By assisting in negotiations between southern Yemeni separatists and pro-Hadi fighters, Russia has been aiming to ensure stability in South Yemen, an important precondition for it to establish a sphere of influence in the Red Sea (Ramani, 2018). The Red Sea, in particular, is crucial for Russia. This is because it lies at a maritime crossroad and wielding influence in that region would facilitate projection of power not only in West Asia, but also in Africa and the East Mediterranean, thereby expanding scope of activities in the Suez Canal, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean (Borshchevskaya, 2019). 

Additionally, Russia’s growing presence in the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb strait is of serious concern to US and China, as stability in these waterways is extremely crucial for international trade and shipping. Since Yemen lies at the mouth of the Bab el-Mandeb strait, any deployment of anti-ship missiles in this region would cripple world trade and shipping routes (Harding, 2021).

Through its mediation efforts, Russia has also focused on expanding assistance beyond diplomatic negotiation between warring factions and onto a holistic framework of support, to ensure its own security and influence in the region. Since 2017, for instance, a contract between Russia and Hadi’s government was signed through which Russia printed 400 billion Yemeni riyals and transported them to the central bank in Southern Yemen in order to reinstate liquidity in the economy (“Russia sends Yemeni bank notes,”  2017). This assisted the Yemeni government in paying salaries to its security forces and military personnel in Southern Yemen, thereby deterring defections to separatist militias and ensuring security in the region (Ramani, 2018). 

Expanding the scope of its diplomatic relations between countries neighbouring Yemen, Russia has been able to maintain amiable relations with the Iran-backed Houthis, by emphasising that a comprehensive peace talk in Yemen can be achieved only when Iran is involved in the efforts since it is a legitimate and important stakeholder in the country (Karasik & Cafiero, 2019). Russia’s emphasis on Iran here can be seen as an attempt to reduce the sphere of influence of its long-time adversary, the United States in Yemen. Iran-US relations have had an extensive history of being hostile after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Due to Iran’s numerous but concealed military developments and advancement of means of asymmetric warfare, Iran’s sphere of influence in the West Asian region expanded, while souring relations with the United States which views the development of Iran’s nuclear and conventional military forces as a threat to its budding influence in the region (Cordesman, 2020). As a result, with the imposition of multiple embargos, Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. military bases and U.S. attacks on Iran’s commander Qasem Soleimani, Iran-US relations have only worsened in the past few years (Cordesman, 2020). Making optimum use of Iran’s ability to influence non-state actors such as the Houthis, Russia and Iran aim to work towards considerably reducing the influence wielded by the US in Yemen (Cordesman, 2020). 

Political Interests

Since the onset of Iran-backed Houthi violence in Yemen and deployment of the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm, Russia has made use of its position in the Security Council to alter or oppose positions that may be in favour of the United States or its allies, thereby attempting to balance its influence in the West Asian region. Through the proposed resolutions in the UNSC, the United States and its allies aimed to consistently curb the political influence of Iran within the region. As a result, the United States aimed to propose resolutions that overtly blamed Iran for the instability in Yemen due to its arms supply to the Houthis, thereby calling for imposition of sanctions implemented through Resolution 2266. In response to the violence and crimes committed by the Houthis against the population of Yemen, the UN Security Council implemented various resolutions condemning these acts and proposing the imposition of arms embargoes and sanctions on the insurgents and countries supporting them through Resolutions 2216, 2456 and 2624, Russia could be seen extending its support through abstention and vetoes of proposed resolutions condemning Iran for its involvement and in some cases, lobbying to moderate the sanctions and condemnations against the Houthi insurgents. By  maintaining amiable relations with Iran, an adversary of the United States, Russia is attempting to balance the latter. 

In 2015, the UNSC passed resolution 2216 that provided international legitimacy to the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm, while also imposing an arms embargo on the Houthis and a travel ban on its leader (United Nations Security Council, 2015). This resolution prohibited the UN member states from supplying arms to any individuals working in association with leaders such as Ali Abdullah Saleh and Abdullah Yahya Al Hakim. At the time of passing of this resolution, 14 of the Council members voted in favour, while Russia was the only country that abstained, citing that the resolution did not call for all sides to halt fire, thereby providing an extremely ambiguous explanation to the ‘humanitarian pause’ (UNSC Press Release, 2015). Additionally, in light of the rampant supply of arms within Yemen by the United States as part of Operation Decisive Storm, the Russian ambassador criticised the draft resolution by claiming that it was inconsistent and did not incorporate its suggestions, calling for an arms embargo to be comprehensive (The Moscow Times, 2015). Lastly, by condemning the intervention of Gulf countries in Yemen without prior UNSC approval, Russia also questioned the legality of the operation and viewed it as an impediment to peace in the region (Ramani, 2019). 

The causes behind Russia abstaining from the resolution while possessing the capacity to veto the same seem to be peculiar in nature and do not explain its interests. However, as analysed through its position and statements regarding the resolution, while Russia did oppose certain aspects of the draft staunchly, a moderate response was required primarily for two reasons. First, an overt negation of the resolution would compromise Russia’s attempt to maintain a presence as an important element in the Yemen War as well as the larger West Asian region (Williams, 2015). Second, as iterated earlier, Russian interests in the region expand beyond Yemen into the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. In order to establish a significant strategic presence in the region, Russia would require substantial support from the Gulf countries and by resolutely opposing the resolution, it would risk compromising its larger regional interests (Williams, 2015). 

In 2018, the UNSC proposed a draft resolution (S/2018/156) extending the arms embargo against the Houthis and highlighting that after the 2015 embargo, weapons of Iranian origin were found at the site of Houthi insurgents, thereby declaring that Iran was in non-compliance with the aforementioned resolution 2216 (United Nations Security Council, 2018). Russia vetoed this resolution by disregarding the findings of the report due to a lack of substantial evidence to accuse Iran of arms supply and commented that they would not “concur with uncorroborated conclusions and evidence which requires verification and discussions within the sanctions committee” (AFP, 2018).  Russia’s veto meant that the resolution was not passed, thereby deflecting sanctions and legal actions against Iran, particularly by the United States. the US condemned Russia’s move by accusing it of sponsorship and protection of “terrorist-sponsoring regime” in Iran (AFP, 2018). While Russia abstained from the UNSC Resolution in 2015, it chose to veto this resolution later primarily due to the nature of condemnation it called upon (AFP, 2018). Abstaining from the resolution would mean that the Western powers would harshly condemn Iran, compromising its aforementioned ambitions in Yemen (AFP, 2018).

Economic Interests

In addition to the geo-strategic and political interests, Russia’s involvement in Yemen is also a result of underlying economic interests. By refraining from entering the war militarily and siding either with the US-backed Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries or Iran-backed Houthi insurgents, Russia has opened the way for a market of sales of defence equipment to both sides. Until 2013, Russia’s major exports to other countries consisted of energy resources and raw materials, while it worked towards enhancing its military and defence technology exports (Magen, 2013). After a tenure of investments and systemic reformations, Russian manufacturing of arms increased and it made its way into the international arms market, in line with the dominant Western manufacturers (Magen, 2013). During this period, Russia enhanced its own position as a viable source of arms trade among to West Asian countries (Magen, 2013). 

Additionally, by further maintaining amiable relations between state and non-state actors within the region, Russia managed to expand its markets and establish its position as both, an influential player within the region as well as a viable trade partner. After the coup overthrowing Yemeni President Hadi in 2014, the Houthis sent its delegation to Russia for greater ties and avenues for cooperation and investment in the energy sector (Lobel, 2021). Since the commencement of the war until 2018, the Houthis fired about one hundred missiles against civilian and military targets in Saudi Arabia (Majidyar, 2018). In retaliation, the Saudi-Arabia-led Operation Decisive Storm undertook military intervention and strikes against the Houthis in Yemen. Russia played a vital role in the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia, recently having signed a military cooperation agreement and continues to do so gaining profits (Bensaid, 2019). Since the Russian supply of arms to Syria and its effectiveness against the ISIS regime, the ‘demand’ for Russian weapons has considerably increased, particularly in West Asian countries (Dudley, 2021). As of 2021, the Saudi delegation was one of the first to visit the Russian Army International Military-Technical Forum, further highlighting the cooperation between both countries in the defence sector (Dudley, 2021). 

Therefore, in view of the continuing nature of conflict within Yemen, the region has proven to be a viable and constant market for Russia to benefit economically and consequently, the Russian state-owned defence firm Rosoboronexport has been channelising its supply to the West Asian countries. In 2018, the Russian defence agencies supplied arms and other defence equipment worth $20 billion to over 40 countries, out of which West Asia and North Africa accounted for 40 percent of Rosoboronexport’s business (Bensaid, 2019). Countries in West Asia, particularly Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates have considerably increased their purchase of Russian weapons, accounting for about one-third of the global arms market. In February 2019, Saudi Arabia and Russia signed a military cooperation agreement, through which Saudi Arabia was to purchase S400 missiles and domestically produced Russian Kalashnikov rifles (Bensaid, 2019). Three years later, as of 2021, this deal, including Su-35 jets in addition to the S400 air defence systems, lies in its negotiation phase, with ambitions to set up a joint manufacturing facility for the Kalashnikov rifles (“Saudi Arabia negotiating S-400, Su-35 buy,” 2021).

As a consequence of maintaining amiable relations with non-state actors, the Houthis in 2018 publicly announced that they would be willing to buy weapons from Iran and Russia if they would be willing to deliver them to Sana’a, circumventing the Saudi-led coalition (Majidyar, 2018). As a result, by providing a continuous supply of arms in war-torn regions, particularly Yemen, Russia aims to gain economically as well as politically through the war.

In addition to the overt economic interests Russia exercises as a result of the ongoing war, there are other economic interests at stake for the country. While Yemen has never been a major oil producer as compared to its West Asian counterparts, the country possesses enough oil reserves to account for a significant proportion of its national revenue. In the early 2000s, Yemen pumped more than 400,000 barrels per day (b/d) supplying oil to various countries throughout the world, which has seen a dip as a result of persistent fighting and devastation post the onset of the war (Carpenter, 2021).  However, Yemen continues to possess significant untapped oil reserves since it sits on hydrocarbon reserves of about 3 billion barrels of crude oil and 17 trillion cubic feet (TcF) of natural gas which Russia aims to benefit from. 


The on-going conflict in Yemen continues to cause large-scale destruction in the country, with exacerbated bouts of instability, turmoil and violence. As the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and other non-state actors struggle to gain power in the country, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries continue to oppose their efforts through Operation Decisive Storm. In the midst of disagreements between these parties, Russia has emerged as an important stakeholder in the conflict, providing a platform for negotiation by maintaining amiable relations with all. In order to understand the reasons behind such involvement of Russia, this paper analysed its interests in Yemen and the larger West Asian region through geostrategic, political and economic perspectives. Strategically, since Yemen lies at the mouth of the Bab-el Mandeb strait, maintaining relations with the Houthis provides Russia with considerable economic and political influence over trade in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, where Russia aspires to build a port. Similarly, in order to increase its presence in the West Asian region, Russia has wavered its support to countries such as Saudi Arabia on several occasions, as witnessed in its political behaviour in the UNSC. Additionally,, by maintaining amiable relations between all stakeholders in the conflict, Russia aims to benefit economically from the war by selling arms to all the warring parties. Lastly, in order to gain a stronger foothold in the country and explore untapped resources, Russia is also investing in the energy sector in Yemen. As a result, Russia’s involvement in the Yemen war can be explained through its geostrategic, economic and political interests in the country as well as the larger West Asian region. 


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