Russian PMCs in Yemen: Kremlin-Style ‘Security Export’ in Action?

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On September 6, Russian military correspondent Semen Pegov posted information on his Telegram-channel WarGonzo (WG) about “members of one Russian Private Military Company [PMC] being currently deployed in Yemen.” He ascribed this information to data received from “three anonymous sources in the siloviki [security services personnel] circles” (Ryb.ru, September 6). If true, this means that the actual operational area of Russian PMCs is now stretching from Ukraine and Syria to Sub-Sharan Africa and (allegedly) Yemen. Concrete information on this matter has truthfully been scarce. Yet, supplementary evidence, the logic of Russian regional developments and Moscow’s involvement in Yemeni affairs suggest that such a presence of Russian PMCs may indeed be a reality.

Moscow’s involvement in this Gulf country’s local issues was preordained when the president of the Supreme Political Council of Yemen, Mahdi al-Mashat (of the Houthi movement), appealed last summer to Vladimir Putin to “use Russia’s influence and political weight to stop the civil war in Yemen […] provoked by a coalition of Saudi Arabia and Washington.” At the same time, the Houthi leader accused the West of “longing to spread chaos in Yemen and the entire region,” juxtaposing this against Russia’s purported “peacekeeping initiatives” (Vzglyad, July 24). Officially, the Russian government did not agree to support the request. Yet, the experience of Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria certainly illustrates the form in which Moscow could be becoming a stakeholder in this conflict as well.

From a historical perspective, Yemen was in fact one of Moscow’s key priorities in the Middle East during the Cold War. Starting in 1962, the Soviet Union sent military “advisors” and equipment to Yemen. This arrangement dramatically expanded after 1968. Namely, Moscow was permitted to establish a naval base on Socotra Island (visited, during its duration, by 120 Soviet vessels). Thanks to its access to this base at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, the Soviets conducted ongoing operations in the Indian Ocean until 1985. Furthermore, during 1968–1991, no fewer than 5,245 Soviet military specialists served in Yemen (Rambler, September 24). Undoubtedly, the Kremlin’s current strategy to rebuild Russian influence in the Middle East—a policy heavily influenced by the ideas of former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov (see Jamestown.org, October 5, 2017)—will not be deemed complete without re-gaining Moscow’s former position in this country.

In this regard, an assessment of the developments currently undergoing in Yemen, put forward by the head of Islamic Studies at the Institute of Innovative Development, Kirill Semenov, presents two interesting insights. Even though he doubts the suggestion that Russian PMCs are currently operating in Yemen, he nonetheless acknowledges this possibility. Yet, if true, he argues, it “is not [due to] a strategic interest of the Kremlin, but is rather an example of securing some business interests such as infrastructural projects on Socotra Island, humanitarian missions related to food deliveries, or some oil-related initiatives.” The expert does, however, fairly unequivocally shrug off the specific idea that the PMC Wagner Group is present in the theater “due to its bad reputation” (Rambler, September 6, 2018). Both of Semenov’s assertions deserve to be looked at more closely.

First and foremost, in contrast to Semenov’s suggestion, Moscow does in fact have strategic interests in this country. And that national interest must be analyzed from two angles. One regards geopolitical concerns: Yemen is an indispensable element in the Kremlin’s growing ambitions throughout the Sahel region, across the Red Sea. Regaining control over Socotra Island, coupled with the possibility of establishing a separate naval base in Sudan (a prospect clearly stated last year by President Omar al-Bashir during his conversation with Putin—see EDM, November 29, 2017), could boost Russia’s power not only in the Gulf of Aden (an instrumental waterway in terms of Persian Gulf oil shipments) but in the entire Red Sea region. In conjunction with its efforts to project power in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, Moscow would thus be able to greatly expand its control both in the Red Sea as well as increase Russian operational capabilities in the Indian Ocean. Secondly, experienced and combat-trained Russian mercenaries in Yemen could seriously boost Iran’s active, yet inadequate support to local Houthi forces, and thus more thoroughly cement Moscow-Tehran ties.

Semenov’s second pivotal point pertains to the PMCs that might be involved on the ground. In fact, virtually all Russian sources have similarly dismissed the possibility of Wagner’s presence—as the expert himself suggested. Rather, the most probable option is another Russian PMC, the so-called Patriot Group—better manned and equipped than Wagner and without the latter’s poor reputation—which has also been detected in the Central African Republic (CAR) (see EDM, August 1). Incidentally, the presence of Russian PMCs in Yemen was implicitly stated in a document presented by the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly on July 5. While urging the Russian government to legalize private military companies, the document alludes to (among other places) Yemen as a zone of activities of Russian PMCs (Svoboda.org, July 6). Indeed, the luxury of plausible deniability empowers Moscow to use PMCs as both a tool of “commercialization of warfare” (as a part of a “power economy”) and a weapon of non-linear warfare (clearly demonstrated in Ukraine and Syria) (see Jamestown.org, July 13)—both of these functions can be performed by Russian mercenaries in Yemen.

In the final analysis, Russian potential involvement in Yemeni domestic affairs by and large fits the so-called “security export” (eksport bezopasnosti) concept outlined in the work entitled “Global Threats in 2018: Forecasting Security Challenges for Russia and the World,” prepared by experts of the Valdai Club. Among other aspects, the document draws on “Russian responsibility, along with the United States, China and the European Union, to maintain peace and security in the whole world” (Valdaiclub.com, January 12). Russian involvement in Yemen could thus take two forms. Initial work (as well as subsequent shadow operations) could be done by members of PMCs (relieving Moscow from publicly replying to the plea of the Houthis and thus openly becoming a party to the conflict). Subsequently, Moscow could make an official move under the guise of a “peacekeeping mission,” which would in turn grant the Kremlin a chance to increase its influence both in Yemen as well as the entire Sahel zone, allowing Russia to challenge traditional regional players in a bid for African resources. Thus, given Russian regional activities, the “line of competition” in Africa (the Democratic Republic of Congo–the CAR–Sudan) should be extended to Yemen.