Formed under Emirati patronage in 2017, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is Yemen’s dominant southern separatist group. On two occasions — August 2019 and April 2020 — the separatist group declared “self-rule” in Yemen, raising the serious possibility of South Yemen’s return as an independent nation-state. To prevent this, the Saudis worked hard throughout 2019 and 2020 to broker the Riyadh Agreement with strong support from Washington. This fragile agreement between the STC and Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s United Nations-recognized government has resulted in a power-sharing arrangement within a newly established “unity government” — at least for now.
Invited by President Vladimir Putin’s government, STC representatives flew from Abu Dhabi to Moscow on January 30. Led by the group’s commander, Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, the STC delegation met with Russian government officials and members of the Duma for talks that focused on the Riyadh Agreement. Moscow’s actions make clear that even if it is not formally or overtly favoring a split of Yemen along North-South lines, it has its own interests in strengthening its ties to the STC amid a period of extreme uncertainty in Yemen as the war continues.
This latest STC visit to Moscow occurred against the backdrop of continuous tensions between the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed organization and Hadi’s government. Although an imminent collapse of the Riyadh Agreement is not inevitable, it is certainly a possibility. Numerous factors could eventually lead to the crumbling of this power-sharing deal. According to Abobakr Alfaqeeh, a freelance Yemeni journalist, these factors include “the continuation of [the STC’s] separatist and [the UAE’s] expansionist ambitions…the attempt to impose de facto authority in Aden, the fragility of the Hadi government, in addition to the absence of real Saudi-Emirati pressure on the STC to implement the military part of the deal.”
No one can argue that the STC ever fully abandoned its dream of (re)establishing an independent state in southern Yemen. In fact, at the time of al-Zoubaidi’s arrival in Moscow, the STC’s official website released a statement saying that he “renewed the path of independence and the restoration of the southern state with full sovereignty.” Such language calls into question the STC’s actual willingness to abide by the power-sharing agreement.
The Riyadh Agreement’s longer-term success will depend on the extent to which the accord effectively addresses the grievances of southern Yemenis that have built up since the country’s rocky reunification 31 years ago. These grievances include a history of mistreatment at the hands of Yemen’s authoritarian central government, which curtailed freedoms of southern Yemenis, extracted the southern territories’ resources, and removed educational opportunities which were available during South Yemen’s Marxist era. As these conditions have left so many in southern Yemen (including those who do not even support the STC) desiring independence, it is unclear whether the “unity government” can provide Yemenis in the south enough to convince them that their future would be better in a unified country.
Russia and the Question of Yemen’s Unity
The international community’s lack of support for a North-South split of Yemen is an important factor that hinders the prospects of South Yemen’s reemergence. Russia, however, is the one major global power that has sympathy for the STC and its struggle.
Following its initial visit to Moscow in March 2019, this January trip was the STC’s second official visit to Moscow. For the STC, which seeks to gain greater legitimacy internationally and not be seen as merely the UAE’s “proxy”, fruitful relations with Russia are critical. Moreover, by fostering deeper relations with Moscow, the STC is working to make Yemen’s “southern question” relevant to the resolution of the country’s civil war in the eyes of influential global powers. Perhaps most practically, having a solid partnership with a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) can shield the STC from the possible threat of future sanctions from the body.
Indeed, Russia is a unique ally to the STC. Although this UAE-sponsored organization wants to build relations with other influential global powers, as demonstrated by its lobbying presence in the United States and Germany, and formal visits to London, Russia stands out as the only global power that has shown so much sympathy to the separatist group.
Officially, however, the Russian government favors the Riyadh Agreement. Moscow strikes a delicate balance in how it engages the STC, Hadi government, and Houthi rebels. During August 2019, when hostilities between the STC and Hadi’s government escalated and erupted into an all-out “civil war within a civil war,” Russia reacted carefully. “[Moscow] cautiously criticized the UAE for escalating the situation in Yemen but refused to condemn the STC’s conduct,” said Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University. “As this was an awkward balance, Russia was relieved to see the Riyadh Agreement paper over the cracks between the STC and the Hadi government.”
What the Russians were seeking to achieve at that point is what they still strive for today in Yemen: “strategic neutrality”. Moscow is determined to maintain healthy relations with Yemen’s three main power centers: the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the STC, and the Hadi government. Russia’s rationale is that when the dust eventually settles in Yemen and these various groups have their own shares of power in the post-conflict period, Moscow will be able to leverage its multiple relationships to assert greater influence in Yemen and take credit for its diplomatic efforts to bring these different actors toward a political settlement to this nightmarish civil war. To be sure, this strategy contrasts with the U.S.’s foreign policy in Yemen, which firmly sided with the Saudis against the Houthi rebels.
Within this context, Russia has seen a healthy relationship with STC as essential. Putin’s government has invested in this relationship both through diplomatic visits and by providing the STC with bank notes. In early 2018, Moscow offered to help calm the situation in Aden through diplomatic assistance. Some reports have even claimed that the Russians have sent private military contractors to southern Yemen to help boost the STC’s position, yet these reports are of questionable credibility and contradictory. In Ramani’s words, “Russia does act as a facilitator of dialogue between the STC and rival voices in southern Yemen but is not a lobbyist for the STC cause.”
Building on a Soviet Legacy
It is tough to analyze Moscow’s relationship with the STC without considering the strong Soviet legacy in southern Yemen. When South Yemen existed as an independent nation (1967-1990), the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) was the Arabian Peninsula’s only Marxist, Soviet-allied regime. The PDRY gave the Soviets a footprint in Aden, Socotra, and other parts of southern Yemen in the form of military installations and research trips. Southern Yemenis of an older generation who studied in the Soviet Union continue to play a role in present ties between Russia and southern Yemen. Officials within the STC are among those Yemenis who had educational experiences in the USSR amid the Cold War, which factors into the separatist group’s relationship with Moscow. As Ramani put it, “the Soviet legacy of supporting the PDRY also makes Russia a resonant partner to a domestic audience.”
Indeed, as Russia seeks to establish itself as a major player in the Red Sea, the Soviet past in southern Yemen makes this part of the Arabian Peninsula an area where, from the Russian government’s perspective, Moscow has a natural opportunity to regain clout that it once had during the Soviet era. The Kremlin sees itself playing a stabilizing role in Yemen by fostering ties between the STC and other actors in the civil war. With its growing influence, Russia aims to advance its own geopolitical, economic, and energy interests in southern Yemen while also enhancing the Russian brand in the wider Arab/African regions as a power which is adept at brokering resolutions to multifaceted conflicts.
Looking ahead, officials in Moscow will likely tread carefully vis-à-vis Yemen’s “southern question” given how the war-torn country’s environment remains very fluid. But if the Riyadh Agreement collapses in the future, it is a safe bet that Russia would be comfortable with an independent state in southern Yemen under STC rule. Moscow’s investment in a good relationship with the separatist group would bode well for such a scenario from the Kremlin’s perspective. With the UAE becoming one of Russia’s most important Arab partners, Moscow would be able to leverage its partnership with Abu Dhabi in many ways that would help guarantee deep ties between Russia and the STC for the long-term.
But until that point, assuming it ever comes, Russia will remain a supporter of the Riyadh Agreement. This position will ensure that Moscow does not upset its perceived neutrality that requires avoiding bold moves in Yemen that could inflame tensions in Russia’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Hadi government. For now, “strategic non-alignment” and engagement with all major actors is the name of the game for Putin in Yemen.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
 Abobakr Alfaqeeh, Interview with Author, 1 February 2021.
 Samuel Ramani, Interview with Author, 31 January 2021.