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Sorting through my old files, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now.  Below are my notes from my conversation with Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), at his office in Sana’a on January 16, 1989.  Some background information, though, is needed first. 

At the time of this meeting, there were still two Yemens:  South Yemen which was closely allied with the Soviet Union, and North Yemen which then had good relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also with the Soviet Union.  These two governments had been at odds since the late 1960s.  They fought border wars in both 1972 and 1979.  The South had also supported an insurgency against the North by the Marxist-leaning National Democratic Front (NDF), but this largely came to an end with the NDF’s defeat in 1982.  In January 1986, a short, sharp civil war erupted in South Yemen between rival factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).  The war began with supporters of President Ali Nasir Muhammad killing the supporters of the previous president, Abd al-Fatah Isma’il who had recently returned from exile in Moscow (I have already written on Moscow’s role in this episode).  Isma’il himself would die during the fighting, but his supporters went on to win the war with Soviet help while Ali Nasir would flee to North Yemen.  He still had supporters, though, in the South, as the civil war was not just between rival leaders, but between the South’s rival tribes and regions.  

When I met with Dr. al-Iryani in January 1989, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was almost complete, whether Moscow would remain involved in the Yemens was in doubt, and serious talks on unification between North and South Yemen were underway.  Relations between North and South, though, were wary—and they would continue to be so after unification occurred in May 1990.  Here is what Dr. al-Iryani had to say about Soviet policy toward the Yemens at that time: 

Dr. al-Iryani characterized the Soviets as being extremely unhappy with the confused factionalism within the Yemeni Socialist Party.  But the Soviets themselves had ambivalent views of the different factions. 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets favored the Ali Nasirist faction’s policy positions:  a more market-oriented economy and improved relations with the West, including the U.S., as Gorbachev himself was pursuing.  Nevertheless, the Soviets distrusted this group as being less than completely loyal to the USSR. 

On the other hand, the Soviets had faith in the loyalty of the Abd al-Fatahists and the Al Dhala-dominated military [Al Dhala being a governorate in western South Yemen], but were displeased with their policy preferences: a rigid state-controlled economy, and no opening to the U.S.  These latter groups had also expressed their disapproval of Gorbachev’s perestroika and détente with the U.S. policies through the South Yemeni Chief of Staff’s 1988 visit to Havana and expressions of support for Cuba (whose leader, Fidel Castro, also disapproved of perestroika and détente). 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets had urged the YSP leadership to expel all NDF members from the YSP Politburo and Central Committee [the first and second most important bodies in Marxist regimes].  The Soviets had reportedly argued that until the YSP took this step, relations between North and South Yemen would remain tense. 

In addition, al-Iryani noted that Karen Brutents of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [the CPSU CC International Department handled relations with other Marxist parties] visited the South Yemeni capital, Aden, in August 1988.  Al-Iryani claimed that Brutents came away terribly displeased with the Fatahist position. 

Al-Iryani said that the Soviets had been far better off when Ali Nasir Muhammad was in power.  He also claimed that Vitaliy Naumkin, a well-known Soviet academic specialist on the Yemens, had met with some of Ali Nasir’s supporters in Cairo.  [Naumkin, who is now director of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has played a highly important role in Moscow’s relations with the Middle East during the Putin era.] 

Finally, al-Iryani portrayed the Soviets as having limited ability to move the divided South Yemeni leadership in directions favored by Moscow.  The Soviets themselves, he observed, had obviously not found the policy solution to accomplish all their goals with regard to South Yemen:  maintain a leadership there loyal to Moscow, but also to promote stability and prosperity as well as prevent South Yemen from becoming a barrier to improved Soviet relations with neighboring Arab states—especially Saudi Arabia. 

Reading this now, what strikes me about al-Iryani’s account of Soviet efforts to balance not just between North and South Yemen but between opposing sides within South Yemen in the 1980s is that they were similar to Putin’s efforts to balance between their numerous opposing objectives within the Middle East now:  to firmly support the Assad regime one the one hand but get it to agree to reform efforts that might induce the West and the Gulf Arabs to fund Syria’s reconstruction, to promote Iran’s defiance toward the United States but also to build and maintain good relations with Iran’s pro-Western rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to support Turkish antagonism toward America and Europe but oppose Turkish policy in Syria, Libya, and toward the Azeri-Armenian dispute.  Just as, in the words of Dr. al-Iryani, it was “difficult to move” opposing parties “in directions favored by Moscow” then, it remains difficult to do so now. 

 

 

 

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Like his Tsarist and Soviet predecessors, Putin has been highly successful in projecting Russian power and influence in the Middle East.  But the Tsars and the Soviets also suffered setbacks in the region.  Crises closer to home—the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, and the collapse of the USSR—all led to Russian pullbacks from the Middle East.  In other words, crises in Europe or Russia itself have negatively affected Russia’s ability to pursue its grand strategy in the Middle East.  But as both the Crimean War of the 1850s and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s showed, Russia’s overreaching in parts of the Middle East can contribute to a decline in Russian influence throughout the region.

Up to now, Putin’s grand strategy toward the Middle East has avoided the reverses that Tsarist and Soviet grand strategies experienced.  But the Romanov dynasty lasted for just over three centuries while the Soviet Union lasted over seven decades.  Putin, by contrast, has been in power for only two decades.  Although Putin led Russia’s rebound after the collapse of the Soviet regime, the Putinist regime’s not yet having experienced in its brief lifespan the sort of dramatic setback negatively affecting Russia’s position in the Middle East that its longer-lived predecessors did does not mean that Putin or his successor will not do so.

In that Russia has experienced so many crises and debacles affecting its position in the Middle East in the past, it is useful to consider what sort of events might trigger similar setbacks in the future, even if what these might be and when they might occur cannot be foretold.  One is the possibility of a power struggle to replace Putin getting out of hand, especially if he exits the political stage suddenly without having designated a clear heir.  Another is the eruption of domestic opposition to Putin or his successor that is so massive that the security forces themselves are unwilling to suppress it (especially if the same oppositionist spirit has spread within their ranks).  Yet another is the possibility that the decline of Russia’s ethnic Russian population and the growth of its Muslim population will lead to increasing demands on the part of the latter either for independence or (more frightening for ethnic Russians) a greater role in governing Russia. Even if such movements do not succeed, Moscow will have to allocate more and more resources to suppressing them should they rise up.  And if the status of Muslims in Russia becomes a cause célèbre in the broader Muslim world, Moscow’s ability to separate its efforts to suppress Muslims domestically while having good relations with them abroad may diminish drastically (as occurred during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan).  Crises such as these, of course, might occur in combination and so make Russia’s ability to pursue a grand strategy in the Middle East all the more problematic.

Events in the Middle East itself could also undermine Putin’s grand strategy toward the region.  Compared to the Cold War when the Middle East contained some governments allied to Moscow and others allied to Washington, Putin’s having established good relations with all Middle Eastern governments appears to be a more successful approach.  The Middle East, though, is a region where sudden political change has occurred in the past and could well occur again.  The Soviets were usually able to take advantage of that change when a pro-Western regime was replaced by an anti-Western one (the Iranian Revolution of 1979 being the exception).  By contrast, in supporting the status quo everywhere in the Middle East, Putin risks the possibility that Russia will lose influence if it falls anywhere.  The same, of course, can be said for Western powers which also support the status quo in the Middle East, even if they sometimes (usually hesitantly) call for progress toward democracy and human rights while Putin does not.  But if the change that occurs is the rise of jihadist regimes which are anti-Russian as well as anti-Western, this may be of little comfort to Russia.

Finally, while many in Moscow believe that U.S. power and influence is declining and that its doing so is contributing to the rise of Russian influence in the Middle East and elsewhere, this may not necessarily be the case.  For the decline of the U.S. as a great power may actually serve to further the rise of China more than Russia.  And if China decides to assert its influence in the Middle East, status quo governments there may find Beijing—which is far stronger than Russia economically and which buys petroleum from the Middle East instead of competing to sell it like Russia does—to be a far more useful external partner than Moscow.  Further, if Russia’s own economic dependence on China continues to grow, Moscow may not be in a position to compete with China in the Middle East if Beijing decides to assert its influence there more vigorously.  Finally, if the U.S. with all its resources is having trouble maintaining its influence in the Middle East and even questioning how much it should even try to do so, it is not clear how Russia, with far fewer resources, will be able to acquire the role of most influential external great power in the Middle East much less maintain it.

 

This article was adapted from Mark N. Katz, “Incessant Interest: Tsarist, Soviet, and Putinist Mideast Strategies,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2020, https://mepc.org/journal/incessant-interest-tsarist-soviet-and-putinist-mideast-strategies

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