Yemen, Aden, & Scissors/Paper/Rock

Some retrospection is useful. In Buying Yemen, I offered that one of the several motivations for the current Saudi use of the oil weapon is to keep Iran too poor to compete in the bidding for tribal loyalties. In Saudi, Houthis, Yemen & Pirates of Penzance, noting a lack of success in the buying, I wrote, “The  unlimited money of the House of Saud, and evident inability to use it to cause the Sunni tribes to coalesce, is itself a debacle.”

Although Saudi airstrikes are the visible part of Saudi support, the checkbook is again vindicated.  Regaining of Aden by Saudi-friendly forces, which means those friendly to Yemen president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indicates that Saudi money has bought some success. But checkbook power is not unlimited. If it were, the Saudis would have bought off the Houthis, and there would presently be no  war. It’s  like scissors-paper-rock. Religion is the scissors; money is paper, and rocks are bullets.

Money works where a fault line can be exploited, and fault lines are what enabled the conflict to grow right through the hard religious boundary of Sunni/Shiite antagonism.  In November, 2011, following the “Arab Spring” event in Yemen, the  former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, ceded power to Hadi. Hadi seemed well on the way to unifying the country, when the Houthis seized on the practical problems of extreme poverty with a demand of universal appeal, restoration of the fuel subsidy. This activated a fault line among the Sunni tribes, among whom  Saleh commands a considerable loyalty, and, at the time, the largest militia. In politics, the slogan  “cheap gas”  works almost anywhere.

In Buying Yemen, I speculated that the Saudis might buy Saleh himself. The result would have been widespread collapse of the rebellion, and the likely retreat of Houthis back into their native territory.  But Saleh could not be bought.   Plausibly, Houthi promises of political power were more important to Saleh, though he did not broadcast his allegiance until the Saudis bombed his house. In May ’14, Hadi’s National Dialogue Conference claimed transformational progress, with one of the goals disarmament of the militias. This would have been fatal to Saleh’s conception of existence, of tribesmen with guns, bound by personal loyalty to him. A business suit does not a Western outlook make.

Although alliances shift like blowing sand dunes, it was a surprise to find Saleh on the Houthi side, because under his presidency, the Houthi movement’s attempt to fracture Yemen resulted in repression of the movement. The founder, Hussein al-Houthi, was killed by Saleh’s forces in September, 2004.

With a little education on the issues, a little persuasion from overhead, and a little grease on the palm, a Sunni soldier in Saleh’s militia might become skeptical of  promises of prosperity in a new Yemen shared by Houthis with a blood grudge.  A few defections were first reported in May, but lacked the implication of a fundamental shift. The taking of Aden provides that implication.

The Aden supply line runs through the port of Aden, so it cannot be interdicted by the Houthis.  The risk at sea is small, subject only to hypothetical piracy or Iranian pot shots. The compactness of Aden and the security of the rear facilitates force concentration.  This asymmetry favors the Saudi backed forces in the vicinity of Aden.  But as the Saudi backed forces attempt to extend their pocket, with the eventual objective of Sana’a , the asymmetries turn against them.  Aden is on a coastal plane. Beyond the plain,  rugged terrain favors the defender and the harasser.

But the capture of Aden lowers the buy-price for desertion of Saleh’s men.  Since Aden is the principle port,  the Saudis can now offer, in addition to the abstraction called money, the lure of tangibles, such as gas, food, bottled water, and little luxuries as well. Perhaps they can buy enough loyalties to disintegrate Saleh’s tribal patchwork.

Life in Yemen is indescribably hard. Every man has his price. What’s yours?


Ukraine’s Russian Deputy Governor

Quoting Reuters, “Maria Gaidar, whose father Yegor was Russia’s first reformist prime minister after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, was appointed last Friday to be deputy governor of Ukraine’s southern Odessa region, a political hotspot now led by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.”

Maria Gaidar is Russian, and she holds Russian citizenship. There is no obvious notation of Ukrainian, or part-Ukrainian ancestry, that would put in a less jarring context the appointment of a Russian citizen to the Ukraine administration of Petro Poroshenko. Her father was a prime minister of Russia. From 2/09 to 6/11, Maria herself was a deputy governor of Kirov Oblast, which, note, is nowhere near the Caucasus or Ukraine.

The demographics of entire Odessa Oblast are not at my fingertips, so here are the (Wikipedia) 2001 demos of the Odessa-the-city,  the largest city and capital of the region:

  1. Ukrainians: 622,900 people (61.6%)
  2. Russians: 292,000 people (29.0%)
  3. Bulgarians: 13,300 people (1.3%)
  4. Jews: 12,400 people (1.2%)
  5. Moldovans: 7,600 people (0.7%)
  6. Belarusians: 6,400 people (0.6%)
  7. Armenians: 4,400 people (0.4%)
  8. Poles: 2,100 people (0.2%)

The governor of Odessa Oblast isn’t Russian either; Mikheil Saakashvili is former president of Georgia. The strangeness is apparently caused by a desire to find rulers who can’t be bribed by Odessans. But the numbers do not imply that the appointment of a Russian has any particular  political benefit, such as the pacification of hostile ethnics. The appointment of an ethnic Russian, however liberal or hospitable, is vaguely analogous to appointing during World War II, a member of the Japanese pre-war social democratic parties to some mid level position in the state government of Hawaii.

The Odsessans don’t seem to care. The Ukrainian fascists must, but their opinion apparently means little away from the front lines. Maria Gaidar’s motives are obvious. In Russia, her life is in danger. The Odessa appointment is an opportunity to continue in political life, doing…something. From Russia come loud noises of indignation.

A surmise. The field of possible choices for the position could not have been small.  For the position of deputy governor, there exists a huge pool of qualified individuals, both domestic and foreign. Have you ever wanted to be deputy governor of Odessa? Here’s your chance. Send your resume stat to

President of Ukraine , 11 Bankova Str., 01220, Kyiv, Ukraine

Perhaps we are missing something. Surely, somewhere, there must be at least one Ukrainian who is both as honest as the day is long and unafraid of getting whacked by the Odessa mafia. Could it be that there is method in the madness of appointing a Russian woman to a political post in far western Ukraine?

Since Donald Trump would snap up this appointment in a heartbeat, there well might be, a message to Putin:

“If the rebel leaders, who seem intellectually underendowed to the extent that their knuckles drag the ground, were instead, some other  enlightened  Russians, of whom Maria Gaidar is an exuberant example, we might come to terms.”