236. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Saudi Arabia1

310045. For Ambassador West from Harold Saunders. Subject: Soviet Role in South Yemen.

1. You will recall that, during his visit to Riyadh, the Secretary promised to give the Saudis our current information on Soviet activities in South Yemen.2 You may pass the study in the following paragraphs to them in whatever way you consider appropriate.

A. The Soviet Union, last summer, began increasing its interests in South Yemen (PDRY) as a consequence of Moscow’s changing allies in the Horn of Africa. At that time, the Soviets, in return for limited use of port and airport facilities and overflight rights were providing military assistance and modest economic aid. This assistance has included about 300 military advisers and 500 or so civilian economic development technicians. We believe the military personnel are [Page 752] engaged principally in equipment maintenance, providing technical and perhaps some supervisory services in the fields of agriculture and medicine. The Soviets also induced the Cubans to send approximately the same number of personnel, of whom about half are training the PDRY militia and the rest are civilians. The GDR has provided assistance to South Yemen, particularly in the field of internal security.

B. In August, the Soviets, evidently anticipating further restraints on their access to ports and airfields in Somalia and viewing the relative decline in Soviet interests in YAR, again approached PDRY about obtaining broader use of Aden’s facilities, under the terms of the proposed base agreement discussed with PDRY. The Soviets would be permitted to establish offices and workshops ashore and to set up fuel and water lines within the harbor. The Soviets already have access to anchorage near Socotra Island and the right to make port calls at Aden, but this access does not provide the storage, repair, and aerial resupply options that Berbera offered. There is no evidence to confirm a recent Kuwaiti press report that the Soviets are building facilities on Socotra Island. We do not believe that the South Yemenis have yet accepted the proposed base agreement.

C. Following Moscow’s ouster from Somalia,3 the number of Soviet naval vessels in Aden jumped to about 30, as well as one Soviet floating dry dock repair facility. A month later, however, the number of ships in port dropped to the usual level of about a half dozen, suggesting that the large number of Soviet vessels observed in mid-November may have been only a temporary situation arising out of the hurried Soviet departure from Berbera. In this connection, we can assume that a sizable number of the Soviet personnel formerly stationed at Berbera have been relocated to Aden, at least temporarily.

D. We think that the Soviets are uncomfortable about relying very heavily on a regime as unreliable as that of the PDRY, especially after the loss of their substantial military investment in Somalia. However, to maintain their current naval operations in the Indian Ocean, the Soviets need access to docking and repair facilities, and possibly landing rights for reconnaisance flights and a secure communications site at Aden.

E. The PDRY leadership, for its part, realizes that the Soviets could not easily find satisfactory alternative port facilities in the entire Indian Ocean. Iraq and Mozambique are too far away for convenience and Ethiopia’s regime is too unstable politically and its ports of too limited [Page 753] access and capacity. Thus, PDRY probably feels that it can drive a hard bargain in future PDRY-Soviet relations.

F. As a result, we believe that Soviet use of PDRY naval and air facilities will be expanded and possibly will include a communications site north of Aden. We already note some increased Soviet use of storage facilities, but we do not anticipate a Soviet military buildup in PDRY as great as that which occurred over the past four years in Somalia. In return for expanded privileges, the Soviets will probably give PDRY more arms and possibly increased, though still modest, economic aid. We have recently observed new SA–2 surface-to-air missiles in Aden; these missiles could be part of the Soviet inducement for greater access to South Yemeni facilities. There is evidence that the Soviets have arranged to send some PDRY military equipment to Ethiopia (three MI–8 helicopters, and probably small arms), and will replace such equipment with new deliveries.

G. In addition to interest in PDRY naval and air facilities for its own needs, the Soviet Union has also come to depend on Aden as a major staging area for its air and naval supply link with Ethiopia. Important as the airlift is to Ethiopia, however, it is still relatively modest. Since the end of November, the Soviets have sent over 40 flights through Aden to Ethiopia. All of the Soviet flights to Ethiopia have been via Aden. The preferred Soviet route, at least for the moment, appears to be through Iraq via the Gulf to Aden. Most of the Soviet flights have been military transports carrying what we believe to be aircraft, ammunition, spare parts, and various other items of military equipment. In addition, nearly a dozen of the flights have been passenger aircraft, probably carrying Soviet advisory personnel to Ethiopia. We estimate that as many as 1,400 Soviet personnel could have been sent in this fashion.

H. The use of Aden as a staging area for the Soviet supply of Ethiopia benefits both governments. For the Soviets, Aden is a secure and well equipped facility whose use enables them to deliver supplies near the final destination and to conserve on scarce fuel supplies in Addis Ababa. It also offers limited facilities for ship repair. On the other hand, we believe it would take perhaps six months for the South Yemenis to refurbish the facilities at Aden’s port to raise them to the standard of services required by the Soviet fleet. From the PDRY’s viewpoint, cooperating in the Soviet airlift provides a demonstration of its ability to support progressive regimes and improves its case for greater Soviet aid, while still not allowing the Soviets too great a presence on PDRY soil.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 93, Yemen: Democratic Republic (South): 2/77–9/80. Secret; Priority. Drafted by Griffin (INR/RNA); cleared by Twinam and Wisner and in CIA/NIO/NE; approved by Saunders.
  2. Vance visited Riyadh December 14–15. He met with Saud, Fahd, and King Khalid. For Vance’s December 14 meeting with Fahd, see Document 161. For Vance’s meetings with Saud and Khalid on December 14, see footnote 1, Document 161.
  3. The Somali Government renounced its Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union on November 13, ending Soviet use of naval facilities at Berbera.