March 6, 2024No Comments

The Houthis and Iran: A Complex Nexus Threatening Regional Stability

Authors: Will Kingston-Cox, Ilaria Lorusso, Margherita Ceserani, Shahin Modarres - Iran Team

The Russo-Iranian strategic military cooperation in the Red Sea unfolds against the backdrop of a multifaceted and changing geopolitical scenario. The evolving situation in the area prompts a reevaluation of the Russo-Iranian partnership, drawing parallels with their collaboration in Ukraine. While historical dynamics may inform the alliance, the Red Sea theater introduces a maritime dimension, reflecting an adaptive strategy. The interstate treaty between Tehran and Moscow further solidifies their alliance, positioning Iran strategically alongside Russia and China, as geopolitical alignments shift post-Russia's invasion of Ukraine1

As Iran rejects US’s accusation of its support to the Houthis’ attacks, in turn linked to the conflict unfolding in the Gaza Strip, the complexities in the Red Sea underscore the delicate nature of their partnership and the need for a nuanced analysis considering historical context and evolving geopolitical dynamics. In this context, this article will attempt at providing such a summary of the Russo-Iranian partnership so far, and what prospect for the latter the new scenario in the Red Sea holds2

On 17 January 2024, Maria Zakharova, the Kremlin’s spokeswoman, announced that Russia and Iran will sign a new comprehensive interstate cooperation agreement imminently3. This treaty, a furtherance of the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership already evident in Ukraine and before, will serve to consolidate this strategic partnership and entrench it both politically and legally. The signing, as told by Zakharova, has been expedited by the changing international context, a reference perhaps to the global discord resultant from conflicts in Ukraine and, pertinently, the Red Sea region. Such a contention is affirmed by prior comments from the Kremlin in November 2023, in which it was announced that significant work in deepening and developing “military-technical cooperation” was under way4

It is important to emphasise the importance of such an agreement’s final draft being catalysed by events in the Red Sea, pertinently those relating to the Yemeni Houthis and the Red Sea shipping route. British and American strikes, described as “defensive” by NATO, on Yemeni Houthis on 11th January were condemned by Moscow, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denouncing them as “illegitimate” and that the Western coalition were seeking to manipulate the international legal order. Tehran’s stance, too, was resolute. Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry, derided the coalition strikes as “arbitrary” and “[in clear breach of Yemeni’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity…against international law.” 

The level to which Iran involves itself, be it politically, diplomatically, or militarily, will undoubtedly concern the actions of policymakers in Moscow. The degree to which the Russo-Iranian politically-military strategic partnership will be seen in the Red Sea will depend on the extent to which the current Houthi conflict embroils Tehran. 

Since the 1979 revolution, the Houthis have been intricately tied to the Islamic Republic of Iran, functioning as one of its proxy groups. This relationship unfolds against the backdrop of international sanctions, shaping Iran's defense strategy. Unable to engage in research development or scientific collaboration in defense due to sanctions, Iran has devised a defense doctrine grounded in two key pillars: proxy groups and a ballistic program.

The first pillar, involving proxy groups, has seen Iran establish and support various entities across Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Israel, and neighboring countries. The primary objective seems to be destabilizing regional and international security, and strategically deploying conflicts as leverage during negotiations.

The turning point emerged after the October 7th attack, prompting the Islamic Republic to perceive a threat to what it terms the "axis of resistance." In response to diminishing Hamas influence within the Gaza Strip and an effort to alleviate pressure on the group, Iran allegedly directed the Houthis in Yemen to escalate security destabilisation in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait region.

Source: An armed Yemeni sits on a boat in front of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship - EPA/via BBC News - Keystone archivio

Backed and provided by Iran, the Houthis pose a multifaceted threat against maritime security and Israel in the region. The first dimension involves the use of missiles sourced from Iran, followed by the deployment of drones also supplied by the Islamic Republic. Lastly, the Houthis reportedly possess and have been strategically placing sea mines since 2021 in the Red Sea, adding another layer of complexity to the threat.

Considering that a substantial 12% of international trade traverses the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the ongoing situation becomes increasingly untenable5. The intersection of geopolitical interests, proxy dynamics, and strategic maneuvers underscores the urgent need for international attention and diplomatic resolution to avert potential catastrophe in this crucial maritime passage.

While the Houthis, threaten commercial shipping in the Red Sea, oil has so far continued flowing. According to one Houthis political leader, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, maritime routes around Yemen are safe for Chinese and Russian vessels, as long as they are not associated with Israel. Moscow, while publicly indicating support for Washington's efforts to maintain order in the Red Sea, has only a small amount of its trade passing through the Suez Canal. Moreover, Russian officials suggest that the Red Sea crisis could potentially redirect shipping to the Northern Sea Route or the North-South Transport Corridor via Iran to the Indian Ocean. 

All in all, the renewed Russo-Iranian strategic partnership, in the Middle East space on this occasion, represents an adaptive response to the changing geopolitical landscape. The intricacies of the Red Sea, added to the Iranian grip on the Houthis, brings another dimension to the relationship between the two states. In this article, we have demonstrated how the partnership's strategic implications and the evolving nature of conflicts in the region underscore the need for a multilevel approach while addressing today’s complexities and potential risks in the Red Sea.


  1. https://www.itssverona.it/what-is-the-future-of-russo-iranian-military-relations ↩︎
  2.  https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/07/us/politics/iran-us-israel-conflict.html
    https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/23/us-accuses-iran-of-being-deeply-involved-in-houthi-attacks-in-red-sea
    https://www.ispionline.it/en/publication/walking-a-tightrope-what-is-irans-current-strategy-161592 ↩︎
  3.  https://www.reuters.com/world/putin-irans-raisi-sign-new-interstate-treaty-soon-russia-2024-01-17/ ↩︎
  4. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/22/ukraine-claims-downing-barrage-from-russia-rare-iranian-made-drone ↩︎
  5. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20240119-red-sea-crisis-how-global-shipping-is-being-rerouted-out-of-danger ↩︎

June 1, 2022No Comments

ITSS Verona 2021/22 Webinar Series: “The View From Africa”, with Ilas Touazi and Michele Tallarini

For its third event of "The View from" Series, Ilas Touazi from University of Sétif 2 and Michele Tallarini, ITSS Verona, Africa Team, discuss US-China competition in Africa, touching upon regional dynamics, trade, BRI, questions of debt, and Chinese military presence in the continent.

March 16, 2022No Comments

Russian Military Doctrine: An Overview

By: Danilo delle Fave and Marco Verrocchio.

The Russian Military Reform of 2014

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has now skyrocketed among the news and masses of people are expressing their disapproval for the war through marches and protests worldwide. However, intelligence services and scholars had warned that a regional conflict between the two countries was foreseeable. To better understand the reasons behind Putin’s decision, an analysis of Russia’s 2014 military doctrine is fundamental. A military doctrine is essentially a public document that summarizes in strategic and theoretical terms the military capabilities in defending, offending and retaliating against threats. While Soviet-era doctrines were unpublished, the Russian federation documents are public, and they describe the political direction of Russia in military affairs. The 2014 version is divided in: generic provisions, the military dangers and threats, the military policy and the military economic-defence support. In comparison to the Soviet era, Russian military doctrines emphasize the defensive approach, and they profit from lessons learned from military conflicts and analysis of different scenarios. In the ethos of Russian “Motherland”, Russia is perceived as an object to be protected and a subject capable of reacting.

Military offensive operations are justified under a defensive provision which aims to prevent threats towards Russia. United Nations and international treaties are invoked in supporting this theory. Russia’s allies and partners are clearly mentioned. Belarus is the closest ally, with fully integrated armed forces, infrastructures and coordination. CSTO, CIS and BRICS countries are mentioned “to strengthen the system of collective security”. In comparison to the 2010’s military doctrine, the EU is perceived no longer functional to pursue national security, but an equal partner to maintain a status-quo.

The 2014 version also abandons all possible cooperation with NATO as well. The Russian ambition to pursue a regional defense policy guarantees that border states do not adopt an approach that threatens the Russian Federation. A specific section that implicitly was dedicated to the case of Ukraine mentions that overthrowing of legitimate governments in bordering states is a serious menace for Russia. Another reference regards 2011-12 Russian protests, declaring that anti-nationalistic information led by external parties is a menace. In some issues, Russia has a dualist approach, perceiving an issue both as a threat and as a mean. For instance, the use of private military contractors (PMCs) is a military danger but it is an inevitable component of contemporary warfare. The same idea is applied to the militarization of the information, which undermines Russia from abroad but is also a novel area of improvement. The 2014 also reflects a much more reliance on Russia in using tools of hybrid warfare. While the 2010 version made a generic use of hybrid warfare, the 2014 version highlighted that Russia would rely on military means only after political, diplomatic, judicial, economic, information and other non-kinetic means have been used.

Image Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/monument-to-minin-and-pozharsky-177843/

Gerasimov’s Doctrine and Hybrid Warfare

During an event in the Russian Academy of Military Sciences in 2019, the Russian Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov described Russian military strategy as “Active Defense”. What does he mean by “Active Defense”? It is a strategic concept integrating preemptive measures to prevent conflict and wartime concepts of operations that seek to deny to the enemy a decisive victory in the initial period of war, degrading and disorganizing its effort, while setting the conditions for a counteroffensive or attaining war termination. The strategy privileges a permanent standing force, arrayed as high readiness operational formations in each strategic direction, prepared to execute operations jointly.

At the beginning, the Russian military needs to manipulate an opponent through the demonstration of his readiness, deployments, exercises, weapon tests and demonstrative actions and, if it is necessary, they can include a demonstrative use of force and limited strikes. After the period called “Pre-War”, the aim of the “Active Defense” is to inflict disorganisation on the opponent via long-range strikes against critically important objects at operational depths and beyond, in order to reach the goal of disorganizing the enemy’s effort, degrading his ability to sustain operation and affecting his political and at the same time maximize the survivability of the Russian units and preserve the force.

The “Active Defense” is based on two main tenets: Maneuver Defense and Non contact Warfare. Unlike World War I and World War II, the idea of using their own main effort to create a potential defense and a massive manned front, is totally obsolete in the eyes of the Russian strategists. Maneuver Defense for the Russian Military means that fires and strikes systems will attrit the opponent’s forces as they advance, and his aim is to destroy an opponent’s initial operation plan and buy time for reserves or follow forces to arrive, exhaust the opponent’s forces, and subsequently seize the initiative. Turning to Noncontact Warfare, the term is somewhat muddled, as there is a commonly held Russian military belief that modern warfare will feature forward operating sensors, fires, and precision strike systems. War will be driven by information, command and control systems, and precise means of destruction. However, non contact speaks more to the employment of longer-range capabilities to attack critical objects at substantial operational and strategic ranges.

With the Georgian and Ukrainian crisis of 2008 and 2013, the Russian armed forces have developed the so called New Generation Warfare, 4th Generation Warfare, or Hybrid Warfare. Hybrid warfare does not aim to victory through the defeat of the enemy on the battlefield but regime change and the achievement of the Kremlin’s goals. Therefore, the military became one element of a much larger set of foreign policy instruments aimed to reach political gains. The Hybrid force is composed of conventional forces and special corps, like the Spetsnaz, that operate in coordination with a militarized local population, like Donbass separatist militias. The militias are usually formed not directly by Russian forces, but by contracted forces from outside the area of operations which serves along militias, usually binded by a contract. Moreover, in the Hybrid force is also fundamental the role of Private Military Contractors (PMC), like the Wagner group, that can aid the efforts of regular forces and militias. It is the formalization of war by proxy, which is cleared witnessed by the praxis of Russian armed forces in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia.

The Russian military doctrine emphasizes therefore the political aspect of warfare, and the link between military operations and its ideological and foreign policy aspects: in all the three major fronts (Syria, Ukraine, Georgia), the Russians have carefully prepared the public affairs and the narrations in all their conflicts. They always claimed that their intervention was the result of a request for help, Ossetians and Abcazians in Georgia, russophone separatists in Ukraine, the Assad government in Syria. They deployed their PMCs in Africa, which helped them to further their influence on the Continent, with the successful coups in Mali and Central African Republic. The difficulties in improving their capabilities have inevitably shaped Russian military doctrine from conventional warfare of the Soviet era to a new form of warfare that can be defined as “non-linear”.

December 10, 2021No Comments

Geopolitical Implications of Finland’s H-X Program

By: Arnaud Sobrero and Romain Gallix

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/77821971@N07/48909659726/

Finland is currently seeking to replace its aging F-18 with a global competition dubbed H-X worth $11 billion. It is expected that a decision will be made public before the end of 2021. Arguably, fighter jets represent a crucial component of States’ security and a decisive hard power asset in every conflictual context. This article aims at uncovering the underlying dynamics of the Western defense industry implied by the evolution of the Finnish tender. 

As of December 2021, the Finnish Ministry of Defense has received responses for its request for information from the European Eurofighter Typhoon, the Swedish Saab Gripen, the French Dassault Rafale, and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35. 

Divided European contenders open the way for American offers

The Finnish request for information received answers from all major Western fighter jets producers; hence the comparison of contenders allows us to identify several factors shaping the evolutions of the industry. The very fact that Finland launched its fleet’s renewing process very close to the expected decommission date for its current Hornets, as their “structural fatigue” denounces, exemplifies how procurement programs are not at the top of policy-makers agenda (Finnish Ministry of Defense).

The cost borne by single states with limited expenditure margins is becoming increasingly untenable, especially where political pressure on taxpayers’ spending is large (e.g., the United Kingdom). Moreover, countries may not dispose of design and production capacity over the entire technological spectrum, such as Italy and Spain. The relative political frenzy generated in recent decades made transnational fighter jets’ fleets a common feature of Western air forces. However, the pan-European Eurofighter Typhoon underwent difficulties showcasing the complexity of such projects, with reluctant transfers, unclear directions, and soaring costs due to fragmented production. 

Meanwhile, the individual offers from France and Sweden do not seem greatly superior. The Dassault Rafaleand the Saab Gripen offer suffer from their limited interoperability and relatively isolated stance in the current geopolitical equilibrium. Indeed, the political logic of defense procurement programs vastly supersedes the economic aspects of the choice. Was Finland to purchase the Saab Gripen underdog from its neighbor, its strategic prospects would be very limited and centered on Russian containment. The Rafale, in turn, would signify Finland’s alignment on the French posture of European strategic autonomy from the U.S. The 1,340km-long border Helsinki shares with Russia makes this perspective impossible. Therefore, although the Rafale has recently been sold to Croatia and Greece, Dassault’s offer seems compromised.

The American bidders consequently benefit from the lack of unity of European actors and put forward the geopolitical continuity they represent as a sales’ argument. The Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet proposal would minimize the H-X program costs due to pre-existing maintenance and operating capacities while selecting the F-35 would guarantee the acquisition of new, cutting-edge capacities

A degrading security environment

In recent years, we have witnessed a degradation of the international security environment with Russia’s resurgence and the growing assertiveness of China’s behavior. Primarily concerned with Russia, Finland finds itself in a delicate position as it is the E.U. member that shares the largest border with Russia. Russia has been particularly active in recent years by bolstering its military, as demonstrated by its intervention in the Syrian front, its attempts to upset the status quo, and its destabilization of NATO from within. Growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine are fueling a sense of regional insecurity with a Russian troop buildup as well as creating some levels of uncertainty regarding Russia’s intentions. Amid a large scale rearmament program, Russia has been able to field the SU-57, a modern stealth fighter aircraft, and develop lighter fifth-generation aircraft, the Checkmate, focused on export markets and somewhat reminiscent of the F-35.

Given the growing insecurity of its regional environment, Finland may be looking to maintain its strategic relationship with the U.S. and reinforce its indirect relationships with NATO. A critical political and strategic factor to consider is the interoperability of weapon systems within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although Finland is not a member of the Alliance, the Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet would expand the reach of NATO and its ability to share data, engage in secure communication, and increase interoperability capabilities between the U.S. and other U.S.-allied European assets. Thus, beyond the interoperability aspect of those deals, acquiring the F-35 or the F-18 does bring diplomatic benefits and strengthen relationships with the United States.

The case of buying a strategic relationship with the U.S.

When it comes to large military hardware procurement, countries’ decisions are influenced by the prospect of a future strategic relationship with the procuring country. Buying U.S. material implies future interoperability, a valuable prospect in a world of growing tensions. In addition, the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) framework is largely seen as a political instrument by Washington to deepen relationships with key allies. As such, the F-35 initially developed to replace aging F-16s, is poised to become one of America’s biggest exports. By strengthening military interoperability with U.S. allies across the globe and elevating their airpower capabilities, the F-35 is instrumental to America’s containment military strategies. Furthermore, some experts argue that the F-35 program acts as America’s Belt and Road Initiative, at least from a strategic and military standpoint. It provides a network and a platform acting as ‘a generator of wealth and peaceful co-existence on a global scale.’

Even soaring costs do not prevent countries from buying the F-35. Small players such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland have already chosen to buy the F-35 jets, notwithstanding questionable financial dispositions. This perfectly illustrates the underpinning political challenge at stake. For example, Switzerland agreed to buy 36 F-35As in July 2021 and Patriot air defense systems, even though the decision was controversial and considered overkill.

Thus, buying American-made fighter jets does bring significant commercial, industrial, and geopolitical benefits. Indeed, by buying American fighter jets, Finland would essentially strengthen its strategic relationship with the U.S.

Conclusively, given the degrading security environment Finland finds itself in and the growing importance of the U.S. strategic relationship, Finland is more likely to acquire U.S. technologies to replace its aging F-18s. Arguably, the F-35 appears better suited to meet Finland’s short and long-term requirements by strengthening its military and political relationship with the U.S. and acquiring an aircraft that could address the existing and emerging military threat as Russia deploys additional advanced stealth combat airborne platforms. 

May 13, 2021No Comments

Russia and Ukraine prepare for War

By Igor Shchebetun

     The situation in Eastern Ukraine is heating up.  Videos published on social networks show military columns moving towards Donbass. Kiev has put its troops on high alert. Washington is considering sending the navy to the Black Sea, while Moscow is pulling heavy weapons and landing troops to the border.

     Ukraine is a buffer state located in the center of Europe that serves as a road to an attack to the East or West. Today, the European Union and NATO, mainly represented by Poland, see Ukraine as a place where Russian influence on the European continent can be stopped. Russia sees Ukraine as an indispensable buffer zone against the West. To be fair, both Moscow and Kiev have internal motives for escalating tensions. President Zelensky's rating is rapidly goes down. In 2021, only slightly more than 20% of Ukrainians are willing to vote for him. Putin faces the same problem, his level of support in February 2021 is only 32%. The bottom line is that both sides have reasons to use the tensions in Donbass to influence the opinion of their voters. But let's still imagine that the conflict is not limited to Donbass, but fully involves Ukraine and Russia, what would it look like?  Despite Kiev's efforts to reform the army in recent years, the balance of power between Ukraine and Russia has changed little. Russia has the ability to defeat its adversary and can implement its strategy in a variety of ways. Let's consider which ones? It can conduct small operations along the entire border with Ukraine, which will disperse Ukrainian forces. On the other hand, a small offensive will not bring additional influence in terms of politics or security. Another option for Russia and the Donbass it supports is to expand controlled territory into the rest of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, making the separatists more self-sufficient. However, increasing the buffer territory is too little. Especially considering that such an action would also evoke an even stronger pro-Western sentiment in Ukrainian society and guarantee Moscow additional sanctions, something it cannot afford. 

     A third option for Russia could be to advance along the Southern coast of Ukraine and the Dnieper River and connect Donbass with Crimea creating such an overland corridor would strengthen Russia's control over Crimea and Donbass and allow it to control 75% of the fresh water supplied to Crimea. In such a situation, the supply lines of the overland corridor will be greatly stretched. And that's not to mention their vulnerability for about 400 km this will not be a problem for Russia unless other regional forces are measured in the conflict otherwise the supply will probably be cut off and the whole campaign proves unsuccessful. However, if no outside force intervenes, then technically Russia could advance further it could seize all of Ukraine and link up with its forces in the region of Transnistria (а separatist region of Moldova) in which case Ukraine would be undermined it would lose access to the Black Sea, reducing the importance of its alliance with Turkey. The apathy of the port city of Odessa would cause significant damage to the Ukrainian economy. From Russia's point of view, having a regional territory along the Black Sea would ensure that most of its interests in the region would be achieved. Geographically, if Russia intended to attack Ukraine, the Dnieper River would be the ideal anchoring point. Capturing all of eastern Ukraine and controlling all crossing points across the Dnieper would allow Russia to focus only on specific points. This would have provided it with a much more reliable line of defense than the buffer zone of Donbass. However, the seizure of such vast territory would instantly provoke fierce resistance that would be difficult to pacify. Such cities as Kharkov, Kiev and Dnepr would become particularly problematic and hotspots. In addition, the seizure of Ukrainian territory would be guaranteed to lead to covert or overt interference by other countries, as well as the maximum application of sanctions by the U.S. as in the case of Iran.

      Not much has changed between Ukraine and Russia, at least militarily and politically. Ukraine still does not have the ability to defeat Russia The US is now satisfied with the current situation, Germany does not want to interfere in the situation, and France remains a de facto ally of Russia. Turkey is increasing its support for Ukraine, but they do not have enough resources to affect the status quo. Meanwhile, Russia continues to insist on constitutional autonomy, not wanting direct annexation, so despite all the hype, the resumption of a large-scale conflict is unlikely. However, given the amount of weapons along the borders, it cannot be completely ruled out. In all likelihood, Donbass will remain in limbo, because in political issues diplomats often welcome something new and only when it is actually no different from the old.