March 2, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 365

Lessons Learned By Friend And Foe From Putin's Debacle

March 2, 2022 | By Yigal Carmon and Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Iran, Russia, China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 365

Putin's war against Ukraine is likely to bring down at least one and maybe two countries by the end. For a war whose latest phase is less than a week old, some things are clear. The Russian invasion was blatant and undisguised, whatever pretense at finding an immediate, plausible excuse for war (versus longstanding grievances) absolutely failed. As Edward Luttwak memorably noted, Putin the "patient hunter" had become a "reckless gambler."[1] And unlike previous Russian actions, it was neither a short, swift coup (as with Crimea) nor a seizure of some border regions nor an operation done as if by proxies.'

In attempting to openly take over an entire, large country, Russia resembled more the United States going into Iraq than Putin's past aggressions, except that the Americans were able to get their action blessed by the UN Security Council (UNSCR 1441). China and Russia, Putin's Russia, voted in favor of a resolution that the Americans subsequently used as an excuse for war (France declared that it would veto a second resolution explicitly authorizing war). Russia had no diplomatic cover for this war, even a flimsy or exaggerated one.

Putin's latest actions are a far cry from the way that his two allies, Iran and China, have used to project power (the three held naval exercises right before the crisis).[2] Iran threatens outright war against Israel and the United States all the time. But when it actually wages war, it has used its ability to burrow into susceptible regimes or find local proxies to give itself some sort of cover. While Iranians fought on the ground in Syria in the service of the Assad regime (alongside Russia), in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza, it has mostly waged war – savage and bloody war – through intermediaries. When the Houthis fire missiles and launch drones at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this is Iran behind the trigger, although Iran is ostensibly at peace with both countries. No one is fooled by this, but it is just enough of a fig leaf for those who want to look away, like the Europeans, to do so.

While Iran has burrowed into regional regimes to project power and wage war in the Middle East indirectly (while blustering about direct war), China has burrowed into regimes globally and into the global economic system, projecting power there while also expanding militarily and making its intentions for the "unification" of the mainland with Taiwan crystal clear. It even tried to do expand in Ukraine, making a move to acquire the important Ukrainian Aerospace manufacturer Motor Sich, a ploy scuppered by Ukraine in 2021 on strategic grounds and with American prompting.[3] Motor Sich later agreed to provide motors for Turkish Akinci strike drones.[4]

Russia's debacle in Ukraine will provide important lessons for Putin's friends in Tehran and Beijing on what to do and what to avoid. Patience, obfuscation, and misdirection are key to assured success in their expansionary agendas. The hegemony of the United States over the global financial system has been underscored by the Western reactions to the Russian invasion and this reality will be factored into their considerations. If anything, this will encourage both states to prepare themselves better to mitigate against Western economic reprisal in case of future crises. Russia spent a decade preparing to insulate themselves from this Western response and failed within days of the war's beginning.[5]

Lebanese Hezbollah's unofficial mouthpiece featured a remarkable column by its chief editor Ibrahim Al-Amin on February 25, the day after the Ukraine War began.[6] Al-Amin admitted to "concern" about Russia attacking a neighboring country but ultimately saw the war as a reason to "rejoice" in the hopes that a Russian victory would bring about the fall of the West. Such a fall would mean the rise of the Global South liberated from the fetters of the West, from the hatred and anger of the "White Man living in Washington, Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo or Montreal." Meanwhile the party line in Tehran is that the West cannot be trusted to defend its friends (a message to America's Middle East allies) and that if Ukraine had kept nukes, they would not have been attacked.[7]

The devastating effect of the sanctions card used by the West against Russia is not lost on the Chinese government either. In remarks on February 25 blaming the United States as the culprit behind the Ukraine conflict, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying repeatedly criticized American "illegal unilateral sanctions," noting that sanctions use by the U.S. had increased ten times over the past 20 years.[8]

If America's enemies have learned important lessons from the Russia-Ukraine War, so have others. Doughty Ukraine's resistance has underscored the obvious fact that the best defense is what you can do yourself, not just relying on old allies and alliances. NATO states will boost their defenses but Ukraine and ongoing concern about American trustworthiness in the region will only deepen the intentions of governments in the Middle East, such as some of the Gulf states, to be able to defend themselves with the latest weapons, build their own capabilities and to rely on vendors from more than one country.

Finally, the ugly Russian war in Ukraine, and especially the resistance of the Ukrainian people, is, in a way, an unmerited gift to a Biden Administration seemingly adrift in foreign policy. If the Ukrainians had folded and Kyiv had been occupied in three or four days, the world would be having a very different discourse today. While not used in preventing war, once again the "silver bullet" of American foreign policy – economic sanctions – have been able to severely damage an adversary from a distance, especially because acceptance for such a step has been broad, in Europe and even in East Asia.

But the warning Obama's Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew had six years ago about the danger of "sanctions overreach" remains.[9] He feared that the more that sanctions are used, the greater the chance that foreigners will eventually find ways to do business safely outside the U.S. (and friends) financial umbrella. An America with a strong domestic economy, a revitalized domestic manufacturing base, and a sound currency can delay the day when that "magic bullet becomes a poison pill."[10] The Ukraine War has done many things so far, one of them is to reconfirm the enduring relevance of armies, nation states, and borders, as if there was any doubt. While the strong reaction to Russia's invasion seems to underscore the power of globalization, many in the Global South and East will see in it a vindication of the growing value of autarky.

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI. Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], February 28, 2022.

[2], January 20, 2022.

[3], March 20, 2021.

[4], November 12, 2021.

[5], March 1, 2022.

[6], February 25, 2022.

[9], March 30, 2016.

[10], March 29, 2016.

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