This is not the time to brand Vladimir Putin an ‘evil madman’

Simplifying the war in Ukraine into a binary of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ will not save us from another world war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a press conference in Moscow, Russia, February 7, 2022 [Thibault Camus/Pool via Reuters/File Photo]

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth week, we routinely hear words like “evil,” “unhinged” and “unstable” being used to describe Vladimir Putin. Such labelling is not uncommon in realpolitik. It is a tactic in the ever-present rivalries of international politics – to demonise, caricature and demoralise political opponents, while simultaneously reassuring those on your own ideological flank. After all, who wants to be on the side of a lunatic?

Whether it’s describing Saddam Hussein as a “madman,” Gaddafi as “insane,” or Putin as a “megalomaniac,” such caricatures serve broader political objectives by simplifying any conflict into a clear binary of “good” versus “evil”.

The Israeli state often indulges in such framing to delegitimise Palestinians – even questioning their intelligence, by repeating ad nauseum the trope that they “never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity”. Likewise, apologists for the occupation, militarisation and colonisation of Kashmir in India designate Kashmiris demanding fulfilment of UN Security Council resolutions as “terrorists,” “secessionists” or “anti-nationals.”

Such framing is now being tactfully employed to explain away the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a manipulative discourse construction that facilitates a fog of war.

Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a monstrosity. As morally repugnant as the war crimes in Syria, brutal dispossession of Palestinians or militarised occupation of Kashmir. Yet, simplistic framings that deem Putin a “madman” without a purpose inhibit our ability to see the bigger picture and do something to prevent further violence.

In other words, now that the war is here, we should ignore all attempts to frame it merely as a showdown between “good” and “evil”, and focus instead on figuring out what steps may be taken not only to end it, but also to prevent it from causing flare-ups in other hotspots across the globe – and possibly triggering another world war.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – regardless of its rationality or purpose – will inevitably have an impact on three contentious issues: the war in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal and the US-China rivalry.

First and foremost, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have consequences for Syria. The impact of sanctions on its economy may cause Russia to pull money and military forces from Syria. An embattled and isolated Putin may also decide to double down on his efforts to turn Syria into a satellite state akin to Belarus. In either scenario, the US may respond by starting to funnel resources to the Syrian resistance.

For some time now, Syrian opposition figures have been working to revive their decade-old campaign against al-Assad. In early February, for example, they came together at a major meeting in Doha, Qatar and vowed to “reunite”.  And after the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, they were very quick to forcefully condemn Putin’s move. Meanwhile, al-Assad is said to have sent scores of fighters to Ukraine to assist Russia’s military intervention. All in all, there is much reason to suspect the events in Ukraine may trigger a flare-up in Syria’s relatively dormant conflict.

Therefore, as the world watches the developments in Ukraine, it should also keep one eye on Syria – to ensure the war in Europe does not translate into more suffering for the people of Syria and more insecurity across the Middle East.

Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine put the negotiations for a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran into overdrive. US President Biden is now more desperate than ever before to secure a new deal with Iran, curb its nuclear programme, and most importantly, put Iranian oil back on the market amid an energy crisis exacerbated by the Ukraine invasion.

Just days ago, the future of the deal was in serious jeopardy after Russia reportedly said that it would block any deal that would not include guarantees that Western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine would not impede its future dealings with Iran.

On March 15, however, Moscow announced that it received written guarantees from Washington, signalling that the deal may, in fact, soon be completed. For its part, Iran said it is acting as a “strong, independent party” in the negotiations and has Russia’s full support. While these are somewhat promising developments for the future of the region, it is still less than certain that an isolated Russia crippled by sanctions would allow the deal to go forward and Iranian oil to re-enter global markets. The world should keep its eyes firmly on the Iranian front, as if Russia’s Ukraine invasion leads to the demise of the nuclear deal, it would signal more insecurity and conflict for the Gulf and the wider region.

Third, Russia’s war in Ukraine will likely have a major impact on the US-China rivalry. For now, China appears well positioned to gain from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine on multiple fronts, which can cause the US to assume a more combative posture against its arch rival.

Indeed, Beijing can now not only provide an economic lifeline to Russia, and thus make Moscow much more dependent on itself, but also take advantage of the new dynamics that put the US on the back foot to further its interests in other areas. Some analysts, for example, raised concerns that China may unilaterally act vis a vis Taiwan, after witnessing “the West’s weak-kneed response in Ukraine”. While a Ukraine-style Taiwan invasion is unlikely for various reasons, China may assume a more aggressive posture on other fronts if the US continues to imply Chinese responsibility in Russia’s actions.

The emboldening of China, and the US’s reaction to it, may also lead to further escalations in the Indo-Pacific region. The US has been using its ally India as a strategic bulwark against China for too long, and any new global power play involving China, Russia and the US may result in renewed conflict in regional hot-points, such as Kashmir. India’s attempts to resist aligning itself against Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion already upset its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) allies. The US and other parties to the dialogue (Australia and Japan) may now demand India to assume a tougher stance if not against Russia, then at least against China. All this may further heighten tensions in the region and lead to violence.

All in all, there are indications that Russia’s war in Ukraine may heighten tensions in various conflict zones, trigger new confrontations, and put the entire planet on a trajectory towards further violence.

Now, therefore, is not the time to complain about what an “evil madman” Putin is, or how “irrational” his actions in Ukraine are. It is not the time to invest in narratives that firmly frame our side as “good” and the other as “evil”. It is time to emphasise de-escalation, intensify confidence-building mechanisms, invest in peace-building and collectively work towards a global armistice with the help and guidance of multilateral organisations. The alternative could be deadly for us all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.