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Russia-Ukraine war: This is not the time to brand Vladimir Putin an ‘evil madman’

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By Farhan Mujahid Chak

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.”

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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.

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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.

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