Back in 2019 I wrote a piece for DIPLOMAT on how diplomacy defines and rewards success.

It concluded with this striking thought:

Why has the word ‘judgement’ been removed from its erstwhile pride of place in the FCO’s staff appraisal procedures? It features a mere four times in that rambling Civil Service Competency Framework’s 14,000 words. What does that change signify for what UK diplomacy and the wider UK government system think they’re meant to be doing?

No-one can say. Perhaps the word judgement now sounds a bit … judgemental? God forbid that anyone these days assert that some proposals are good and some just bad, or attempt to correct sloppy drafting. Why are you projecting elitism and privilege? Show respect for diversity!

I fondly recall talking to a Russian diplomat about something that had gone rather wrong. “Yes,” he said, “The official responsible has been punished.”

Punishment! What a simple, strong, noble idea. It’s not mentioned once in the Civil Service Competency Framework. Let’s bring it back.

The idea of punishment has more or less vanished from modern management if not intellectual discourse in the Anglosphere. It sounds so crude and clumsy. Ungenerous. Unsympathetic. Cruel! if someone has done something wrong or made a ghastly mistake, that person may well be a victim who needs encouragement. Nurturing. Kindness.

Yet most of real life doesn’t work in that soupy way. The whole of criminal law in the modern hi-regulation states we live in depends on summary punishment:

Fail to comply with myriad laws or procedures you’ve never heard of? You get fined. Bang. Yes, there are ways to appeal. But you’ll never find your through them without it costing you far more. Take that, serf.

Yet odious and oppressive as all that is, there’s something simple and attention-grabbing and maybe even empowering about punishment. It’s mean-spirited, brutish and maybe unjust. But you know where you stand. Do X? Something bad and painful will happen. Avoid doing X? Move along.

* * * * *

It’s no surprise that it was a Russian diplomat who was probably the only colleague in my 28 years of diplomacy who I heard use the word ‘punished’. That’s how their system operates. At all levels.

Hence the Ukraine catastrophe now. Putin wants to punish Ukraine for its prolonged temerity in not submitting to Russian hegemony. For its disloyalty in not  wholeheartedly fighting against the Nazis after Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death. For its selfish wish to be somehow separate from the Russian Nation and join the EU and/or NATO. For not submitting.

And now it gets darker.

As we know, Russia’s underlying negotiation posture is explicitly psychological and based on these key ideas:

  • We can take more pain that than you can imagine
  • We can take more pain that you’re prepared to inflict
  • Whatever you do to us, we’ll do worse to you

This is now taking an even more twisted radical form as the Russian military onslaught in Ukraine does not deliver the knockout victory that Putin apparently expected. The more that democratic and even many undemocratic governments around the world look aghast at the carnage spreading across Ukraine and crank up sanctions regimes against Russia, the more Putin’s determination to punish Ukraine and Ukrainians will intensify.

His logic is this:

These pathetic ungrateful Ukrainian Nazis have chosen to fight. Well, let’s fight.

Of course their malevolent anti-Russia NATO friends have now declared economic war on Russia. They’re scared of actually fighting us.

These sanctions hurt Russia. But because they hurt Russia, we’ll now hurt Ukraine much more, and much longer.

And the longer this goes on, the more severe the punishment Ukraine gets.

We can take more pain that you’re prepared to inflict.

Whatever you do to us, we’ll do worse to you – and to your beloved Ukrainians.

Note too that we seem to have gone from twittering about COVID masks to the edge of World War Three in just days. But this is just the culmination of a decade or more of Judo-Putin assessing with some precision what we’re sure he won’t do, then doing it. He uses his relative weakness to throw everyone off balance.

Western leaders hope to ‘limit’ the carnage to Ukraine. To avoid doing anything that might look like deliberately engaging with Russia militarily, while pumping in weapons and intelligence to help the beleaguered Ukrainians fight back.

Putin might respond thusly:

If our losses get too severe and Western pressure starts to put me under intolerable pressure, maybe I kill two hares with one shot.

I drop a tactical nuclear weapon near Kiev or Lviv.

Ukraine surrenders. Those treacherous Poles and Czechs and stupid Germans who love Ukraine so much can enjoy breathing in the radioactive fall-out as it drifts westwards.

I’ll show the West that I mean it – and that they need to back off.

Then there’ll quickly be peace. Peace based on Russia de facto taking over half of Ukraine, and waiting for a chance to take the other half.

This one has hurt. Bad. But I will have won again. As we all knew would happen.

And both Ukraine and the West will have been punished beyond their wildest nightmares …