blogoir en-us6024 April 2014 06:40:25 Ukraine, Russia and Europe Things have slackened off again here, what with one thing and another. But here is the hefty piece I wrote about Ukraine last week for the Daily Telegraph. To be precise, I did not write it. I dictated it into my iPad from my hotel room in Gjakova (also known as Djakovica, down near the Kosovo/Albania border).


The Ukraine problem now poses a genuinely dangerous threat to European security. A case can be made for redrawing the map of this part of Europe to allow those parts of Ukraine that wish to integrate closely with Russia to do so, leaving the rest to move closer towards western Europe. Making any such policy happen through calm negotiation will be next to impossible. Moscow is already accusing the opposition in Ukraine of “acting illegally” in trying to topple President Yanukovych. Does this open the way to Russia intervening to “protect” those elements that call for protection against such illegality?

It’s not likely that Russia will want to swallow a formal partition of Ukraine, even if that option were available. That would amount to conceding that much of the country is falling away from Russian influence. It’s more likely that Moscow will try to “punish” Ukraine for its ingratitude by creating a situation in which it is effectively divided and unable to function as a coherent unit, except on Moscow’s terms.

Quite a good prediction, if I say so myself.

That said, I have been impressed that Russia has moved so explicitly or even crudely to establish some new realities on the ground in and around Crimea.

The key to understanding Russian policy in the former Soviet Union is found in an interview Vladimir Putin gave back in 2003. Asked what his foreign policy was, he said something to the effect of "I aim to keep what's ours."

So much said, in so few words. All hail technique.

Thus, for example, what Russia sees as 'its' might include:

  • any territories ever conquered by the Tsars or Stalin (including eg the three small Baltic republics, large chunks of Poland and Finland etc)
  • any territories that belonged to the USSR
  • any territories that belonged to the Russian SSR
  • any territories where Russian influence 'naturally' belongs
  • anywhere where non-trivial numbers of Russian citizens find themselves outside Russia's current borders (hence the busy policy of handing out Russian passports to Russian-speakers or others showing due fealty to Moscow, eg in Georgia/Abkhazia and now in Ukraine)

The Putinist point, of course, is never to define precisely what Russia sees as 'its'. In Crimea and other parts of Ukraine now a combination of arguments is being deployed to suit different audiences. But the overall result is clear: to cut Ukraine down to size and make the country work only on Russia's terms.

Faced with this openly expansionist and impressively direct policy, Western leaders are trying to find something meaningful by way of reply. Here is what President Obama is said by the White House to have said to President Putin in their long telephone conversation yesterday:

President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.

The basic problem with this sort of high-profile 'personal' diplomacy is that it needs to be balanced to be credible. I suspect that if Obama walked out of the Oval Office and was tasked to write down all he knows about Ukraine he would struggle to fill more than a couple of pages. Putin by contrast could write a short book about it. 

See the Russian acount of this conversation. Full of sharp specifics:

In response to Barack Obama's concern about the possible use of Russia's Armed Forces on Ukraine's territory, Vladimir Putin called attention to the provocative, criminal actions of the ultra-right elements who are in essence being encouraged by the current government in Kiev. The Russian President accented the very real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and numerous compatriots who are currently on Ukraine's territory. Vladimir Putin underscored that, in case of the further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and the Crimea, Russia reserves the right to defend its interests and those of the Russian-speaking population living there.

So Putin is unlikely to take seriously much of what Obama says on the subject: he may be the US President, but what does he actually know or (more importantly) care about Ukraine and Russia or indeed central Europe? Not much?

Over at Brian Barder there is an interesting e-discussion emerging between some senior former UK diplomats who really know the region. I have chipped in, as has Roland Smith (previously Ambassador to Kiev) and Sir Rodric Braithwaite, one of the UK's very top experts in this area who was in Moscow when the USSR collapsed. Check it out.

My concluding thought there (and here) with added FCO in-joke:

I suspect that in years to come this flailing by Putin will be seen as a colossal Russian blunder that wrecked the credibility of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union initiative (which CIS country will want to be subject to the sort of bullying Ukraine is now getting)? Plus Putin seems to be making a striking mistake in alienating Ukrainian speakers who are being treated as traitors and ‘fascists’ simply for wanting to become more European. Ukraine may come to signal the beginning of Russia’s own eventual disintegration into smaller units.

Bottom line (Lyne?)? Russia seems to define its ‘interests’ under current management by insisting that you must be crushed in a hug of Russian affection until you can scarcely breathe, and if you ask for some fresh air you’re being hateful.

That sort of policy is about as unsuited to the emerging modern world of easy-going e-pluralism as can be imagined. It will fail. But how many people including Russians themselves will die or suffer as it lumbers around before it crashes?

2014-03-02 20:44:24
Professional Writing with Style and Impact Some of you may be wondering how to improve your written work. It's either too long or too dense or not persuasive or just somehow too clunky and unengaging.

Help is at hand. You can sign up with my new Guardian Masterclass for @guardianclasses: Professional Writing with Impact

Course description

Concentrating on the psychology and technique of powerful professional writing, this highly practical one-day course gives you the opportunity to develop and test new writing skills. Topics covered include: 

  • How to make your writing a conversation with the reader
  • Layout and structure – what draws a reader in, what turns a reader off
  • Tone - how to tune your writing to your readers
  • Skilful use of grammar and punctuation
  • Clarity - keeping facts, analysis and recommendations separate
  • Making work readable - rooting out clichés, jargon and weak vocabulary
  • Less is more – the art of tough-love editing

This course is for you if…

You want to improve your skills in any form of internal or external business and professional writing, including press releases, reports and presentations. The course features professional writing in English, but the techniques and insights for effective written work apply to many other languages

NB there will be some exercises to accomplish and a stern teacher scrutinising your prep.

But it will be worth it.

Dare you miss this special learning experience?

No, thought not.

2014-02-07 11:16:57
Public Speaking + Interpreters A few days ago I posted this piece from Diplomatic Courier about the hopeless public speaking performance by the French and German Foreign Ministers in Sarajevo in 1997 (emphasis added):

Where did the two countries' diplomats organizing this event get things wrong?

Basically, neither the Ministers’ respective offices nor their Embassies in Sarajevo had devised a formula to make sure the event would work as an event. I suspect that most of the clever effort before their visit had been devoted to crafting the words of the speech, ignoring the fact that what makes a speech successful is (of course) the words themselves but also the way in which they are delivered to the audience. Thus an audience that (perhaps for good practical reasons) is standing up needs a short, punchy speech; an audience sitting down is more comfortable and can cope with something longer and more thoughtful.

This applies all the more so if consecutive interpreting has to be used for a standing audience. A ten-minute speech by the Minister becomes a twenty-minute speech when delivered through an interpreter. This is a long time for people to stand and listen and try to absorb the words, when for precisely half the time they do not know what is being said.

It is much better to format the speech so that the speaker’s words are translated sentence by sentence by the interpreter. This creates a direct sense of conversation with the audience. It keeps their minds engaged on the speaker, not on the discomfort of standing to listen.

If (as on this occasion) the politics of the event require two speakers, both using consecutive interpreting, a way has to be found to coordinate the two speeches to keep them short, sharp and accessible.

Perhaps in fact only one speech is needed, with the two speakers taking it in turns to deliver different sections of it. Something like this will have novelty value, and in itself will symbolise political cooperation and high-level mutual trust. Plus the very way the speech is delivered is more likely to keep the audience interested and alert.

However, that sort of thing requires a lot of extra work, plus a sophistication and self-awareness that typically escape the high chancelleries of today's Europe...


The wonderful Media Officer at the British Embassy in Warsaw, Malgorzata Smierzycka, reminds me of my speech to the Last Night of the Proms event in Krakow in 2007.

This is a jolly annual gala occasion where Krakow Poles gather en masse lustily to sing Land of Hope and Glory and wave Union Flags and generally have a heady Britophilic experience. Tradition has it that the UK Ambassador to Warsaw joins the occasion and addresses the throng before it all starts.

My Polish is adequate for many reading purposes but pretty rotten and trending towards zero for extempore speaking, especially when people might be listening. Hence I felt that I needed an interpreter. But how best to do this to achieve success on the night in front of a packed concert hall? Hmm...

The obvious easy safe idea is to speak in English and get someone smart like Malgorzata to translate into Polish.

So, let's do the unobvious idea instead.

Malgorzata and I duly ascend the stage. I apologise for my lack of Polish and tell them (in English) that alas for such a distinguished occasion I'll need to use an interpreter.

Then (long pause) I give my prepared speech, reading it out sentence-by-sentence but in Polish. And Malgorzata translates into English.

Wild acclaim. It then does not matter (much) what I say, or how strangled my Polish pronunciation is. The sheer amusement of watching this zany duo perform this speech interpreted 'back to front' hooks the audience and achieves the key result, namely everyone having a good time and feeling warm and fuzzy about UK/Polish relations.

The very best public speaking and speechwriting? Sign up NOW.



2014-02-05 18:15:25
Slippery Slopes, Boiled Frogs Here is my latest piece for PunditWire on the subject of Slippery Slopes. With added Quagmires and Boiled Frogs:

Shock! The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has floated the idea that the rise of so-called ‘Eurosceptic’ political parties in Europe could lead to WAR. He argued this week that the centenary of the First World War should serve as a reminder of the dangers of a lack of European co-operation: “these dangers have to be forever banned”.

Welcome to Slippery Slopes, Quagmires, Thinly-ended Wedges and Boiling Frogs.

We all use metaphors to make a point. Speechwriters adore a good metaphor: get the right one and the speaker sounds wise, folksy, sassy and astute all in one go.

The trouble with such metaphors is that they capture your imagination but deaden your brain. Take the idea of the ‘slippery slope’. It conveys the idea that once you have gone beyond a certain point and started to slide downwards, there’s no way to stop until you crash at the bottom. There’s no safe and maybe better perch along the slide, or any way to control your slide. You lose control.

This metaphor gives a phony sense of immediate inexorable dangerous momentum which in fact may not be there. Pick another popular metaphor. If you enter a swamp (or the more fashionable ‘quagmire’) and start to get stuck, you are not doomed to stagger on into the middle and sink without trace. You may well make it back to the side safely, albeit malodorously and unhappily.

Likewise the ‘thin end of the wedge’ metaphor. Does it mean that by accepting A you logically have to accept B and C and so on? Or rather that if you accept A it is very likely (or quite likely, or more likely than not) that in practice you’ll end up getting B and C and so on, even if these results in logic and in policy terms can be distinguished?

... Herr Steinmeier too was playing on these ideas when he warned against Eurosceptics. What exactly was his argument here?

That any step back from further European cooperation makes a new war more likely or even certain? That reducing European cooperation may involve a small risk of a terrible thing, and that is a risk not worth taking? That Germany has deep in its soul a horrendous warlike impulse and that only the European Union as it is can tie Germany down safely (“unleash us at your peril!)?

Who knows? I suspect that he did not care. He was just throwing out a remote but horrible possibility (war in Europe once again) and slyly suggesting (a) that people like him who believe in the European Union as it is are the only credible defence against that happening, and (b) that anyone who disagrees with him must be ipso facto ‘dangerous’...

Read the whole thing.

2014-02-05 16:44:31
RBS? Meet Grammar I am locked in battle with the Royal Bank of Scotland over a footling issue with a credit-card. They sent me a card dated Jan 2014 that expires in Feb 2014. Shocking!

Their Customer Service people have sent a long letter apologising for the letter and offering some small compensation for the inconvenience I have had in trying to sort out the muddle. Fair enough.

But this letter itself has prompted a new complaint, as it contained three fatuous spelling errors (including my own address) and a couple of dozen punctuation/grammar errors. The letter was very hard to read as a result. So let's see how they respond to that.

I recently gave a Drafting session at the FCO. Even though it was obvious that their work would benefit from some sharp editing, there was a subtle sense among some of the participants that 'old-school' top-end FCO drafting was not what was required these days, and might even be deemed to be elitist. Still, other Foreign Ministries seem keen on learning from me how to write tip-top English (including proof-reading, punctuation and so on).

As I have had said before, it's not that our civilisation faces a rising tide of young people working their way up through the ranks who don't write well. Rather the problem is that the very idea of writing well is suspect. Hey, it's just your opinion that this way of writing that sentence is 'better' than mine.

So when Clifford Chance fret about Oxbridge bias and run a 'CV-blind' approach to recruiting, what do they think is going to happen?

Staff conducting the interviews are no longer given any information about which university candidates attended, or whether they come from state or independent schools...

In addition, half the posts on its vacation programmes (offering placements in the spring and summer to existing students) are reserved for those who come through an “Intelligent Aid” scheme, where candidates write a 250 to 500-word essay on a topic important to the firm and then do a presentation on it. Again, the candidate’s university background is not revealed.

They might get a rather wider spread of recruits than they have had previously. Fair enough. But this sort of testing naturally favours candidates from educational backgrounds where accurate writing and expression have been prioritised. Dare one suggest that Oxbridge and public school candidates will tend to do well here too?

It's simple. Either you have learned to write with accuracy and precision, using the full range of punctuation to say exactly what needs to be said and no more. Or you have not. So you scatter ideas like confetti across a page, dividing them with streams of commas in the hope that the reader will be willing to battle through the chaos to extract the meaning.

I am talking to Guardian Masterclasses about running a session on Professional Writing. So you soon may be able to sign up to that magnificent opportunity to improve your style.

Update: Via the Browser, try this long but tough look at what is and isn't poor use of the passive form in English grammar. Some surprising and strong examples of people getting this quite wrong - and drawing very odd conclusions.

2014-01-30 16:07:40