Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has dealt a deep blow to Russian foreign policy and left the country’s diplomats with an “impossible” task of trying to pursue the Kremlin’s goals amid increasing isolation.
That’s the assessment delivered by Boris Bondarev, a counselor at Russia's permanent mission to the United Nations in Geneva and a 20-year veteran of the country’s foreign service. He resigned in May because he felt the war had shown how repressive and warped Russia and its leaders had become.
“The attack on Ukraine has made Russian diplomacy virtually impossible in any practical sense,” Bondarev told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “For me, [the war] was absolutely unimaginable, and I realized that it goes against everything that Russian diplomats should do.”
Bondarev made international headlines when he quit in protest over the Kremlin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Since then, he has issued a broad condemnation of Russian leadership over the past two decades under President Vladimir Putin, whose autocratic rule he blames for having transformed the diplomatic service into one deluded by its own propaganda and isolated on the global stage.
“I observed the evolving decline in our diplomacy [and] its slide into an abyss of provocations and lies,” he said. “But still, until there was war and until blood was shed, I -- like many of my colleagues -- believed that I could still work.”
According to Bondarev, diplomats who cabled assertions and talking points that had been echoed across Russian propaganda networks back to Moscow were rewarded, while those who challenged assumptions and questioned the official line were suppressed.
He credits this willful blindness as helping to breed to a culture that allowed for the Kremlin’s miscalculations that led to its war with Ukraine, where it predicted a quick victory over Kyiv but instead suffered heavy casualties and continues to face embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield.
“The further this went on, the more it became clear that [Putin] was becoming the main target of all this [aggressive] Foreign Ministry rhetoric,” Bondarev said. “This works [against] Russian diplomacy, as [other diplomats] don’t want to communicate with people who talk like thugs and hooligans. But this vocabulary was encouraged, as apparently the main customer -- [Putin] -- likes it.”
An Uncertain Future
Bondarev, who joined the Russian Foreign Ministry in 2000, remains critical of the state of the country’s diplomatic corps, saying that it has become filled with “yes men,” with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov becoming a leading target of his criticism.
“It seems to me that [Lavrov’s] pliability and unwillingness to quarrel with anyone [and] to defend his opinion led to the fact that the Foreign Ministry turned into a thoughtless body for the whims and instructions of those at the very top,” he said.
The former Russian diplomat also provided a fuller account of his decision to resign and his experiences over the course of his two-decade career in a 6,500-word essay that was published in Foreign Affairs magazine in October.
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That essay quickly earned him condemnation in Moscow, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova comparing Bondarev at a recent press briefing to General Andrey Vlasov, a World War II-era Soviet general who was executed for treason for collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Bondarev heavily criticized the state of Russian leadership and the direction of its foreign policy in the essay and wrote that Western-led sanctions against Moscow following its 2014 forceful annexation of the Crimean Peninsula -- which targeted key high-tech components needed to produce military hardware -- were far more damaging than admitted by Russian officials.
He writes that they “left our military weaker than the West understood” and “are one reason Russia has had so much trouble with its invasion.”
Any cease-fire in Ukraine, Bondarev wrote, would only give Putin time to regroup and rearm. Instead, he says that only a “comprehensive rout” by Ukrainian forces will be able to stop the war. He adds that so long as Putin and the current leadership remain in power in the Kremlin, any cease-fire or talks are unlikely to yield lasting results.
“As long as Putin is in power,” he wrote, “Ukraine will have no one in Moscow with whom to genuinely negotiate.”
Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by Igor Sevryugin for Current Time