Boris Bondarev, a Russian Diplomat, Speaks Out on the War

Boris Bondarev says Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin could have spent the past two decades “developing the country”, but instead turned it into “a kind of total horror, a threat to the world”.

Mr Bondarev would know: he has spent his career promoting Mr Putin’s foreign policy.

Bondarev, a mid-level diplomat with Russia’s UN mission in Geneva, on Monday became the most prominent Russian official to resign and publicly criticize the war in Ukraine since the February 24 invasion.

While his scorching message was unlikely to reach most Russians given the state domination of the news media, his resignation showed that discontent lurks in the Russian civil service despite the facade of national unity the Kremlin has tried to create.

“Those who conceived this war want only one thing – to remain in power forever, to live in pompous tacky palaces, to sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian navy, to enjoy unlimited power and complete impunity,” said Mr Bondarev in an email to colleagues on Monday morning. “To achieve that, they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as necessary.”

It was the latest example of unrest in the Russian elite to emerge in the public eye. Putin’s climate envoy Anatoly Chubais resigned and left the country in March, reportedly because of his opposition to the war, but he has not commented publicly. Several Russian state television journalists have resigned, including an employee who stormed the set of a live news broadcast with an anti-war poster. And some business leaders have spoken out, including a banking tycoon who said the Kremlin had forced him to sell his assets because of his opposition to the war.

But the Kremlin has gone to extraordinary lengths to silence such dissent. On state television, opponents of the war are regularly branded as traitors. A law signed by Putin in March will punish “false information” about the war — possibly defined as anything contrary to the government line — with as much as 15 years in prison. Partly because of this, there have been almost no government officials who have spoken out against the invasion.

In a telephone interview from Geneva, Mr Bondarev said he felt safer being abroad, but that he felt he was in a state of “total uncertainty” and did not know what would happen to him.

He said that while he believed he was outnumbered among Russian diplomats because of his opposition to the war, he was not alone. He said he knew several diplomats who had quietly resigned after the war broke out. It was impossible to verify that claim.

“There are people – not so few – who think like me,” he said. “But most, I think, are still captivated by this propaganda they receive and which they partially create.”

Bondarev said the responsibility for the war extends beyond Putin to include Russia’s foreign ministry, where he said he had worked for 20 years. Russian diplomats, he said, were complicit in making it look like Mr Putin could win an easy victory in Ukraine.

“They got Ukraine wrong, they got the West wrong, they actually got everything wrong,” Mr Bondarev said, referring to the Kremlin’s view of the world before the invasion. “We foreign ministry diplomats are also to blame for this, because we didn’t pass the information we should have — to smooth it over and present it as if everything was great.”

Bondarev, part of the arms control and disarmament team at the Russian mission in Geneva, said he had seen misleading information telephoning Moscow in recent weeks.

“Rather than presenting your own analysis as objectively as possible, along with your suggestions on how to proceed, we often presented information that was sure to please,” he said. “That was the main criterion.”

In his email to his colleagues, he said he “should have resigned at least three months ago” when Russia invaded, but that he had postponed because he had an unfinished family business and “had to collect my decision”.

“I just can no longer share in this bloody, senseless and absolutely unnecessary shame,” Mr Bondarev wrote.

In the interview, he said he had become disenchanted with the Russian government before the invasion, “when we weren’t such outcasts,” but that he stayed because of the decent pay and the interesting work trips and the people he met.

Russian state media did not immediately report on Mr Bondarev’s resignation, and the Foreign Ministry had not commented as the end of the working day in Moscow approached. Mr Bondarev, who is listed on the Russian mission as a counselor the United Nations websiteconfirmed his identity in a video call to The New York Times and by sending an image of his diplomatic passport.

Bondarev said what had disturbed him most at his workplace since the invasion was the casualness with which some of his fellow Russian diplomats talked about possible nuclear attacks on the West – even though they were working on arms control. On Russian state television, commentators have increasingly raised the specter of a nuclear conflict, portraying the fighting in Ukraine as a proxy war of the West against Russia.

“They think that if you hit a village in America with a nuclear attack, the Americans will immediately get scared and go to their knees begging for mercy,” Bondarev said, describing his colleagues’ comments. “That’s the way a lot of our people think, and I’m afraid this is the line they are taking to Moscow.”

He said that when he suggested to his colleagues that they might not want their children to live in “radioactive ruins”, they would chuckle and say that “this is about values” – echoing Mr Putin, who in his attempt his invasion has often described Russia as fighting for “traditional values” against a decadent West.

But Mr Bondarev said Mr Putin’s war was really about the president’s attempt to stay in power amid a stagnant economy and mounting public discontent, and a lack of an ideology to mobilize the masses.

“How can you keep and maintain power without losing it in the face of such objective difficulties?” he asked. “You have to invent a war.”

Mr Bondarev said he had no firm career plans yet. On LinkedIn, after posting his resignation statement, he wrote: “Vacancies are welcome.”

Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed to reporting from Geneva.


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