WASHINGTON — As the Russian invasion of Ukraine began to falter last spring, a colleague of Boris Bondarev at the Russian mission at the U.N. in Geneva suggested that Russia should obliterate a Washington, D.C., suburb with a nuclear strike. “Americans will shit their pants and rush to beg us for peace,” the official told Bondarev, until then a career Russian diplomat.
Bondarev pointed out that wiping out Bethesda or Chevy Chase, Md., from the face of the Earth might occasion a proportional response from the U.S., but the colleague was sure that Washington would be cowed into submission.
The exchange, for Bondarev, was a sign of how deluded Russia, and many Russians, had become.
Having spent 20 years working in the foreign ministry, Bondarev was now waiting for his wife to return from Moscow with the stray cat they had recently adopted.
Soon after she did, Bondarev resigned, becoming the most-high-profile official to leave his post because of the war. "Never have I been so ashamed of my country," he wrote in a statement condemning Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. At a time when most Russians feared acknowledging that their country was at war — the mandated Kremlin phrase was, and remains, spetzoperatsiya, or special operation — his public renunciation of his homeland made international news.
Now, Bondarev has provided a fuller account of his decision to resign, as well as a broad condemnation of the country Russia has become after two decades of increasingly autocratic rule by Vladimir Putin. "The war shows that Russia is no longer just dictatorial and aggressive; it has become a fascist state," he writes in a lengthy essay for Foreign Affairs that was published online earlier this week. It is currently the most-read item on the magazine's website.
The essay has earned condemnation from the Kremlin, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova comparing Bondarev at a Thursday press briefing to Gen. Andrey Vlasov, a Soviet World War II general who became a notorious Nazi collaborator and who was executed for treason by the Soviets after the war. "I would like to say to you that he is on a very different scale to Vlasov," Zakharova said.
Zakharova also excoriated the Reuters journalist who asked about the allegations Bondarev makes; those allegations have been scrupulously avoided by Russian media outlets, not to mention the Kremlin officials whom the former diplomat blames for failing to challenge Putin’s deepening delusions. “I would sincerely advise you to keep to journalism,” the combative spokeswoman said.
Bondarev was born in 1980 into the relatively comfortable Soviet intelligentsia; his maternal grandfather had been a military hero, and the family still lived in the roomy Moscow apartment the grandfather had been assigned after the “Great Patriotic War,” as World War II is known in Russia. Intending to eventually follow his mother into academia (she taught English; his father was a businessman), Bondarev joined the Foreign Ministry in 2000 as an intern. There, he was stunned to encounter “a collection of tired, middle-aged bosses who idly performed unglamorous tasks,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Vladimir Putin had just assumed power and was not yet the powerful autocrat who would tolerate no dissent. But from the start, the perceptive young president was able to benefit from the lingering Soviet culture of unthinking compliance that rendered most government officials, even at the highest levels, powerless to confront their superiors.
Bondarev describes how, in 2002, he raised concerns about a communiqué from Moscow that was to be passed along to Cambodian officials. The document was riddled with typos, but his superior rebuked him for wanting to correct the mistakes. “They know better. Even if there are errors, it’s not up to us to correct the center,” Bondarev’s superior cautioned.
Bondarev argues that the same strain of fear kept high-ranking Kremlin deputies from challenging Putin, especially as he consolidated his power after returning to the presidency in 2012 following a four-year break from power mandated by the Russian Constitution (the constitution has since been changed).
The invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 led to sanctions that were far more damaging than Putin was ever given to understand. “The sanctions suddenly cut off our access to these products and left our military weaker than the West understood,” Bondarev writes. “But although it was clear to my team how these losses undermined Russia’s strength, the foreign ministry’s propaganda helped keep the Kremlin from finding out. The consequences of this ignorance are now on full display in Ukraine: the sanctions are one reason Russia has had so much trouble with its invasion.”
Willful blindness on the Kremlin’s part also ensured that loyal functionaries like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would nurture Putin’s delusion that the West would not stand up for Ukraine, and that victory over Kyiv would be swift. As the last eight months have shown, both of those assumptions turned out to be devastatingly false. Ukraine has for weeks been steadily pushing back Moscow’s forces, even in territory that Putin ceremoniously “annexed” as purportedly Russian soil.
Ultimately, Bondarev believes that only new leadership in the Kremlin, unencumbered by ties to the current regime, can save Russia from the increasing isolation and condemnation it now encounters. “But as long as Putin is in power,” he writes, “Ukraine will have no one in Moscow with whom to genuinely negotiate.”