Boris Bondarev: the Kremlin sees Switzerland as under US orders

Boris Bondarev, right, pictured during a UN meeting in Geneva in May 2022. © Mark Henley

Boris Bondarev is the only Russian diplomat to have resigned from his post after Moscow launched a military invasion of Ukraine. The former adviser to Russia’s Geneva-based United Nations mission now lives under Swiss protection. He spoke to SWI* about his decision and the ongoing war.

This content was published on September 7, 2022 minutes

SWI Do you feel better since you resigned?

Boris Bondarev: I feel better, above all as the moral aspect goes. As for my daily life, I’d say I am OK.

SWI: What actions did the Swiss state take to ensure your security?

B.B.: I have a permit to remain in Switzerland. As far as security measures to protect me are concerned I’d rather not speak about them, this is a sensitive matter.

SWI: Have you received any threats since you spoke publicly against the war in Ukraine?

B.B.: No, I didn’t.

SWI: Many Russians speak about feelings of guilt since the beginning of the war. Have you ever had this feeling?

B.B.: There is a line between the concepts of “guilt” and “responsibility”. I believe one is only guilty of their own actions or lack thereof. It is incorrect to blame the whole society or the whole [Russian] population for the war with Ukraine. There are specific persons who are guilty of this war, those who took the decision, those who prepared it, and those who are now actually killing people and committing war crimes. I agree that society does have a moral responsibility for what happens within it, but it is not responsible in a legal or criminal sense. 

As for me, I recognise that I have my part in this responsibility. When we think of it now, for example, the events that led to a reinforcement of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s power, from 2000 onwards, they were not understood in the same way we understand them now. Personally, I didn’t pay much attention to this back then either. There already was this feeling, that there is not much one individual can do to influence things, and if someone at the top decides something they will have it done, whatever the rest of society thinks. This is how Russia’s society has worked since Soviet times.

SWI: How did the Russian foreign ministry turn into a ‘ministry of lies and hatred’ as you yourself called it?

B.B.: The foreign ministry is part of the state apparatus. When the country decided to choose the path of confrontation with the West, something that happened before [the annexation of] Crimea, between the late 2000s and early 2010s, for this policy to receive public support, the state needed to launch propaganda efforts. This propaganda began to use old Soviet ideas about NATO aggression, about a West that wants to enslave Russia and obtain access to its resources. Obviously, all these ideas began to spread, and the foreign ministry has been affected by them. They gradually became the basis for the country’s foreign policy. We had to spread these ideas in other countries and then report back to Moscow that our propaganda was working and that Russia’s policy was widely accepted and supported. This over time gained a larger share of the activities of the ministry. The understanding of the world that the Russian government has is not as it should be. This led to the recent catastrophic, criminal mistake of starting this war.

SWI: Why did you stay at service all these years and leave only now?

B.B.: On the one hand, I saw and understood the things that went wrong. On the other hand, I thought, well, some errors are made here, the conclusions are wrong there, but I tried to do what I could in my position, to give a better analysis of the situation, and more accurate information. As long as there is no direct suffering from all this – no war – one can accept it. I don’t try to pose as a righteous hero, but when Russia attacked Ukraine the line between good and evil was crossed.

SWI: The red line was the killing of civilians?

B.B.: Correct. During peacetime, when I was taking the floor at the UN, where I was supposed to state that Russia is a humane country, that our policy is right, and that our opponents are wrong, it could be bearable, although not so pleasant. Many other countries criticise each other on a regular basis, but without bombing their opponent and doing other awful things.

SWI: Do your colleagues believe in what they need to report to Moscow? “The rotting West; a NATO attack is just around the corner; Russia is not taken into account” etc.

B.B.: There are people who don’t believe what they say, some may “force” themselves to believe, because psychologically it is very difficult to constantly try to persuade others of something you don’t believe in. This can lead to serious mental health issues. I am convinced that part of the people who stay at their jobs and implement the current policy had to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, that there was no other choice, and that even if the situation has become difficult, the government took the right decision as it had all the information. This is a consequence of people not wanting to take responsibility and making decisions based on their own analysis. But of course, there are also people who sincerely believe in all the statements Russia makes. There are plenty of those, unfortunately.

SWI: Why didn’t any other Russian diplomats follow your example? Are some of them afraid?

B.B.: Maybe not fear of repression, but rather a fear of uncertainty. It will not be easy for them to find another job in Russia after that. If one is on assignment abroad, it is even more tricky. I don’t really know what I will be doing with my life in the future (laughs). Just imagine working at the embassy in some European country, with a decent salary and other perks and privileges of being a diplomat, and resigning from that job to find yourself in total uncertainty. Someone who has family and kids will also think about whether they will be able to support them in such a scenario. 

SWI: Why does the Kremlin fail to understand the spirit of national liberation driving Ukrainian revolutions and always see “the hand of the West” behind them?

B.B.: This is because the education of our leadership makes them unable to understand such things. Most of them are former KGB agents who have a particular worldview. What is the KGB? It is a secret police, whose task was to find enemies of the state and of the Communist Party, especially within its ranks. They are always on the hunt for conspiracies, and people whose task is to find conspiracies end up seeing conspiracies everywhere. In their mind, if a brick falls from a building, it is not because of a lack of maintenance, but certainly a plot by someone, bricks do not fall just as a coincidence. They consider all post-Soviet states to be “artificial” formations that are unable to make a policy of their own. It is not uncommon in Russia to think European countries are unable to decide on their own, that the European Union always does as [US President] Joe Biden says.

SWI: What opinion do they have on Switzerland?

B.B.: Also following US orders. In their worldview there are a few spheres of influence: there is the Western world governed by the US; Asia is governed by China; and there is some sort of Eurasia, that should be governed by Russia. This is a very primitive worldview. 

SWI: The West supports Ukraine with weapons and money. What more could have been done? And particularly by Switzerland?

B.B.: If the US sends several thousands of their servicemen to fight alongside Ukrainians, Russia may make some really unwise moves, such as bombing Ukraine with nuclear weapons. Who knows how they will react? And it is something Putin plays on, suggesting that nothing is off-limits and that he is ready to use nuclear weapons. As nobody wants a nuclear war in Europe, there is a complicated psychological game underway. If nuclear arms are used, the conflict will reach a whole new level and have a deep impact all over the world. They [in the West] want to achieve their objectives, while avoiding being hit too hard. But even Putin does not know what will happen if he goes that far. I suspect few people have thought out all the possible consequences of a nuclear war, including those who may take the decision and carry it out. If there was a certainty that Putin wouldn’t play the nuclear card, then direct military involvement could be possible. 

SWI: Russia is a world champion of sanctions. There are more than 7,000 sanctions against the Russian Federation, more than against Iran. Will those sanctions affect the war in Ukraine?

B.B.: As long as Putin receives billions of dollars daily from oil and gas sales, he can drown the country in waste, but keep waging this war. He bet all he had on this war. The only way to stop this war is to defeat Russia and this should be done by the Ukrainian military above all. And the West has a duty to actively help them.

Switzerland,  like any other European country, should strictly control that sanctions are fully implemented. But I would like to call on Swiss people to provide support for Ukraine too, financially and militarily. The West’s hesitation is perceived in Moscow as a lack of unity, a lack of readiness to take serious steps, and a fear of economic consequences. This motivates Putin to continue the war. 

SWI: Can you imagine how this war will end?

B.B.: I have no idea, but I can only hope it will end with Ukraine’s victory, which will allow it to restore its sovereignty, while Russia’s army will withdraw from Ukraine with shame. And this will make Putin’s regime shake. 

*Boris Bondarev spoke to our journalist in Russian.

Edited by Mark Livingston.

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