|Julia Ioffe: When did you first start having doubts?
Boris Bondarev: When you start working, you don’t even really think about it. Then you slowly get older, get more experience, and you start noticing things and start asking questions, especially when you have the opportunity to compare your system to those of others. And you see how your system is different, and not usually for the better. When I was on my third assignment in Moscow, working on disarmament, I traveled to other countries, worked with colleagues from the West, and I saw that proposals there come from the bottom up. Some American doing business abroad comes to their representative of the State Department and suggests something, asks for some kind of help. The State Department thinks it over and comes up with some kind of resolution. We don’t have this. Our Foreign Ministry just makes decisions based on nothing, with no analysis. They just come up with some initiative so that they can say to their bosses back in Moscow, we did this, we did that. No one considers whether this is needed, whether it’s helpful or harmful.
Most Americans don’t understand how important this is in the Russian state system: that everyone has to vysluzhyt’sya, manage up and brown-nose, making sure you please your bosses and that they notice you. If you’re, say, a criminal investigator, that means opening unnecessary criminal investigations so that your numbers look better and the bosses give you a promotion. What did this look like at the Foreign Ministry?
It’s extremely important. You have to constantly be showing your superiors that you’re doing a good job, that you stand out. Then you’re moved up the ladder. So, for example, I’m reading what my colleague Dmitry Polyanskii [the first deputy permanent Russian representative at the U.N.] is writing from New York. He used to be a normal, intelligent person. Now, I read his tweets and it’s insane. It’s just pure propaganda, with some notes of psychosis. But he’s doing this so that the bosses in Moscow notice him and so that he gets a big, important job in Moscow. It’s very important in our system. Because our system is very opaque and it doesn’t change, unlike the American system. I don’t know the American system too well, but it seems to me that American civil servants, when they make some kind of decision, they take into account what American voters think. In our system, no one cares about our voters. The only thing that matters is that your immediate supervisor notices you and thinks highly of you. That’s it.
And your bosses are doing the same with their bosses, and that kind of logic goes all the way up to the very top, right?
Absolutely. They know what to write [in their cables] so that the bosses are happy. There’s a saying [in the Russian foreign service], You have to write it so that Moscow likes it. And it’s not just what you’re writing, but how you do it that’s important. It’s how you make them feel, what reaction you elicit. But that’s not how it’s supposed to work. If you’re a diplomat writing a cable, you should be sending information that the recipient can analyze and use it to make a decision. But here, you’re already praising them and their decision.
What was the picture that the Foreign Ministry wanted you to paint for them?
That we’re right. That we’re winning. That we’re the sole bearers of truth. In the last few years, it was important to spin everything, no matter how it had actually turned out, as yet another victory for Russia. For example, when the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with just five countries voting against it, I have no doubt that our mission in New York spun it for Moscow, saying that this was a victory because, even though an insignificant number of countries [141, in fact –JI] voted for the resolution, these five countries that voted against it undermined the plans of the West for a unanimous vote.
Do the higher ups in Moscow really believe this? They know what it is because they write the same stuff up the chain, no?
That’s the most incredible part. Even though everyone understands everything, they still continue doing it. As for whether they believe it, it doesn’t really matter. All the information goes up to the top, and the most important thing is whether they like it up there. If they don’t, then next time you’ll write something they do like. There’s no system to check whether any of this is true or not. Checking facts doesn’t interest anyone. It’s not information, it’s propaganda. And this propaganda goes from here to Moscow, and from Moscow to here. They built a system that propagandizes itself. It lives inside the propaganda, and believes it.
It’s a great system because it’s a hermetically sealed system. It exists outside of reality and it doesn’t need reality. It exists by itself. And there’s no way to change it.
There’s no way to change it?
Only if you break it down and build a new one. With new people and new principles, one that is transparent and where power changes hands.
The tone that the Foreign Ministry takes, in its social media as well as in the way spokeswoman [and former Jen Psaki nemesis] Maria Zakharova speaks, in that nasty, rude tone—where does that come from? Is that a directive from the top?
In the last couple of years of working in the Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova has managed to really irritate the entire Ministry staff, even up to the deputy minister. I don’t know how she was able to move up like this. It’s really puzzling. But I guess that means there’s a demand for it at the top, where they love this kind of street talk, this gopnik style, and they think the people will like it, that she can say it so harshly and bluntly. Or maybe it’s because she’s good at using Facebook and social media. The ministry leadership often doesn’t even know how to turn on a computer.
I’ve heard they’re not very good at technology, yes.
They have assistants who can print things out. They can even print out tweets and YouTube videos.
How did you react to the annexation of Crimea in 2014?
Like many people then, I didn’t think much about it. It didn’t affect my work that much. I was based in Moscow and working on disarmament. I didn’t have much of a position on it. In 2017, I went to Kyiv for work and I was so surprised that everyone in Kyiv spoke in Russian, there was no aggression toward Russians. The atmosphere was absolutely wonderful. By then, I understood that our policy toward Ukraine was strange, and I couldn’t understand what drove it. Why was it so terrible that it was developing toward the West?
What is it about Ukraine? Why is Putin so obsessed with it?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on in people’s heads up there. I think, for them, it is something sacred. What is the Soviet Union—or the Russian empire, whatever it is they think they’re building—without Ukraine? Or maybe they were afraid that if Ukraine became a success story, proof that you can build a good life outside of Moscow’s influence, that would be a blow to Russia. The problem, of course, is that our leadership keeps making their biggest fears a reality.
This is still a point of contention in the West, so I wanted to ask you what you thought about it. To what extent is this war about NATO expansion?
NATO is just the bogeyman of these old men who graduated from the K.G.B. academy in Soviet times. And to this day, in the F.S.B. academy, they teach all this: the Dulles plan [a conspiracy theory that the U.S. planned to destroy the U.S.S.R.], the Masonic conspiracy, all this nonsense. This is the picture of the world that these people have, that NATO is evil, it is satanic, and it is just bad. Why is it bad? No one has ever been able to explain it. It does reduce Russia’s room to maneuver, it’s true. Without NATO, you can attack Ukraine, but when it comes with the Baltics, now it’s harder. Although, maybe they’ll get to that, too.
You think it’ll come to that? That Russia will invade the Baltics?
I don’t think anything. I just think that the level of predictability in Russian policy is not very high right now.
Why do you think Putin decided to invade Ukraine and why now?
If the enemy is NATO, then you have to attack NATO. What does Ukraine have to do with it? But seriously, I think that [political commentator Ekaterina] Schulmann is right when she says that there is a new generation coming up for whom NATO doesn’t register at all, a generation that is very Westernized and doesn’t see NATO and the West as the enemy. And, in the minds of these Kremlin elders, this new generation will come to power and destroy everything they’ve built in this new Soviet Union. So they have to act now or else it will be too late. Maybe that’s why.
Some of the diplomatic negotiations that went on all winter to try to prevent this war happened where you are posted, in Geneva. What did you think of these negotiations? Was the Russian side negotiating in good faith or was it all just window dressing?
It was just for show, just to show that we’re negotiating even though, in reality, there were no negotiations happening. The American delegation arrived ready to negotiate on the questions where they saw room to negotiate. The Russian side came to pound their fist on the table and make ultimatums. That’s it. For the last few years, our diplomacy, at least in the areas where I worked and was able to observe it, has become extremely linear and absolutely rigid, and absolutely not allowing any concessions. It’s our way or the highway. Because only weaklings make concessions.
When these December demands got to us, we had no idea where they came from. No one in the Foreign Ministry knew who wrote them. Well, we knew who wrote them, but it wasn’t the Foreign Ministry.
So who wrote them?
The presidential administration sent them to us. But obviously it wasn’t the presidential administration that cooked them up either. It was a certain person. Our chief diplomat. [Bondarev sighs heavily.]
Yes, I remember that, at the time, my sources in the State Department and the White House felt that the Russian Foreign Ministry was not in the loop and had no control over or understanding of what was happening.
I agree, yes. And the beginning of the war was also a huge surprise for everyone.
How did you find out that the war had started?
From the news. On the morning of February 24th.
No one in the mission in Geneva was warned ahead of time?
I don’t think so, no. It was all so highly classified that few people in Russia knew. Why would you send information so sensitive abroad where it can be intercepted? I don’t think anyone really thought it would happen.
How did your colleagues react on the 24th?
Many of them were beaming, just beaming. Finally, finally we’ll show these Nazis! They hadn’t been told till a few days prior that the Ukrainians were now Nazis, but that didn’t get in the way of their patriotic pride. It wasn’t even a hatred of Ukraine, I think. I think it was all about flipping the bird to America. They hate us, we hate them, they’re stronger, of course, though we don’t really understand why because Russia is the coolest, and we’re going to show you and now what’re you gonna do?
When did you make the decision to quit?
On February 24. If before I could convince myself that I should just stay a little longer, tell myself that it was still tolerable, all those self-justifications, on that day, it became clear.
What was it like during the three months before you actually quit?
It was nauseating, frankly. All these conversations with my colleagues about when will we just hit the Americans already, or when will we drop chemical weapons on Mariupol to smoke out all those Nazis? I thought, my God. This wasn’t just anyone discussing this. These people were specialists, people who knew what nuclear weapons are. They know what this means, and yet they were tossing this around with such lightness, it was shocking. I would say, You realize that if we hit America with a nuclear weapon, they’ll retaliate in kind? Do you want your kids to live among radioactive ruins? And they’d say, Nah, they wouldn’t dare. They’re cowards. These are people who lived and worked in America for several years, and yet they obviously have no understanding of what America really is.
If people at my level are saying this, then you can imagine what people are saying in Moscow, at higher levels. There is a high probability that they think this, too, that we can hit them but they’ll be too scared [to retaliate].
Do you think the Kremlin’s nuclear threat is real?
I would like to think that it isn’t, but honestly, I think we have to keep it in mind because it is quite possible.
Do you think there are more people like you inside the Foreign Ministry?
Thankfully, yes. I think you could find a few dozen.
That’s it? A few dozen in the entire Russian Foreign Ministry?
I don’t know. It’s really hard right now. You have to be very close to a person to know what they really think, because the mood right now is that we’re all marching in lockstep. I know of a few colleagues, including former military officers, who quietly quit in the first weeks of the war. But these people exist.
How do you think this ends?
I think it ends well, without a nuclear war. It depends on whether the West continues helping Ukraine. But honestly speaking, our society is so warped that I would like to see some kind of coup, where someone comes in and gets these paranoid old men out of the Kremlin. On the other hand, if it’s the military that does it, it might be even worse, because they might come in and say, Okay, let’s really show America. And if nothing changes, then we’ll continue to rot and slowly turn into a kind of North Korea.
You don’t see any other alternatives? What about Alexey Navalny?
Navalny is a legend. I really respect him for his bravery, his courage, that he came back to Russia. My wife and I still argue about whether he should have come back.
Would you vote for him?
I already voted for him—when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013. But first, he needs to be let out of prison, as do all the political prisoners, and be allowed to campaign and organize, and then the voters can decide.
Today, Henry Kissinger said that Ukraine should find a compromise with Russia and cede some of its territory. What do you think of that? Is it time to negotiate a ceasefire?
No way. You can’t. You just can’t make peace now. If you do, it will be seen as a Russian victory. Russia will spend a couple years scraping together some resources and then it will do this again. This won’t teach them anything. Only a total and clear defeat that is obvious to everyone will teach them.
That’s why Putin is so scared of losing, that’s why the nuclear threat keeps coming up, because it’s his last trump card. That’s why I think it’s so important to make clear to these people who think, we can hit America or Poland with a nuclear weapon and nothing will happen to us, to show them that, yes, it will. As soon as your finger starts creeping toward the nuclear button, something will happen. That’s the only way.