The resignation this week of veteran Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev over the invasion of Ukraine is an embarrassment for the Kremlin, but fear prevents most Russian officials from voicing dissent, according to analysts.
The 41-year-old Bondarev forged a 20-year career in the Russian diplomatic service, including postings in Cambodia and Mongolia. Until this week, he worked at the Russian mission to the United Nations in Geneva, focusing on Moscow’s role in the Conference on Disarmament.
Bondarev confirmed his resignation Monday in a letter posted on Facebook and LinkedIn. “For 20 years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24 of this year," he wrote, referring to the date Russia launched its latest invasion of Ukraine.
He described the invasion, which Moscow refers to as a special military operation, as “a crime against the Ukrainian people and the people of Russia.”
“Those who conceived of this war want only one thing: to stay in power forever … to achieve that, they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes,” he wrote.
Speaking to the Associated Press after his resignation, Bondarev said he was left with no choice.
“Of course it worries (me), Ukraine, as it is a pivotal moment because there is no choice after that, there is only one choice - to leave, to quit. (I) don't know for now what I'm going to do next. I'm thinking about it, but I think if I have to go back to Russia, then the prospects may be not very pleasant.”
The veteran diplomat said he had raised concerns with superiors in Moscow. “The response was that everything is going according to plan, it's all right and that the government and the president know what they're doing,” he said.
The resignation will be embarrassing for the Kremlin, says Valery Solovei, a former professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where he taught several of Russia’s diplomats.
“This is a very bad sign for the Kremlin because they were… absolutely sure in loyalty of their Russian foreign office, because usually its men are very loyal. I think that he (Bondarev) reflects the general emotion of many of his colleagues in the Foreign Office, but it doesn’t mean that they are ready to follow,” Solovei told VOA.
Moscow has since conducted an urgent review of its diplomatic staff, according to Solovei.
“There was a report made by Russian security to the president. And according to the report, there was a list which consists of a hundred persons in the Russian Foreign Office, which are potentially disloyal to the Kremlin. And that's something very, very new.
“There will be more control outside the country and maybe some who are on the list, who were included in the list as potentially disloyal, will be removed from their embassies outside or outside the country to Moscow,” Solovei said. VOA is unable to independently verify the existence of such a list.
The Kremlin is embarrassed - but won’t be panicking following Bondarev’s very public resignation, says political analyst Alex Titov of Queen’s University Belfast.
“I wouldn't expect them to have mass resignations,” Titov told VOA. “Diplomats are a special caste in a sense; they are selected for, they (the government) use their loyalty in many ways. They also have a lot of benefits. And they are professionals, which are attuned to this idea of hostility with the West.”
“If you remember with Belarus, there were much more high-profile resignations when there was uncertainty about whether Lukashenko would survive in August 2020 (after the government crackdown on pro-democracy protests). You had several ambassadors resigning.”
“Nothing like that happens in Russia. So it is a bad sign something like this happens for the Kremlin, but at the same time I don't think it would kind of set off alarm bells necessarily,” Titov said.
Boris Bondarev told the Associated Press that he fears for his safety. Under President Vladimir Putin’s rule, several dissidents living overseas have been killed or targeted by the Russian state, although Moscow denies such actions. The Kremlin enforces loyalty, says Valery Solovei.
“Fear. Fear and strong control. Speakers against Putin are under threat, under potential threat, and they know it perfectly,” Solovei said.