A Russian Diplomat Resigns Over Ukraine Policy: Putting Conscience Over Career
More such protest resignations could bring down Putin's whole security state house of cards.
A lot of press attention is being given to Boris Bondarev, a mid-level, Geneva-based Russian diplomat specializing in arms control, who summarily quit out of protest over Russia’s war against Ukraine. In his open letter, Bondarev said,
For twenty 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. The aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia, with a bold letter Z crossing out all hopes and prospects for a prosperous free society in our country.
Those who conceived this war want only one thing - to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity.
I studied to be a diplomat and have been a diplomat for twenty years. The Ministry has become my home and family. But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless and absolutely needless ignominy.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry, he added, “is not about diplomacy,” but “warmongering, lies and hatred.” For good measure, he threw in some choice words about Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “a person who constantly broadcasts conflicting statements and threatens the world with nuclear weapons.”
Bondarev, who ended his statement with “job offers are welcome,” faces some risk for his action, ranging from punishment under laws that make it a crime to spread “false information” about Putin’s “special military operation,” to assassination by the vengeful Russian leader’s henchmen. But more such protest-resignations could signal a canary-in-the-coal mine danger to Putin, a threat that could bring down his whole security state house of cards.
As a former diplomat myself, I find Bondarev’s action incredibly courageous. There are reports of other Russian diplomats having quit over Ukraine policy, but choosing to do so quietly. On the one hand, this kind of skulking away is understandable, especially under a dictatorial regime. There’s one’s physical freedom, not to mention an onward career and family’s welfare to worry about. On the other hand, evil is defeated when those in authority take a stand against it. America’s first diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, warned us that “a man without courage is a knife without an edge” and that “it is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”
We went through our own diplomatic crisis of conscience recently during the Trump years when American Foreign Service officers, often confronted with instructions to pursue policies that were legally or morally questionable, had to answer for themselves whether merely to follow orders, or act on their consciences.
I was in touch with many FSO’s in that period, drawing on their insider insights in my reporting. To a person, they insisted on anonymity, some communicating only via encrypted emails out of well-founded fears of retribution by Trump and his thuggish minions. Most chose to keep their heads low, biding time until the Trump occupation ended. Foremost in their consideration were financial and future retirement security and college costs for their children. Some stated they wanted to exert whatever influence they could to temper Trump’s irresponsible policies and to help reconstitute a sound foreign policy after his departure.
Those who said they planned to leave the State Department following Trump’s election, overwhelmingly were officers in their 50s who opted to take early retirement with full benefits, and did so with no public protest. A small handful of younger officers did quit out of protest and did so with a media splash.
A number of U.S. diplomats resigned out of protest toward the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. In 1968, more than twice as many FSO’s resigned as entered the service. There were some resignations as well during the Second Gulf War.
Late UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “It is sometimes said that diplomats lack a moral compass, passively following the orders of bosses and regimes regardless of their political or ethical character — or lack thereof.” But it is those diplomats who, like Boris Bondarev, serve under repressive regimes, who display exceptional courage when acting on their conscience. After all, their very lives are on the line.
Some have paid with their lives. While internal opposition to Hitler focuses on Claus von Stauffenberg and his circle of military officers who conspired in a failed assassination plot against the Führer, a group of German diplomats was also complicit. The most interesting figure for me is Adam von Trott zu Solz. Also born into Prussian aristocracy, von Trott, a devout Christian, saw Nazism for the evil it was. Determined to help bring the Third Reich down, he joined the Nazi party in order gain access to the secrets and inner workings of the regime. At the same time, he served as a foreign policy advisor to a clandestine group of anti-Nazi intellectuals known as the Kreisau Circle, which coordinated with Stauffenberg. He met secretly with allied diplomats to pass on what he learned as well as the views of his fellow conspirators. After the bomb Stauffenberg placed in the Wolf’s Lair failed to kill Hitler, von Trott and his fellow diplomats were rounded up along with the involved Wehrmacht officers, given a kangaroo trial and hanged. He reportedly said, “It’s living that makes sense of dying.”
Diplomats also helped save Jews during the Holocaust. Between 1933 and 1945 diplomats representing 27 countries rescued Jews in more than 35 geographic areas. These included diplomats of Axis nations as well of neutral and Allied countries. Japan's vice consul in Vilnius, Chiune Sugihara helped some 6,000 Jews flee Europe by issuing them exit visas to Japan. German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz covertly helped arrange the mass flight to Sweden of almost the entire Danish Jewish population and other Nazi targets, totaling some 8,000, in 1943. Swiss diplomat (and U.S. immigrant) Carl Lutz saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews, including 10,000 children, through his own “protection letters.” At one point, Lutz even jumped into the Danube River to save a bleeding woman, a victim of Hungarian fascists. At least three American diplomats are recognized for taking extraordinary measures to save Jewish lives as well.
In The Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt said, “Conscience is the anticipation of the fellow who awaits you if and when you come home.” In other words, one’s actions should not be based on society’s widely accepted norms at a given period of time, but rather on whether one will be able to live with oneself when contemplating one’s words and deeds. Can you look at yourself in the mirror without shame?
Apparently Boris Bondarev could not. May there be many more such courageous Russian officials.
The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.