An important new development reveals the interaction of psychology and politics among Russian leaders, especially Russian attitudes toward their own nuclear threats. This internal information can help us in our overall American response to these threats.
A mid-level Russian diplomat concerned mainly with nuclear weapons resigned from his position with a scathing exposure of his colleagues’ immoral attitudes and distortions of reality in relation to the weapons. The defector, Boris Bondarev, was Counselor of the Russian Mission to the United Nations at Geneva, with a LinkedIn identification as a “specialist in arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation.”
Bondarev condemns Russian leaders
In his statements of resignation and a subsequent phone interview with The New York Times, Bondarev condemns Putin for unleashing a war that is a crime against both the Ukrainian and Russian people. But he also blames his fellow diplomats for “not passing along the information that we should have—for smoothing it out and presenting it as though everything was great.” He goes on to say that the former colleagues failed to carry out their responsibility to provide accurate information and instead produced “propaganda clichés in the spirit of Soviet newspapers of the 1930s” so that “a system has been built that deceives itself, (Italics mine)
Most revealingly, he accuses the majority of his colleagues, including those working in arms control, of speaking casually and falsely about nuclear weapons: “They think that if you hit some village in America with a nuclear strike, then the Americans will immediately get scared and run to beg for mercy on their knees.” And he describes those colleagues as dismissive when he asks whether they would wish their own children to experience “radioactive ruins.”
Bondarev sees this pattern prevailing at the highest official level, in the behavior of Sergey V. Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Formerly a respected professional, Lavrov became “a person who constantly broadcasts conflicting statements and threatens the world (that is, Russia, too) with nuclear weapons!”
As a result, Bondarev declares that Putin and his cohorts “got Ukraine wrong…got the West wrong…basically got everything wrong.” This has contributed to an echoing of nuclear threat throughout the Russian media.
And yet in his interview with The New York Times, Bondarev suggests that at least some of his former diplomatic colleagues share his thoughts, a minority, but “not so few.” He also claims to have known several people who previously quietly resigned. And we are aware of the significant prior Russian defection of a climate envoy named Anatoly Chubais, who was responsible for issues of sustainable development. Chubais made no public statement but was thought to have opposed the war.
Bondarev in connection with nuclear weapons and Chubais in connection with climate change represent at least a thread of Russian recognition of the planetary reality of these catastrophes. Both men understand that they affect not just Russia and America but humankind. The planetary thread also exists in Russian media, as evidenced by the courageous behavior of a few broadcasters who criticized the universal impact of the war.
Efforts like Putin’s to own reality—to establish milieu control on a large scale—can have a considerable success but can never be fully realized. Among developments that threaten Russian control of communication are the increasing knowledge of Russian military deaths and the experience of great strains in the economy.
What can America do?
Is there anything America can do that is psychologically and politically helpful? In relation to the weapons, we have in the past made our own threats and remain the only nation that has exploded the weapons on a human population. In the present situation, President Biden, to his credit, has refrained from nuclear counterthreats and he and his advisors have sought to dampen the nuclear rhetoric. But they have also made belligerent projections of regime change in Russia and the goal of “weakening” Russia by means of a long war.
We’d do better to make greater efforts to connect with Russia’s fragile thread of planetary awareness (such awareness cannot be completely absent even in Putin), making use of that awareness in other countries and in international bodies including, importantly. the United Nations. Military help to Ukraine should be accompanied by more active efforts, however difficult, to engage Putin and also Zelenskyy in peacemaking.
Bondarev’s revelations about the Russian “system…that deceives itself” is not encouraging. But that should not prevent us from pressing for a ceasefire agreement that includes a rejection of nuclear use along with a rejection of nuclear diplomacy.