Former diplomat Boris Bondarev: Russia hoped Switzerland would ‘help circumvent sanctions’

Russian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Gennady Gatilov, at UN the oral update on Mariupol at the Human Rights Council, on 16 June, 2022. (Credit: UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

In May, Boris Bondarev became the first Russian diplomat to resign over his country’s invasion of Ukraine. The former counsellor to the United Nations in Geneva and disarmament expert tells of Moscow’s disappointment with Switzerland and where its military forces stand.

Should Moscow’s refusal to let Switzerland act as mediator or representative of Ukraine’s interests in Russia really come as a surprise? Bern’s announcement at the beginning of March that it would adopt European sanctions drew shock and anger in Moscow and in the corridors of its diplomatic mission to the UN in Geneva.

“They were very angry. Switzerland had broken its neutrality. They thought it would not take sides. They spoke of treason. They hadn’t anticipated it,” says Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat in Geneva. They hadn’t anticipated? The Swiss Federal Council certainly wavered for a few days before deciding, but did Moscow really think that Switzerland would remain on the sidelines over the invasion of Ukraine? “Of course. They wanted Switzerland to help in some way circumvent the sanctions. They hoped it would remain a haven for Russian business, whether legal or not,” he says. “It was very naive, but that's how it really happened.” Besides, this whole war is “the story of a miscalculation, a misinterpretation, a misunderstanding of the world”.

A ‘bloody ignominy’

On 23 May, Bondarev posted a message on Facebook announcing his resignation from the Russian diplomatic service. He felt “ashamed” of Putin's war.  “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 share in this bloody, witless and absolutely needless ignominy any longer,” the post read. Since then, he has been living in seclusion in Switzerland, where he applied for asylum and is waiting for the document certifying his new status as a political refugee. He’s currently under the protection of the federal police. “I trust the evaluation of the authorities and for the time being they believe that security measures are necessary,” he says. Once this crucial document is in his hands, it will be time to learn French and search for a new job.

Contacted through encrypted messaging, Bondarev tells his story via video call. He doesn’t say more about the Russian mission with which he broke all contact – except to recall that ambassador Gennady Gatilov is a former classmate and a friend of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, whose drift alongside Vladimir Putin never ceases to surprise those who knew him at another time. On 4 March, that same Gatilov, expressed to the international press his “surprise” and “disappointment” that Switzerland had “chosen a different path” by showing its solidarity with the EU. In public, he remains prudent,  even expressing hope that Bern could still change its mind and use its neutrality “differently”. But a bridge has been burnt.

Russia’s inferior defence technology

Bondarev speaks more readily about the development of the war. He is not a military expert and does not have access to specific sources, he says, but he is a specialist in arms control and nuclear disarmament, a field in which he has been working in Geneva since 2019 in the framework of the Conference on Disarmament. His analysis of the current state of the Russian army is not reassuring. But let's go back to 24 February, when Vladimir Putin launched his troops against the “Ukrainian fascists”. Like everyone else, Bondarev, a history buff, didn’t want to believe it. “It was obvious that an intervention would have a lot of implications and a huge cost. It was obvious that the Ukrainians would not welcome the Russian army with flowers and that they would not desert their country. It was clear that the west would react with force. And I was equally certain, because of my work, that the Russian army was not as strong as it might appear,” he says.

Russia’s military has an Achilles heel, according to Bondarev: “Its high-tech weapons are not high-tech. The Russian army is far inferior to western armies in terms of high-precision weapons.” This is due to sanctions imposed by the west in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moscow’s military modernisation depends on electronic parts produced in Europe, the United States or Japan. “That's why a lot of missiles hit houses,” Bondarev observes.“There may be some reasons for targeting civilian targets, but this is mostly due to technological failures.”

Putin has failed to rebuild his military industry, which dates back to the Soviet era. “Even aircraft, which are the pride of the Russian military, are not state-of-the-art,” Bondarev says. The fact that Russian officers communicate on the battlefield via WhatsApp or cell phone, without encryption, is an indication of their inferior technology. ”This is part of all these miscalculations. This campaign was planned to last three, four or five days. For anyone with knowledge of the battleground, it was clear that it was a lie.”

An original and longer version of this article was first published in French by Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions.