October 19, 2022 10:11 am
We will certainly never know what is “in Vladimir Putin’s head”, to take up a question asked countless times after the invasion of Ukraine. But at least today we have the opportunity to peek behind the facade of the “Putin system” thanks to a Russian diplomat who has decided to slam the door.
Boris Bondarev, who resigned from the Russian diplomatic mission in Geneva in the spring, has just published a long, very personal article in the American magazine Foreign Affairs, in which he recounts his path, the evolution of his thinking and the slow transformation of the system which has long served.
The picture presented by Bondarev is not so much that of an ideology imposed by force, but that of a slow “putinization” of spirits, at least in the context of the foreign ministry, where the former diplomat worked for twenty years ( almost the same duration as Putin’s reign). Bondarev recounts how the intellectual freedom of the beginning gave way first to blind obedience, then to the need to show one’s loyalty and finally to lying to say the things they wanted to hear “in the upper echelons”.
The former diplomat reports how his colleagues and himself have progressively understood that it was necessary to repeat the propaganda dictated by the Kremlin “like parrots”, not to convince the rest of the world but to reassure the regime of the goodness of its positions.
According to Bondarev, Russian diplomats knew very well that Putin appreciated his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov because he always answered “yes” and told the president what he wanted to hear. Similarly, Russian diplomatic telegrams had to report to Moscow the extent to which the Kremlin’s positions were understood abroad and above all to minimize any information to the contrary.
Bondarev confines himself to illustrating the main flaw of totalitarian regimes: loyalty over competence
Not surprisingly, writes Bondarev, Putin believed in the prospect of an easy conquest of Ukraine. If only he had asked his government for an honest assessment, however, he would have understood that it was a mission impossible. According to the former diplomat, who has dealt with military affairs in the past, many knew that the Russian army was not as powerful as Westerners believed, but no one dared to say it.
Bondarev does not intend to reveal state secrets. He limits himself to illustrating the main flaw of totalitarian regimes: loyalty over competence. This has become the rule in Putin’s Russia and the same happens in Xi Jinping’s China, who was crowned for a third term this week.
Who would have dared to point out to Putin that his army was not as strong as he thought? Who will dare stand up to Xi over his ineffective “zero covid” policy? Pyramidal systems, with only one end and several transmission belts, often appear effective, but they are only machines for obeying, not for reflecting.
Bondarev’s testimony inevitably makes one think of The rhino, Ionesco’s play in which conformism leads to totalitarianism. This is also one of the interpretations of Putin’s failure in Ukraine.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)