The Undignified Fall of Russia’s Once-Dignified Diplomatic Corps

Russian diplomats were once viewed with begrudging respect in the West. Now they’re seen as irrelevant mouthpieces for Putin’s war in Ukraine.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gives an annual press conference on Russian diplomacy in Moscow on Jan. 14. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine stunned the world as it ignited the biggest land war in Europe since World War II. Also stunned, it turns out, was at least one of Moscow’s own diplomats, who had been left in the dark about his president’s revanchist ambitions in Ukraine.

“I didn’t believe that the invasion would take place, I wanted to believe that it was a diplomatic game,” Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who served at Moscow’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva until earlier this year, told Foreign Policy.

In a resignation letter in May, Bondarev announced his disgust with the war and his decision to resign from the Russian foreign ministry. “[N]ever have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24,” he wrote.

Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine stunned the world as it ignited the biggest land war in Europe since World War II. Also stunned, it turns out, was at least one of Moscow’s own diplomats, who had been left in the dark about his president’s revanchist ambitions in Ukraine.

“I didn’t believe that the invasion would take place, I wanted to believe that it was a diplomatic game,” Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who served at Moscow’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva until earlier this year, told Foreign Policy.

In a resignation letter in May, Bondarev announced his disgust with the war and his decision to resign from the Russian foreign ministry. “[N]ever have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24,” he wrote.

But if there is any other outrage or protest over the war within Russia’s foreign ministry—or the numerous war crimes that Russian forces are accused of having committed in Ukraine—it’s nearly impossible to find. Bondarev is to date the only Russian diplomat to have resigned publicly in protest against the war.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, senior Russian envoys across the West repeatedly dismissed the warnings of a Ukraine invasion as Western fear-mongering or overblown conspiracies emanating from Washington. “There is no invasion and there is no such plans,” Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, said in a rare public interview with CBS News on Feb. 20—just four days before the invasion.

In short, Russian envoys committed either one of two cardinal sins of diplomacy: blatantly lying in a way that would be obviously disproved, or revealing that they were completely cut out of their own government’s entire decision-making process.

For Western diplomats, the conclusion is simple: Russia’s foreign ministry just isn’t what it used to be. Moscow’s once-storied diplomatic corps, which produced some of Europe’s toughest and most effective diplomats throughout history, has been reduced to a hollowed-out institution composed of little more than propagandists, spies masquerading as diplomats, and bureaucratic automatons.

This story is based on interviews with eight current and former Western officials who worked routinely with Russian diplomats over the course of their careers. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Russian diplomats are fully cut out of the “power vertical” with “no ability to influence decisions by the Kremlin,” said one senior European diplomat, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Meetings with them are surreal, they’re not able to discuss [or] admit actual facts, they trash talk about ‘Nazis’ in Ukraine, how NATO wants to invade Russia,” the official added. These days, he said, meetings with Russian diplomats are “often a waste of time.”

“It’s like they’ve completely lost their mojo, and they’ve lost the ability to put out messaging that could influence foreign audiences,” said Scott Rauland, a former U.S. diplomat who served as consul general in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in the mid-2000s and later as the acting U.S. ambassador to Belarus. “The lies that Russia’s ambassadors and embassies are promoting now are atrocious, are offensive … it’s like a whole different institution than the one I dealt with,” he added. “I don’t know they will ever be able to regain the type of professional respect they once had.”

After the invasion, Russian diplomats either doubled down on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spurious justifications for the war or slinked into the background and quietly withdrew from working-level interactions with their counterparts, when there were any to be had.

Some Russian embassies simply battened down the hatches as their ambassadors stopped giving any public speeches or interviews to independent media outlets. Others, meanwhile, began publicly promoting incendiary falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the war that Western officials say is tantamount to promoting war crimes or genocide. “Azov militants deserve execution, but death not by firing squad but by hanging, because they’re not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death,” read one tweet from Russia’s embassy in the United Kingdom on July 29, referring to a Ukrainian militia unit that has since been integrated into the country’s national guard and that Russia has accused of being terrorists and neo-Nazis.

It wasn’t always like this. Even at past low points in Western-Russian relations, Western diplomats developed a begrudging respect for their Russian counterparts, viewing them as cunning political operators and wily promoters of Moscow’s interests abroad who could effectively spar with the best Western officials at the negotiating table. The U.N. diplomatic corps at one point dubbed Sergey Lavrov, then Russia’s envoy to the U.N. and now the country’s foreign minister, as “Minister Nyet” for his ability to outmaneuver and stymie U.S. and European diplomatic initiatives at every turn, with former top U.S. envoys marveling at his assertive but professional approach to the job.

Russian diplomats still undergo years of training on foreign cultures and languages, specializing in regions and countries that they can spend years working in. For example, Andrey Denisov, Russia’s ambassador to China, spent over two decades working in China for the then-Soviet foreign ministry before returning to the country as Moscow’s ambassador in 2013. And Western officials concede that Russian diplomats posted in countries outside the West, such as China or some countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, may have more political clout and longer leashes to operate than those in the West, where the backlash against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains the fiercest.

For the most part, however, Western diplomats say they view their Russian counterparts with a combination of irrelevance and disdain. They say they see Lavrov as effectively a mouthpiece for Putin and someone who lacks any real influence over Moscow’s foreign policy. “As far as we know, Lavrov himself only knew [the invasion] was happening as it was taking place,” said Angela Stent, an expert on Russian foreign policy who served as the U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia during the George W. Bush administration

“If you were just looking at his experience alone on paper, his long career in diplomacy, he ought to have a lot of respect on the world stage,” said Rauland, the former American consul general, of Lavrov. “But you can’t wash away these horrific war crimes his government is committing, and the fact that he is out there just actively lying about it. I just don’t see how you come back from that.”

Those sentiments are working their way further down the ladder of the Russian foreign ministry, where ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission, and lower-level political officers in Western capitals who were once held in some form of professional regard are increasingly ostracized and discounted.

Former U.S. officials note that the lack of public resignations from Russia’s foreign ministry over the war—outside of Bondarev in Geneva—is in large part a reflection of Russia’s present-day diplomatic corps. Russian diplomats today stand in sharp contrast to the outspoken diplomats in the final years of the Soviet Union, Western officials said, including Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who spoke out against Soviet troop deployments in his native country of Georgia in 1989 and later resigned in December 1990 as he sought to warn that hard-line communists could plunge the country back into dictatorship, undoing the liberal reforms pursued under then-President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Even before this latest Ukraine invasion, Russia’s diplomats had already proved themselves willing to at least overlook, and in many cases embrace, years of disruptive Russian behavior on the global stage, including Russia’s role in igniting the war in Ukraine in 2014, its increasing use of violent mercenary groups in Africa, and its continued backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he has waged a brutal war against his own people.

“To some extent it’s self-selecting, the people who are working in the foreign ministry are doing so because they have bought on to the official Russian line about things, which has been fairly consistent at least for the last decade,” Stent said.

Another factor undermining Russia’s foreign ministry, according to a second European official who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, is that most Russian embassies in Western capitals are believed to be riven with spies masquerading as diplomats. In the weeks after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Western countries collectively expelled some 400 Russian officials working at embassies, many of whom were accused of being intelligence operatives. “It’s no longer very clear in a Russian embassy which diplomats are actual diplomats,” the European official said.

Russia’s diplomats, including Lavrov, have increasingly been sidelined in recent years as foreign-policy and national security decisions are made by a small coterie of Kremlin operatives around Putin who, like him, have backgrounds in intelligence and defense, said Western officials and experts on Russia. This has left Russia’s career diplomats to be “implementers of policy, not makers of policy,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

In the days after the invasion, Bondarev said there were two broad camps among his colleagues: those who were “very much delighted” by the invasion and those who found themselves at a loss, grappling to understand what was going on. “I suggested that maybe we should quit, maybe we should make a statement,” Bondarev said, but then the nagging realities of what it means to suddenly quit began to set in. “People said, ‘Well, it’s not a bad idea, but where will we be after that? If we quit, we lose a job, we lose money, we don’t know what to do, others will see this as a betrayal.’” Ultimately, Bondarev said he personally knew of around a dozen Russian diplomats who resigned in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine but did not make their decisions public. Foreign Policy was unable to independently verify Bondarev’s claim.

The consequences of voicing any dissent from within the Russian system are also very high. “If you’re in Russia, working in the ministry, the disincentives are huge, you can be jailed,” said Stent, the former national intelligence officer. Even those posted abroad who may be able to claim asylum are likely to be mindful of the number of Russian dissidents who have met untimely deaths at the hands of assassins, even in the relative safety of Europe.

Bondarev believes that this may have made it easier for many of his former colleagues to rationalize their continued work at the ministry, where he said a soldier-like mentality pervades among diplomats who see their role as merely carrying out orders from on high. “For many diplomats who work in the ministry all their lives, it’s like you are in the military service,” he said. “It’s the lack of responsibility, and the fear of responsibility.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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