For three years, my workdays began the same way. At 7:30 a.m., I woke up, checked the news, and drove to work at the Russian mission to the United Nations Office in Geneva. The routine was easy and predictable, two of the hallmarks of life as a Russian diplomat.
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February 24 was different. When I checked my phone, I saw startling and mortifying news: the Russian air force was bombing Ukraine. Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Odessa were under attack. Russian troops were surging out of Crimea and toward the southern city of Kherson. Russian missiles had reduced buildings to rubble and sent residents fleeing. I watched videos of the blasts, complete with air-raid sirens, and saw people run around in panic.
As someone born in the Soviet Union, I found the attack almost unimaginable, even though I had heard Western news reports that an invasion might be imminent. Ukrainians were supposed to be our close friends, and we had much in common, including a history of fighting Germany as part of the same country. I thought about the lyrics of a famous patriotic song from World War II, one that many residents of the former Soviet Union know well: “On June 22, exactly at 4:00 a.m., Kyiv was bombed, and we were told that the war had started.” Russian President Vladimir Putin described the invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” intended to “de-Nazify” Russia’s neighbor. But in Ukraine, it was Russia that had taken the Nazis’ place
“That is the beginning of the end,” I told my wife. We decided I had to quit.
Resigning meant throwing away a twenty-year career as a Russian diplomat and, with it, many of my friendships. But the decision was a long time coming. When I joined the ministry in 2002, it was during a period of relative openness, when we diplomats could work cordially with our counterparts from other countries. Still, it was apparent from my earliest days that Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was deeply flawed. Even then, it discouraged critical thinking, and over the course of my tenure, it became increasingly belligerent. I stayed on anyway, managing the cognitive dissonance by hoping that I could use whatever power I had to moderate my country’s international behavior.
But certain events can make a person accept things they didn’t dare to before.
The invasion of
Ukraine made it impossible to deny just how brutal and repressive Russia had become. It was an unspeakable act of cruelty, designed to subjugate a neighbor and erase its ethnic identity. It gave Moscow an excuse to crush any domestic opposition. Now, the government is sending thousands upon thousands of drafted men to go kill Ukrainians. The war shows that Russia is no longer just dictatorial and aggressive; it has become a fascist state.
But for me, one of the invasion’s central lessons had to do with something I had witnessed over the preceding two decades: what happens when a government is slowly warped by its own propaganda. For years, Russian diplomats were made to confront Washington and defend the country’s meddling abroad with lies and non sequiturs. We were taught to embrace bombastic rhetoric and to uncritically parrot to other states what the Kremlin said to us. But eventually, the target audience for this propaganda was not just foreign countries; it was our own leadership. In cables and statements, we were made to tell the Kremlin that we had sold the world on Russian greatness and demolished the West’s arguments. We had to withhold any criticism about the president’s dangerous plans. This performance took place even at the ministry’s highest levels. My colleagues in the Kremlin repeatedly told me that Putin likes his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, because he is “comfortable” to work with, always saying yes to the president and telling him what he wants to hear. Small wonder, then, that Putin thought he would have no trouble defeating Kyiv.
The war shows that decisions made in echo chambers can backfire.
The war is a stark demonstration of how decisions made in echo chambers can backfire.
Putin has failed in his bid to conquer Ukraine, an initiative that he might have understood would be impossible if his government had been designed to give honest assessments. For those of us who worked on military issues, it was plain that the Russian armed forces were not as mighty as the West feared—in part thanks to economic restrictions the West implemented after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea that were more effective than policymakers seemed to realize.
The Kremlin’s invasion has strengthened NATO, an entity it was designed to humiliate, and resulted in sanctions strong enough to make Russia’s economy contract. But fascist regimes legitimize themselves more by exercising power than by delivering economic gains, and Putin is so aggressive and detached from reality that a recession is unlikely to stop him. To justify his rule, Putin wants the great victory he promised and believes he can obtain. If he agrees to a cease-fire, it will only be to give Russian troops a rest before continuing to fight. And if he wins in Ukraine, Putin will likely move to attack another post-Soviet state, such as Moldova, where Moscow already props up a breakaway region.
There is, then, only one way to stop Russia’s dictator, and that is to do what U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin suggested in April: weaken the country “to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” This may seem like a tall order. But Russia’s military has been substantially weakened, and the country has lost many of its best soldiers. With broad support from NATO, Ukraine is capable of eventually beating Russia in the east and south, just as it has done in the north.
If defeated, Putin will face a perilous situation at
home. He will have to explain to the elite and the masses why he betrayed their expectations. He will have to tell the families of dead soldiers why they perished for nothing. And thanks to the mounting pressure from sanctions, he will have to do all of this at a time when Russians are even worse off than they are today. He could fail at this task, face widespread backlash, and be shunted aside. He could look for scapegoats and be overthrown by the advisers and deputies he threatens to purge. Either way, should Putin go, Russia will have a chance to truly rebuild—and finally abandon its delusions of grandeur.
I was born in 1980 to parents in the middle strata of the Soviet intelligentsia. My father was an economist at the foreign trade ministry, and my mother taught English at the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations. She was the daughter of a general who commanded a rifle division during World War II and was recognized as a “Hero of the Soviet Union.”
We lived in a large Moscow apartment assigned by the state to my grandfather after the war, and we had opportunities that most Soviet residents did not. My father was appointed to a position at a joint Soviet-Swiss venture, which allowed us to live in Switzerland in 1984 and 1985. For my parents, this time was transformative. They experienced what it was like to reside in a wealthy country, with amenities—grocery carts, quality dental care—that the Soviet Union lacked.
As an economist, my father was already aware of the Soviet Union’s structural problems. But living in western Europe led him and my mother to question the system more deeply, and they were excited when Mikhail Gorbachev launched perestroika in 1985. So, it seemed, were most Soviet residents. One didn’t have to live in western Europe to realize that the Soviet Union’s shops offered a narrow range of low-quality products, such as shoes that were painful to wear. Soviet residents knew the government was lying when it claimed to be leading “progressive mankind.”
Russia’s bureaucracy discourages independent thought.
Many Soviet citizens believed that the West would help their country as it transitioned to a market economy. But such hopes proved naive. The West did not provide Russia with the amount of aid that many of its residents—and some prominent U.S. economists—thought necessary to address the country’s tremendous economic challenges. Instead, the West encouraged the Kremlin as it quickly lifted price controls and rapidly privatized state resources. A small group of people grew extremely rich from this process by snapping up public assets. But for most Russians, the so-called shock therapy led to impoverishment. Hyperinflation hit, and average life expectancy went down. The country did experience a period of democratization, but much of the public equated the new freedoms with destitution. As a result, the West’s status in Russia seriously suffered.
It took another major hit after NATO’s 1999 campaign against Serbia. To Russia, the bombings looked less like an operation to protect the country’s Albanian minority than like aggression by a large power against a tiny victim. I vividly remember walking by the U.S. embassy in Moscow the day after a mob attacked it and noticing marks left by paint that had been splattered against its walls.
As the child of middle-class parents—my father left the civil service in 1991 and started a successful small business—I experienced this decade of turbulence mostly secondhand. My teenage years were stable, and my future seemed fairly predictable. I became a student at the same university where my mother taught and set my sights on working in international affairs as my father had. I benefited from studying at a time when Russian discourse was open. Our professors encouraged us to read a variety of sources, including some that were previously banned. We held debates in class. In the summer of 2000, I excitedly walked into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for an internship, ready to embark on a career I hoped would teach me about the world.
A man walking with his daughter away from the site of a NATO missile strike in Pristina, Kosovo, April 1999
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters
My experience proved disheartening. Rather than working with skilled elites in stylish suits—the stereotype of diplomats in Soviet films—I was led by a collection of tired, middle-aged bosses who idly performed unglamorous tasks, such as drafting talking points for higher-level officials. Most of the time, they didn’t appear to be working at all. They sat around smoking, reading newspapers, and talking about their weekend plans. My internship mostly consisted of getting their newspapers and buying them snacks.
I decided to join the ministry anyway. I was eager to earn my own money, and I still hoped to learn more about other places by traveling far from Moscow. When
I was hired in 2002 to be an assistant attaché at the Russian embassy in Cambodia, I was happy. I would have a chance to use my Khmer language skills and studies of Southeast Asia.
Since Cambodia is on the periphery of Russia’s interests, I had little work to do. But living abroad was an upgrade over living in Moscow. Diplomats stationed outside Russia made much more money than those placed domestically. The embassy’s second-in-command, Viacheslav Loukianov, appreciated open discussion and encouraged me to defend my opinions. And our attitude to the West was fairly congenial. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs always had an anti-American bent—one inherited from its Soviet predecessor—but the bias was not overpowering. My colleagues and I did not think much about NATO, and when we did, we usually viewed the organization as a partner. One evening, I went out for beers with a fellow embassy employee at an underground bar. There, we ran into an American official who invited us to drink with him. Today, such an encounter would be fraught with tension, but at the time, it was an opportunity for friendship.
Yet even then, it was clear that the Russian government had a culture that discouraged independent thought—despite Loukianov’s impulses to the contrary. One day, I was called to meet with the embassy’s number three official, a quiet, middle-aged diplomat who had joined the foreign ministry during the Soviet era. He handed me text from a cable from Moscow, which I was told to incorporate into a document we would deliver to Cambodian authorities. Noticing several typos, I told him that I would correct them. “Don’t do that!” he shot back. “We got the text straight from Moscow. They know better. Even if there are errors, it’s not up to us to correct the center.” It was emblematic of what would become a growing trend in the ministry: unquestioned deference to leaders.
Russia, the first decade of the twenty-first century was initially hopeful. The country’s average income level was increasing, as were its living standards. Putin, who assumed the presidency at the start of the millennium, promised an end to the chaos of the 1990s.
And yet plenty of Russians grew tired of Putin during the aughts. Most intellectuals regarded his strongman image as an unwelcome artifact of the past, and there were many cases of corruption among senior government officials. Putin responded to investigations into his administration by cracking down on free speech. By the end of his first term in office, he had effectively taken control of all three of Russia’s main television networks.
Within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, Putin’s early moves raised few alarms. He appointed Lavrov to be foreign minister in 2004, a decision that we applauded. Lavrov was known to be highly intelligent and have deep diplomatic experience, with a track record of forging lasting relationships with foreign officials. Both Putin and Lavrov were becoming increasingly confrontational toward NATO, but the behavioral changes were subtle. Many diplomats didn’t notice, including me.
Even limited displays of opposition make Moscow nervous.
In retrospect, however, it’s clear that Moscow was laying the groundwork for Putin’s imperial project—especially in Ukraine. The Kremlin developed an obsession with the country after its Orange Revolution of 2004–5, when hundreds of thousands of protesters prevented Russia’s preferred candidate from becoming president after what was widely considered to be a rigged election. This obsession was reflected in the major Russian political shows, which started dedicating their primetime coverage to Ukraine, droning on about the country’s supposedly Russophobic authorities. For the next 16 years, right up to the invasion, Russians heard newscasters describe Ukraine as an evil country, controlled by the United States, that oppressed its Russian-speaking population. (Putin is seemingly incapable of believing that countries can genuinely cooperate, and he believes that most of Washington’s closest partners are really just its puppets—including other members of NATO.)
Putin, meanwhile, continued working to consolidate power at home. The country’s constitution limited presidents to two consecutive terms, but in 2008, Putin crafted a scheme to preserve his control: he would support his ally Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential candidacy if Medvedev promised to make Putin prime minister. Both men followed through, and for the first few weeks of Medvedev’s presidency, those of us at the foreign ministry were uncertain which of the two men we should address our reports to. As president, Medvedev was constitutionally charged with directing foreign policy, but everybody understood that Putin was the power behind the throne.
We eventually reported to Medvedev. The decision was one of several developments that made me think that Russia’s new president might be more than a mere caretaker. Medvedev established warm ties with U.S. President Barack Obama, met with American business leaders, and cooperated with the West even when it seemed to contradict Russian interests. When rebels tried to topple the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, for example, the Russian military and foreign ministry opposed NATO efforts to establish a no-fly zone over the country. Qaddafi historically had good relations with Moscow, and our country had investments in Libya’s oil sector, so our ministry didn’t want to help the rebels win. Yet when France, Lebanon, and the United Kingdom—backed by the United States—brought a motion before the UN Security Council that would have authorized a no-fly zone, Medvedev had us abstain rather than veto it. (There is evidence that Putin may have disagreed with this decision.)
Workers attaching election posters featuring Putin and Medvedev to an office building in Krasnodar, Russia, November 2011
Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters
But in 2011, Putin announced plans to run for president again. Medvedev—reluctantly, it appeared—stepped aside and accepted the position of prime minister. Liberals were outraged, and many called for boycotts or argued that Russians should deliberately spoil their ballots. These protesters made up only a small part of Russia’s population, so their dissent didn’t seriously threaten Putin’s plans. But even the limited display of opposition seemed to make Moscow nervous. Putin thus worked to bolster turnout in the 2011 parliamentary elections to make the results of the contest seem legitimate—one of his earlier efforts to narrow the political space separating the people from his rule. This effort extended to the foreign ministry. The Kremlin gave my embassy, and all the others, the task of getting overseas Russians to vote.
I worked at the time in Mongolia. When the election came, I voted for a non-Putin party, worrying that if I didn’t vote at all, my ballot would be cast on my behalf for Putin’s United Russia. But my wife, who worked at the embassy as chief office manager, boycotted. She was one of just three embassy employees who did not participate.
A few days later, embassy leaders looked through the list of staff who cast ballots in the elections. On being named, the other two nonvoters said they were not aware that they needed to participate and promised to do so in the upcoming presidential elections. My wife, however, said that she did not want to vote, noting that it was her constitutional right not to participate. In response, the embassy’s second-in-command organized a campaign against her. He shouted at her, accused her of breaking discipline, and said that she would be labeled “politically unreliable.” He described her as an “accomplice” of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader. After my wife didn’t vote in the presidential contest either, the ambassador didn’t talk to her for a week. His deputy didn’t speak to her for over a month.
BREAKING BADMy next position was in the ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control. In addition to issues related to weapons of mass destruction, I was assigned to focus on export controls—regulations governing the international transfer of goods and technology that can be used for defense and civilian purposes. It was a job that would give me a clear view of Russia’s military, just as it became newly relevant.
In March 2014, Russia annexed
Crimea and began fueling an insurgency in the Donbas. When news of the annexation was announced, I was at the International Export Control Conference in Dubai. During a lunch break, I was approached by colleagues from post-Soviet republics, all of whom wanted to know what was happening. I told them the truth: “Guys, I know as much as you do.” It was not the last time that Moscow made major foreign policy decisions while leaving its diplomats in the dark.
Among my colleagues, reactions to the annexation of Crimea ranged from mixed to positive. Ukraine was drifting Westward, but the province was one of the few places where Putin’s mangled view of history had some basis: the Crimean Peninsula, transferred within the Soviet Union from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, was culturally closer to Moscow than to Kyiv. (Over 75 percent of its population speaks Russian as their first language.) The swift and bloodless takeover elicited little protest among us and was extremely popular at home. Lavrov used it as an opportunity to grandstand, giving a speech blaming “radical nationalists” in Ukraine for Russia’s behavior. I and many colleagues thought that it would have been more strategic for Putin to turn Crimea into an independent state, an action we could have tried to sell as less aggressive. Subtlety, however, is not in Putin’s toolbox. An independent Crimea would not have given him the glory of gathering “traditional” Russian lands.
Creating a separatist movement in and occupying the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, was more of a head-scratcher. The moves, which largely took place in the first third of 2014, didn’t generate the same outpouring of support in Russia as did annexing Crimea, and they invited another wave of international opprobrium. Many ministry employees were uneasy about Russia’s operation, but no one dared convey this discomfort to the Kremlin. My colleagues and I decided that Putin had seized the Donbas to keep Ukraine distracted, to prevent the country from creating a serious military threat to Russia, and to stop it from cooperating with NATO. Yet few diplomats, if any, told Putin that by fueling the separatists, he had in fact pushed Kyiv closer to his nemesis.
The West’s 2014 sanctions substantially weakened the Russian military
My diplomatic work with Western delegations continued after the Crimean annexation and the Donbas operation. At times, it felt unchanged. I still had positive relations with my colleagues from the United States and Europe as we worked productively on arms control issues. Russia was hit with sanctions, but they had a limited impact on Russia’s economy. “Sanctions are a sign of irritation,” Lavrov said in a 2014 interview. “They are not the instrument of serious policies.”
But as an export official, I could see that the West’s economic restrictions had serious repercussions for the country. The Russian military industry was heavily dependent on Western-made components and products. It used U.S. and European tools to service drone engines and motors. It relied on Western producers to build gear for radiation-proof electronics, which are critical for the satellites Russian officials use to gather intelligence, communicate, and carry out precision strikes. Russian manufacturers worked with French companies to get the sensors needed for our airplanes. Even some of the cloth used in light aircraft, such as weather balloons, was made by Western businesses. The sanctions suddenly cut off our access to these products and left our military weaker than the West understood. But although it was clear to my team how these losses undermined Russia’s strength, the foreign ministry’s propaganda helped keep the Kremlin from finding out. The consequences of this ignorance are now on full display in Ukraine: the sanctions are one reason Russia has had so much trouble with its invasion.
The diminishing military capacity did not prevent the foreign ministry from becoming increasingly belligerent. At summits or in meetings with other states, Russian diplomats spent more and more time attacking the United States and its allies. My export team held many bilateral meetings with, for instance, Japan, focused on how our countries could cooperate, and almost every one of them served as an opportunity to say to Japan, “Don’t forget who nuked you.”
I attempted some damage control. When my bosses drafted belligerent remarks or reports, I tried persuading them to soften the tone, and I warned against warlike language and constantly appealing to our victory over the Nazis. But the tenor of our statements—internal and external—grew more antagonistic as our bosses edited in aggression. Soviet-style propaganda had fully returned to Russian diplomacy.
HIGH ON ITS OWN SUPPLY
On March 4, 2018, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned, almost fatally, at their home in the United Kingdom. It took just ten days for British investigators to identify Russia as the culprit. Initially, I didn’t believe the finding. Skripal, a former Russian spy, had been convicted for divulging state secrets to the British government and sent to prison for several years before being freed in a spy swap. It was difficult for me to understand why he could still be of interest to us. If Moscow had wanted him dead, it could have had him killed while he was still in Russia
My disbelief came in handy. My department was responsible for issues related to chemical weapons, so we spent a good deal of time arguing that Russia was not responsible for the poisoning—something I could do with conviction. Yet the more the foreign ministry denied responsibility, the less convinced I became. The poisoning, we claimed, was carried out not by Russia but by supposedly Russophobic British authorities bent on spoiling our sterling international reputation. The United Kingdom, of course, had absolutely no reason to want Skripal dead, so Moscow’s claims seemed less like real arguments than a shoddy attempt to divert attention away from Russia and onto the West—a common aim of Kremlin propaganda. Eventually, I had to accept the truth: the poisonings were a crime perpetrated by Russian authorities
Many Russians still deny that Moscow was responsible. I know it can be hard to process that your country is run by criminals who will kill for revenge. But Russia’s lies were not persuasive to other countries, which decisively voted down a Russian resolution before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons meant to derail the prominent intergovernmental organization’s investigation into the attack. Only Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, Iran, and Sudan took Moscow’s side. Sure enough, the investigation concluded that the Skripals had been poisoned by Novichok: a Russian-made nerve agent.
Moscow wanted to be told what it hoped to be true—not what was actually happening.
Russia’s delegates could have honestly conveyed this loss to their superiors. Instead, they effectively did the opposite. Back in Moscow, I read long cables from Russia’s OPCW delegation about how they had defeated the numerous “anti-Russian,” “nonsensical,” and “groundless” moves made by Western states. The fact that Russia’s resolution had been defeated was often reduced to a sentence.
At first, I simply rolled my eyes at these reports. But soon, I noticed that they were taken seriously at the ministry’s highest levels. Diplomats who wrote such fiction received applause from their bosses and saw their career fortunes rise. Moscow wanted to be told what it hoped to be true—not what was actually happening. Ambassadors everywhere got the message, and they competed to send the most over-the-top cables.
The propaganda grew even more outlandish after Navalny was poisoned with Novichok in August 2020. The cables left me astonished. One referred to Western diplomats as “hunted beasts of prey.” Another waxed on about “the gravity and incontestability of our arguments.” A third spoke about how Russian diplomats had “easily nipped in the bud” Westerners’ “pitiful attempts to raise their voices.”
Putin attending a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, February 2017
Sergei Karpukhin / File Photo / Reuters
Such behavior was both unprofessional and dangerous. A healthy foreign ministry is designed to provide leaders with an unvarnished view of the world so they can make informed decisions. Yet although Russian diplomats would include inconvenient facts in their reports, lest their supervisors discover an omission, they would bury these nuggets of truth in mountains of propaganda. A 2021 cable might have had a line explaining, for instance, that the Ukrainian military was stronger than it was in 2014. But that admission would have come only after a lengthy paean to the mighty Russian armed forces.
The disconnect from reality became even more extreme in January 2022, when U.S. and Russian diplomats met at the U.S. mission in Geneva to discuss a Moscow-proposed treaty to rework NATO. The foreign ministry was increasingly focused on the supposed dangers of the Western security bloc, and Russian troops were massing on the Ukrainian border. I served as a liaison officer for the meeting—on call to provide assistance if our delegation needed anything from Russia’s local mission—and received a copy of our proposal. It was bewildering, filled with provisions that would clearly be unacceptable to the West, such as a demand that NATO withdraw all troops and weapons from states that joined after 1997, which would include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Baltic states. I assumed its author was either laying the groundwork for war or had no idea how the United States or Europe worked—or both. I chatted with our delegates during coffee breaks, and they seemed perplexed as well. I asked my supervisor about it, and he, too, was bewildered. No one could understand how we would go to the United States with a document that demanded, among other things, that NATO permanently close its door to new members. Eventually, we learned the document’s origin: it came straight from the Kremlin. It was therefore not to be questioned.
I kept hoping that my colleagues would privately express concern, rather than just confusion, about what we were doing. But many told me that they were perfectly content to embrace the Kremlin’s lies. For some, this was a way to evade responsibility for Russia’s actions; they could explain their behavior by telling themselves and others that they were merely following orders. That I understood. What was more troubling was that many took pride in our increasingly bellicose behavior. Several times, when I cautioned colleagues that their actions were too abrasive to help Russia, they gestured at our nuclear force. “We are a great power,” one person said to me. Other countries, he continued, “must do what we say.”
Even after the January summit, I didn’t believe that Putin would launch a full-fledged war. Ukraine in 2022 was plainly more united and pro-Western than it had been in 2014. Nobody would greet Russians with flowers. The West’s highly combative statements about a potential Russian invasion made clear that the United States and Europe would react strongly. My time working in arms and exports had taught me that the Russian military did not have the capability to overrun its biggest European neighbor and that, aside from Belarus, no outside state would offer us meaningful support. Putin, I figured, must have known this, too—despite all the yes men who shielded him from the truth.
The invasion made my decision to leave ethically straightforward. But the logistics were still hard. My wife was visiting me in Geneva when the war broke out—she had recently quit her job at a Moscow-based industrial association—but resigning publicly meant that neither she nor I would be safe in Russia. We therefore agreed that she would travel back to Moscow to get our kitten before I handed in my papers. It proved to be a complex, three-month process. The cat, a young stray, needed to be neutered and vaccinated before we could take him to Switzerland, and the European Union quickly banned Russian planes. To get from Moscow back to Geneva, my wife had to take three flights, two cab rides, and cross the Lithuanian border twice—both times on foot.
In the meantime, I watched as my colleagues surrendered to Putin’s aims. In the early days of the war, most were beaming with pride. “At last!” one exclaimed. “Now we will show the Americans! Now they know who the boss is.” In a few weeks, when it became clear that the blitzkrieg against Kyiv had failed, the rhetoric grew gloomier but no less belligerent. One official, a respected expert on ballistic missiles, told me that Russia needed to “send a nuclear warhead to a suburb of Washington.” He added, “Americans will shit their pants and rush to beg us for peace.” He appeared to be partially joking. But Russians tend to think that Americans are too pampered to risk their lives for anything, so when I pointed out that a nuclear attack would invite catastrophic retaliation, he scoffed: “No it wouldn’t.”
The only thing that can stop Putin is a comprehensive rout.
Perhaps a few dozen diplomats quietly left the ministry. (So far, I am the only one who has publicly broken with Moscow.) But most of the colleagues whom I regarded as sensible and smart stuck around. “What can we do?” one asked. “We are small people.” He gave up on reasoning for himself. “Those in Moscow know better,” he said. Others acknowledged the insanity of the situation in private conversations. But it wasn’t reflected in their work. They continued to spew lies about Ukrainian aggression. I saw daily reports that mentioned Ukraine’s nonexistent biological weapons. I walked around our building—effectively a long corridor with private offices for each diplomat—and noticed that even some of my smart colleagues had Russian propaganda playing on their televisions all day. It was as if they were trying to indoctrinate themselves.
The nature of all our jobs inevitably changed. For one thing, relations with Western diplomats collapsed. We stopped discussing almost everything with them; some of my colleagues from Europe even stopped saying hello when we crossed paths at the United Nations’ Geneva campus. Instead, we focused on our contacts with China, who expressed their “understanding” about Russia’s security concerns but were careful not to comment on the war. We also spent more time working with the other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization—Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—a fractured bloc of states that my bosses loved to trot out as Russia’s own NATO. After the invasion, my team held rounds and rounds of consultations with these countries that were focused on biological and nuclear weapons, but we didn’t speak about the war. When I talked with a Central Asian diplomat about supposed biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, he dismissed the notion as ridiculous. I agreed.
A few weeks later, I handed in my resignation. At last, I was no longer complicit in a system that believed it had a divine right to subjugate its neighbor.
SHOCK AND AWE
Over the course of the war, Western leaders have become acutely aware of Russia’s military’s failings. But they do not seem to grasp that Russian foreign policy is equally broken. Multiple European officials have spoken about the need for a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine, and if their countries grow tired of bearing the energy and economic costs associated with supporting Kyiv, they could press Ukraine to make a deal. The West may be especially tempted to push Kyiv to sue for peace if Putin aggressively threatens to use nuclear weapons.
But as long as Putin is in power,
Ukraine will have no one in Moscow with whom to genuinely negotiate. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not be a reliable interlocutor, nor will any other Russian government apparatus. They are all extensions of Putin and his imperial agenda. Any cease-fire will just give Russia a chance to rearm before attacking again.
There’s only one thing that can really stop Putin, and that is a comprehensive rout. The Kremlin can lie to Russians all it wants, and it can order its diplomats to lie to everyone else. But Ukrainian soldiers pay no attention to Russian state television. And it became apparent that Russia’s defeats cannot always be shielded from the Russian public when, in the course of a few days in September, Ukrainians managed to retake almost all of Kharkiv Province. In response, Russian TV panelists bemoaned the losses. Online, hawkish Russian commentators directly criticized the president. “You’re throwing a billion-ruble party,” one wrote in a widely circulated online post, mocking Putin for presiding over the opening of a Ferris wheel as Russian forces retreated. “What is wrong with you?”
Putin responded to the loss—and to his critics—by drafting enormous numbers of people into the
military. (Moscow says it is conscripting 300,000 men, yet the actual figure may be higher.) But in the long run, conscription won’t solve his problems. The Russian armed forces suffer from low morale and shoddy equipment, problems that mobilization cannot fix. With large-scale Western support, the Ukrainian military can inflict more serious defeats on Russian troops, forcing them to retreat from other territories. It’s possible that Ukraine could eventually best Russia’s soldiers in the parts of the Donbas where both sides have been fighting since 2014.
A child sitting outside a damaged building in Kyiv, February 2022
Umit Bektas / Reuters
Should that happen, Putin would find himself in a corner. He could respond to defeat with a nuclear
attack. But Russia’s president likes his luxurious life and should recognize that using nuclear weapons could start a war that would kill even him. (If he doesn’t know this, his subordinates would, one hopes, avoid following such a suicidal command.) Putin could order a full-on general mobilization—conscripting almost all of Russia’s young men—but that is unlikely to offer more than a temporary respite, and the more Russian deaths from the fighting, the more domestic discontent he will face. Putin may eventually withdraw and have Russian propagandists fault those around him for the embarrassing defeat, as some did after the losses in Kharkiv. But that could push Putin to purge his associates, making it dangerous for his closest allies to keep supporting him. The result might be Moscow’s first palace coup since Nikita Khrushchev was toppled in 1964.
If Putin is kicked out office, Russia’s future will be deeply uncertain. It’s entirely possible that his successor will try to carry on the war, especially given that Putin’s main advisers hail from the security services. But no one in Russia commands his stature, so the country would likely enter a period of political turbulence. It could even descend into chaos.
Outside analysts might enjoy watching Russia undergo a major domestic crisis. But they should think twice about rooting for the country’s implosion—and not only because it would leave Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal in uncertain hands. Most Russians are in a tricky mental space, brought about by poverty and huge doses of propaganda that sow hatred, fear, and a simultaneous sense of superiority and helplessness. If the country breaks apart or experiences an economic and political cataclysm, it would push them over the edge. Russians might unify behind an even more belligerent leader than Putin, provoking a civil war, more outside aggression, or both.
wins and Putin falls, the best thing the West can do isn’t to inflict humiliation. Instead, it’s the opposite: provide support. This might seem counterintuitive or distasteful, and any aid would have to be heavily conditioned on political reform. But Russia will need financial help after losing, and by offering substantial funding, the United States and Europe could gain leverage in a post-Putin power struggle. They could, for example, help one of Russia’s respected economic technocrats become the interim leader, and they could help the country’s democratic forces build power. Providing aid would also allow the West to avoid repeating its behavior from the 1990s, when Russians felt scammed by the United States, and would make it easier for the population to finally accept the loss of their empire. Russia could then create a new foreign policy, carried out by a class of truly professional diplomats. They could finally do what the current generation of diplomats has been unable to—make Russia a responsible and honest global partner.
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