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Russian Ex-Diplomat on How West Can Isolate, Topple Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin faces a mammoth task to transform his quagmire in Ukraine into the ideology-affirming imperial conquest he and his Kremlin allies envisaged just over a year ago.

Putin has become a pariah in the Western world, while an unprecedented sanctions offensive seeks to isolate the Russian economy and strange the lucrative fossil fuel profits that fund Moscow’s war. Though he retains a strong grip on power at home, rumors of discontent among political and business elites are rife.

Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) delivered the latest humiliation for the president, issuing an arrest warrant related to the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, which could constitute a war crime.

Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat at Moscow’s United Nations mission in Geneva, told Newsweek that Western nations should use the ICC decision as a springboard to undermine Putin’s authority, unsettle influential Kremlin figures, and buoy the pro-democratic opposition movement in exile.

“Putin is already under suspicion of war crimes; we have this arrest warrant,” Bondarev said, referring to the ICC measure that prompted threats of missile strikes and world war from Putin’s allies. “The next step would be that the Western countries would declare Putin illegitimate, deny that he is a legal, lawful, and just president.”

“Thus, that may be a declaration that Putin is the only obstacle to peace—the real peace—so he must be removed, one way or another,” said Bondarev, who resigned his position at Russia’s United Nations mission in Geneva in May 2022 in protest of the invasion.

Such a signal, Bondarev said, might help embolden Russian elites who are secretly against the war in Ukraine, or at least dissatisfied with its outcomes. This should be combined, he suggested, with an “open declaration” of opportunity for dissenters.

“In this declaration, there can be an invitation: ‘Do the right thing, and we will treat you in the most favorable way,'” Bondarev said. “Of course, I understand that Western countries may be very much reluctant to do this because it will be a very huge escalatory step. I argue that it should be done—this declaration, this approach—should be voiced by the Russian opposition organizations in exile.”

The pro-democratic opposition that has been silenced within Russia and abroad is divided into multiple—often feuding—camps. Though all agree on the need to unseat Putin, the various factions and organizations are divided on key issues.

A unified opposition, Bondarev said, could function akin to the World War II-era Free France, which worked with allied governments while in exile.

“This political structure should produce a unified political platform on how Russian people would see Russia’s future,” Bondarev said.

“The platform should be presented to Western governments, and this political structure can act like an alternative Russia,” he added, noting the success of Belarusian opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “So then Western capitals have someone to negotiate with who is not Putin,” Bondarev said.

But the decades-long absence of fair elections in Russia, and the unreliability of polling, means it is difficult to say who should fill those shoes. Even the most well-known opposition figures abroad—among them jailed politician Alexei Navalny; oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky; and former chess master Garry Kasparov—have little claim to represent the people.

“Today, no opposition leader, or opposition speaker, or anyone has this legitimacy,” Bondarev said. “They can say, ‘I have the support of millions of people,’ but they cannot produce any proof.”

A system of online voting might go some way to addressing this issue, the former diplomat said, if the leaders in question can be convinced to risk their own prominent positions. Several opposition groups have proposed similar systems, though as yet there is no unified way forward.

A new generation of voices, Bondarev said, would inject life into the pro-democracy movement. “We need new political activists, new political leaders,” he said. “There is a public demand for this, but there is no supply.”

“That’s why I think we need some influencers with their huge audiences to promote this idea,” Bondarev proposed, adding that he has no grand ambitions of his own.

“Politically, I am a no-name,” he said.

Newsweek reached out to the Kremlin by email to request comment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin faces a mammoth task to transform his quagmire in Ukraine into the ideology-affirming imperial conquest he and his Kremlin allies envisaged just over a year ago.

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