Analysts say the move is the clearest indication yet that Putin intends to hold onto power once his second term in office expires next year.
Putin made his announcement in televised remarks on December 10 after meeting with the leaders of four political parties, led by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia, who had proposed naming Medvedev as their joint candidate in the March 2 presidential election.
"I have known [Medvedev] for more than 17 years. We have worked closely all these years and I fully support this choice," Putin said.
Medvedev, Putin suggested, is the kind of candidate who can pick up where the president leaves off -- a man who can help establish a "stable government" that can "pursue the same course that has brought positive results for the past eight years."
In other words, analysts say, the president has named a successor who embodies two key qualities. Medvedev is both loyal enough to allow Putin to continue de facto rule, and weak enough to avoid upsetting the delicate balance among the warring clans of security-service veterans, or siloviki, who make up the Kremlin elite.
"It was the weakest politicians who always had the best chance at becoming [Putin's] successor," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Center for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology. "They needed to find a politician who was absolutely loyal and at the same time weak. Medvedev fits these criteria."
Obedient And Manageable
The 42-year-old Medvedev has worked with Putin since both served in the St. Petersburg city government in the 1990s. He came to Moscow with Putin in the late 1990s and managed his first presidential campaign in March 2000. Putin later rewarded him by making him chairman of the board of the country's energy giant, Gazprom.
In November 2005, Putin raised Medvedev's profile by asking him to supervise his national projects: federal development and infrastructure programs in health, education, housing, food production, and demographics. Medvedev gained even more exposure in January of this year when he headed the Russian delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
A lawyer by profession, Medvedev is considered a technocrat and is one of the few members of Putin's team who does not have a background in the KGB, Federal Security Service (FSB), or other security services. But Kryshtanovskaya says Putin trusts Medvedev and considers him a very close friend.
"The Kremlin has long said that Medvedev is like the adopted son of Putin, who only has two daughters. Putin has treated Medvedev like a son," Kryshtanovskaya says. "This is a person who is practically like family to Putin. He is a dependent, manageable, and obedient person who doesn't have his own approach or point of view."
Putin As Regent
Putin's announcement today surprised many who expected a successor to be named at a Unified Russia congress on December 17.
It also comes in the midst of a vicious war among the siloviki in Putin's inner circle over how power will be distributed after Putin's term ends.
Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, says Putin's powerful deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin, was pushing for the president to stay on for a third term. Others, including First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who himself was tapped as a potential Putin heir, wanted power to be transferred to a loyal successor -- although perhaps not Medvedev.
A clan led by Sechin and FSB head Nikolai Patrushev has also been battling a group connected to Federal Antinarcotics Service chief Viktor Cherkesov over control of the country's law enforcement apparatus. In addition to political clout, analysts say such control brings the possibility to profit from smuggling and money-laundering operations. Putin is widely seen as the only figure capable of mediating between these clashing groups.
Petrov says Medvedev's pliability implies that Putin will rule from behind the scenes, and that his candidacy, therefore, can be seen as a "compromise" between the groups. He adds that Medvedev cannot control the Kremlin's Byzantine power structures and manage the warring clans of KGB veterans that make up Russia's elite -- and therefore will need Putin's help and support.
"Medvedev is a candidate who is demonstratively incapable of either controlling the security services or completely playing the role Putin is playing now. He will be a weak president, one who will need a regent -- and that will be Putin," Petrov says. "The question is only what official role Putin will occupy."
A Technical President
Kremlin-watchers like Kryshtanovskaya also say Putin is also keen to make sure that Medvedev receives a significantly smaller mandate than the crushing two-thirds majority Unified Russia took in the December 2 State Duma elections -- which was marketed by the Kremlin as a referendum on Putin's rule.
"This will be a technical president. In reality, Putin's team will be in charge and the weaker the president, the more influence Putin will have," Kryshtanovskaya says. "It is also important that [Medvedev's] election results not be too strong. Putin won 64 percent in the December 2 elections. And it's important that Medvedev gets significantly less -- a maximum of 51 or 52 percent, not more. This way Putin's legitimacy will be higher than that of Medvedev's."
Russia's new president will be inaugurated in May and it's still unclear what role Putin will play after his presidency ends:
"It's not over yet," Kryshtanovskaya says. "The most important issue now is where Putin goes and how he will maintain authority. This is still not completely clear. Nor is it clear what changes will be made in the political system."
Current speculation in Moscow centers around Putin taking over the leadership of Unified Russia, which holds a two-thirds majority in the Duma and controls the vast majority of the country's regional parliaments. In such a role, analysts say Putin could lord over the political system as party leader, much in the way that the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party governed the Soviet Union.
Some analysts have also warned that Sechin and his Kremlin allies could attempt to derail Medvedev's candidacy in order to force Putin to remain president.
Washington and Moscow remain locked in an uneasy limbo between strategic partnership and confrontation over Kosovo, Iran, and missile defense.
But with a Russian presidential election scheduled for March 2008, and a U.S. vote the following November, that balance could tip. Here's what some of the front-runners in the U.S. presidential race have to say about their future strategies in engaging or confronting Russia:
Arizona Senator John McCain (Republican) has suggested that Russia should be barred from the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial nations because of its "diminishing political freedoms" and "efforts to bully democratic neighbors, such as Georgia." Of Russian President Vladimir Putin, McCain said: "This is a dangerous person. And he has to understand that there's a cost to some of his actions." Alluding to U.S. President George W. Bush's 2001 comment that he had "looked into Putin's soul," McCain said, "I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three things -- a K and a G and a B."
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (Republican) has stressed the importance of Russia's cooperation in antiproliferation efforts. "They've got to be engaged in frank and open discussions about the serious and disturbing turn of events in their own country. But we also have to remain a partner with them on the issue of securing the vast amount of highly enriched nuclear material in their country."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) has backed expanding NATO and shoring up relations with Eastern European democracies, naming Ukraine in particular as a "hedge" against Russia. "We should make it clear that America can speak softly and carry a big stick.... We want to continue to commercially engage Russia; at the same time, we should move as quickly as we can to build missile defense."
New York Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat) wrote in "Foreign Affairs" magazine that Putin has "suppressed many of the freedoms won after the fall of communism, created a new class of oligarchs, and interfered deeply in the internal affairs of former Soviet republics.... We must make clear that our ability to view Russia as a genuine partner depends on whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism and regional interference."
Illinois Senator Barack Obama (Democrat) has made curbing nuclear proliferation a key point of his foreign policy. "We know that Russia is neither our enemy nor close ally right now, and we shouldn't shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in that country. But we also know that we can and must work with Russia to make sure every one of its nuclear weapons and every cache of nuclear material is secured," Obama said. "One way we could strengthen this relationship is by thinking about the Russians as more of a partner and less of a subordinate" in nonproliferation efforts.
Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards (Democrat) has called for maintaining a strategic partnership with Russia because of its influence over issues of global security. As the co-author of an article published by the nongovernmental Council on Foreign Relations, Edwards writes, "it is in the U.S. national interest for Russia to be a part of the G8 and eventually other key institutions such as the World Trade Organization," but adds that Russia's inclusion must be justified by changes in policy.