Vladimir Putin? Dmitry Medvedev? Putin and Medvedev, together in tandem? Some grey cardinal in the shadows, like Igor Sechin or Vladislav Surkov?
Actually, an increasing number of analysts are pointing out that Russia is -- as it has been throughout the Putin era -- run by a collective leadership. Putin and Medvedev are the front men and leaders to be sure, but decisions are arrived at largely by consensus among a group that includes at least 10 and as many as 30 people.
Chatham House has recently issued a report, authored by Andrew Monaghan of the NATO Defense College, that makes several salient points about the nature of Russia's ruling elite and where it appears to be headed.
In the report, titled "The Russian Vertikal: The Tandem, Power, and Elections," Monaghan argues at the outset that "there are no major gaps between the political agendas of Medvedev and Putin" and that regardless of which one of them is president after 2012 "there is unlikely to be major change in Russian domestic or foreign policy in the short to medium term."
He also argues that the terms we have been using to describe Russian politics -- terms like tandem and vertical -- are quickly becoming obsolete:
"Both ‘The Tandem’ and ‘The Vertical’ have lost their original meanings. The tandem has become outdated – not because of a split between the two men, but because of the emergence and emphasis on a unified team, albeit one with some internal rivalries."
And who is on this unified team?
So what explains the apparent rifts that appear between Medvedev and Putin periodically?
Both myself and Sean Guillory have made similar arguments in the past.
Monaghan's report dovetails with another widely discussed paper by Kremlin-connected political analyst Dmitry Orlov, director general of Agency for Political and Economic Communications. In that report, published in May, Orlov argued that decision about who will be president in 2012 is being decided by "the most influential 25-30 Russian politicians and businessmen" behind closed doors.
Orlov argues that the alliance between Putin and Medvedev will endure beyond the election and "grow into a lasting political alliance." The tandem's main task as Russia gears up for elections to the State Duma in December and for the presidency in March 2012 "is to ensure the unity of the ruling elite."
-- Brian Whitmore