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Once A Hope Of Russian Liberals And The West, Medvedev Beats A Bellicose Drum To Stay Safe, Relevant

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the rain during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow in June 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) speaks with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the rain during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow in June 2017.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev's opinion article in the daily Kommersant in October 2021, ahead of Russia's massive military buildup along the Ukrainian border, was as surreal as it was acerbic.

Medvedev, who owes his political career and his seemingly enormous wealth to Russian President Vladimir Putin, lashed out at Ukraine's leaders, calling them "weak," "nonindependent," and corrupt and adding there was no sense in negotiating with them.

In the article, which Western analysts described as "chauvinistic," Medvedev described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, as beholden to "the most rabid nationalist forces" and accused him of "completely chang[ing]" his political and moral compass.

"One can only imagine how revolting it was for [Zelenskiy] to commit such a moral somersault," he said in the October 11 commentary.

To many Kremlin observers, Medvedev could have been talking about himself.

The 56-year-old former lawyer once represented the hopes of Russian liberals seeking democratic change. When Putin picked him to become president in 2008, many put doubts about the motives of the senior partner in the ruling "tandem" aside and latched onto the idea that reforms were in the offing.

Dmitry Medvedev speaks to a meeting via video link from his Gorki residence on April 19.
Dmitry Medvedev speaks to a meeting via video link from his Gorki residence on April 19.

Nearly 15 years later, a different Medvedev jumps out from the page. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and has remained in the Kremlin ever since, steadily shutting the door on dissent and bringing the country into increasing confrontation with Kyiv and the West.

And in recent months, as Putin narrowed his inner circle to a handful of hard-liners, launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, and taken the clampdown in Russia to new levels, Medvedev has done a flip -- at least verbally -- to stay in his patron's good graces.

The October commentary was one of several caustic articles, social-media posts, or remarks that Medvedev has issued in recent months, some of them echoing the outlandish kind of historical revisionism that Putin has used to vilify the West and underpin the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Bellicose Name-Calling

In Russia's current bilious climate, with officials, lawmakers, and state TV guests seemingly vying to top one another in terms of belligerence, they may not seem outlandish. But they sharply contrast with Medvedev's established image as a mild-mannered, iPhone-toting technocrat.

"It's not so much the content. It's the tone -- the name calling. I don't remember Medvedev being like that earlier in his career," Brian Taylor, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who focuses on Russian politics, told RFE/RL. He said that Medvedev -- who lost a lot of power and influence when he was ousted as prime minister two years ago -- is trying to "stay relevant" politically.

In a March social-media post, Medvedev compared Polish, Slovak, and Czech leaders traveling by train to Kyiv to show support to Zelenskiy -- a transportation choice dictated by Russia's war in Ukraine -- to Vladimir Lenin's return trip to Russia from self-imposed exile in 1917, ahead of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Medvedev claimed that the Polish elite suffers from Russophobia due to anger over having lost control of the throne in Moscow 400 years ago -- an assertion that ignores far greater and more recent factors, such as the decades of repressive Soviet dominance over Poland and its neighbors.

Dmitry Medvedev attends a meeting via a video conference in Moscow in June 2021.
Dmitry Medvedev attends a meeting via a video conference in Moscow in June 2021.

Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University who is an author and an expert on the region, called the post "grotesque" and said that Medvedev was trying to position himself as a populist speaking for ordinary citizens in Central and Eastern Europe.

"But he is himself a caricature of the global elite, wealthy for no reason, trying to dictate to people in a foreign country what they should do and how they should think, endorsing a war of destruction in the name of nothing more, in the end, than his own personal comfort," Snyder wrote in a blog post.

Standing By His Man, And His Money

A 2017 investigation by now-imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his associates alleged that Medvedev used an array of charity and nonprofit organizations to collect $1.2 billion in donations from tycoons and state banks and then redirected the funds to purchase pricey assets, including luxury homes.

Maria Snegovaya, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, says the upsurge in Medvedev's belligerent public rhetoric is an attempt to demonstrate loyalty to Putin at a time of growing political infighting. "Medvedev may want to signal to everyone that he is part of the system, that he is essentially by Putin's side," she told RFE/RL.

"I think he is desperate to at least secure some safety. His goal right now is to survive [within the system], not to climb his way back on the top of the vertical," she said, a reference to Medvedev's loss of influence since the end of presidency in 2012 and his loss of the prime minister's post in 2020.

Medvedev once represented an influential faction in the constellation of competing groups that Putin uses to maintain power. But he has lost significant political weight over the years and some of his allies -- such as former Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov and the businessmen brothers Ziyavudin and Magomed Magomedov -- have ended up behind bars.

Medvedev himself has fallen out of Putin's narrowing inner circle, now dominated by hawks with security-service backgrounds, in part due to the embarrassing allegations of corruption, analysts have said.

'Fifth Column Of Traitors'

And with the war in Ukraine clouding Russia's future, the atmosphere in the circles of power surrounding Putin may be tenser than ever.

Denunciations and attacks on "weak elements" within the elite are on the rise "and will become a big part of the dynamic," Snegovaya said, especially as the economy shrinks following the imposition of strict Western sanctions over the invasion.

Putin has come out hard against any opposition to the war in Ukraine. In a chilling speech in mid-March, he asserted that there was a "fifth column of national traitors" inside the country and that Russians "will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors."

Reports of senior Russian officials being put under house arrest have emerged in recent weeks following the initial failures in the war against Ukraine. Hard-line hawks within the elite may suspect Medvedev and his associates of not fully supporting the war, potentially making him an "attractive" target for attacks, Snegovaya said.

Arkady Dvorkovich, a former close adviser to Medvedev, was accused by a senior lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party of "national betrayal" last month after expressing concerns about the war and sympathy for civilians in Ukraine.

Dvorkovich soon stepped down as chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, a technology hub located in Moscow region that emulates Silicon Valley and which Medvedev promoted on a trip to the United States during his presidency.

Remember The 'Reset'?

Medvedev, 56, has been one of Putin's most loyal allies over the past two decades. Putin tapped the former lawyer to succeed him as president in 2008 in order to avoid violating what was then a constitutional limit of two consecutive four-year terms.

President Vladimir Putin (left) points to then-First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as he addresses the crowd at a concert in Moscow in March 2008.
President Vladimir Putin (left) points to then-First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as he addresses the crowd at a concert in Moscow in March 2008.

Putin's choice of Medvedev over fellow former KGB officer Sergei Ivanov "signaled the possibility of a new, more liberal period in Russian politics, or so some hoped," Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 2012-14, wrote in his memoir, From Cold War To Hot Peace. Medvedev "spoke a more sophisticated style of Russian than Putin, and seemed more orientated to, or at least familiar with, Western ideas," he wrote.

Medvedev is not from the KGB and is a member of a generation of Russians who as a rule viewed the West and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- which came when he was in his 20s and Putin was almost 40 -- in a more positive light than their elders.

In a September 2009 article laying out his political vision, Medvedev described Russia's democracy as "fragile" and something that "needs to be protected." He called for dialogue with civil society and touted changes he made to improve electoral competition. "Putin had never said that," McFaul wrote.

As he was grooming his former campaign manager and fellow St. Petersburg native for the top job, Putin said that Medvedev could sometimes be tougher than him -- a remark that later seemed to presage Russia's invasion in Georgia in August 2008, three months after he took office.

But despite that move, Medvedev's presidency did seem to promise change, both at home and in ties with the West.

He pursued reforms at home and embraced President Barack Obama's "reset" of U.S.-Russia ties, signing the New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Obama in April 2010 and then smiling over cheeseburgers with him and enthusiastically taking in Silicon Valley during his U.S. visit that June.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) and U.S. President Barack Obama chat while ordering lunch at Ray's Hell Burger in June 2010 in Arlington, Virginia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center) and U.S. President Barack Obama chat while ordering lunch at Ray's Hell Burger in June 2010 in Arlington, Virginia.

On The Outside Looking In

Medvedev's metamorphosis, if that is what it is, did not occur overnight. It slowly followed the sharp and steady souring of Russian-U.S. relations that can be traced to the end of 2011, when Putin accused the United States of fomenting protests over fraud-marred parliamentary elections and his decision -- announced by himself and Medvedev that September -- to return to the presidency in 2012.

Putin swapped jobs with Medvedev, who remained in the No. 2 spot as prime minister until January 2020. Analysts said Putin replaced Medvedev as head of the government after he failed to deliver on the president's domestic priorities, including improving living standards.

But the shakeup also came as Putin was preparing constitutional amendments, adopted that July, that allow him to run for president again in 2024 and 2030, a move that seemed aimed to quash talk of a post-Putin Russia and ensure he could stay in power for years.

Putin created a new role for Medvedev as deputy chairman of the Security Council, which is one of his main venues for decision-making on strategic issues but is a purely advisory body. Some analysts see the position as a sort of political retirement home for Medvedev. Putin is unlikely to "put him in a position of trust anymore," Taylor said.

Medvedev is among the top politicians least trusted by Russians, according to opinion polls, and Putin barred him from heading the United Russia party ticket for the September 2021 parliamentary elections.

Starting around that time, Medvedev seems to have been seeking to step back into the spotlight with his acerbic, hawkish statements that are aligned with the rhetoric on state TV.

The new image as a brash Russian nationalist "doesn't really fit him very well" but may be part of a strategy to get back into a position of power at a later date, Taylor said.

"I think he -- maybe unrealistically -- still has political ambitions and doesn't know how the regime will shake out over the next few years, and he would rather be in power than out of power," he said. "He may even still think that he could get the top job again."

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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