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Dmitry Medvedev and all the president’s hawks

Once known as a pro-Western liberal, the former Russian president has decided the best way to advance in Putin’s Russia is to become a rabid nationalist.

By Ido Vock

Nineteen days into the invasion of Ukraine, Dmitry Medvedev, the former president of Russia, created an account on Telegram, the social network of choice for Russian public figures. It wasn’t long before his increasingly bloodthirsty diatribes against Ukraine and the West published on the platform began regularly making international headlines.

In reaction to the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in August, Medvedev wrote: “The bastards in Kyiv and their Western sponsors look like they are planning a new Chernobyl… Let’s not forget that the EU also has nuclear power plants. And that accidents are also possible there.” (Kyiv accuses Russian forces of being behind the attacks.) In September, he warned “Nazi Ukraine” that if Russia were to use a nuclear weapon against its neighbour, Nato “would not intervene” for fear of “nuclear apocalypse”.

By all accounts, Medvedev has undergone a remarkable political transformation since he served as Russia’s president between 2008 and 2012. As head of state, he was “considered the face of another Russia – one more liberal, Western-oriented, and forward-looking,” said Ben Noble, an associate professor of Russian politics at University College London. Medvedev passed several liberal laws and spoke in favour of the development of independent media such as the TV channel Dozhd. During a 2010 visit to the US, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, presented him with an iPhone. How did the man who agreed a reset in US-Russia relations over burgers with Barack Obama become one of Russia’s most prominent hawks?

It seems absurd in retrospect, but during Medvedev’s presidency there were genuine questions about whether Vladimir Putin, his predecessor between 2000 and 2008, would return to power. Putin, constitutionally barred from serving more than two consecutive terms, had engineered a handover to Medvedev, his preferred heir. After Medvedev won the 2008 election, he appointed Putin as prime minister. Importantly, there was no agreement between the two men that Putin would return, according to a 2012 interview given by Gleb Pavlovsky, a long-time adviser to Putin who had fallen out with his former boss the year before.

Seeking to distinguish himself politically from his nominal subordinate, Medvedev branded himself as a more liberal figure than Putin, not least because in 2008 liberal democracy seemed to be on the rise around the world. There were real debates about the future direction Russia might choose to go in.

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But by 2010, tensions between the president and prime minister emerged. Research commissioned by the Kremlin showed Medvedev gaining popularity among some of Putin’s core constituencies, such as pensioners, according to Pavlovsky. The most public clash came when Medvedev did not veto a 2011 UN Security Council motion allowing a Nato military intervention against the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. Putin criticised the resolution as “a medieval call to crusade”, a remark rebuked by Medvedev as “unacceptable”. (The Nato operation resulted in rebel forces overthrowing and brutally murdering al-Gaddafi, a precedent Putin reportedly obsesses over.)

On a fishing trip to southern Russia in late summer 2011, Putin told Medvedev he risked “losing Russia” like al-Gaddafi “lost Libya”, according to the journalist Mikhail Zygar’s 2015 book All the Kremlin’s Men. Putin, seeing himself as a bulwark against the possibility of such chaos, made the president agree not to run for a second term. In September Medvedev announced that he would endorse his predecessor to run in the 2012 elections. Once back in the presidency, Putin named Medvedev prime minister. The ploy was nicknamed after a chess move called the rokirovka or castling, in which a rook switches with the king.

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This is when the roots of Medvedev’s transformation likely took hold. Outmanoeuvred from the top job, he served as a low-profile prime minister while Putin steadily consolidated power and marginalised Medvedev allies, such as the defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was fired and replaced by Sergei Shoigu on Putin’s return. In 2014, two years after returning to the presidency, Putin annexed Crimea, definitively ending any hopes of the political liberalisation his prime minister had once claimed to champion.

[See also: Will Putin go nuclear?]

The humiliation peaked in 2020 when Medvedev was ignominiously sacked in favour of Mikhail Mishustin, a low-key technocrat. As consolation, he was named deputy chairman of the Security Council, a body that nominally advises the president on national security and strategy. In reality, its remit is ill-defined and its powers weak. Under Russia’s ultra-personalised system, in which only one man’s view matters, institutions are all but irrelevant to decision-making. The Security Council’s secretary, the ultra-hawkish Nikolai Patrushev, whose relationship with Putin goes back to the 1970s and who shares his boss’s anti-Western world-view, is a far more influential figure in the Kremlin than Medvedev.

Against the backdrop of increasing political marginalisation, Medvedev’s personal life unravelled too. In 2017, an investigation by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s now-imprisoned opposition leader, embarrassed Medvedev by accusing him of embezzling more than a billion dollars. This July, Russian media reported that his wife, the economist Svetlana Medvedeva, had left him. He is widely rumoured to be an alcoholic. (As president, Medvedev led a campaign against alcohol abuse, which he called a “Russian tragedy”). In recent photos, his face looks puffy and bloated; even just a few years ago he appeared much healthier.

There are two groups of regime politicians who have prospered since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. The first are technocrats who rarely speak about the war and concentrate on managing domestic affairs, often to mitigate the side effects of the invasion on the Russian population. This group includes Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, and Mishustin.

The second are hardliners, who use frequent public statements calling for harsher measures against Ukraine to heighten their public profile and gain Putin’s attention. These include Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen tyrant, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, and Medvedev. Kadyrov’s personal army, known as the kadyrovtsi, has played an outsized role in the war relative to Chechnya’s small population. Prigozhin’s mercenaries – recruited from, among others, Russia’s vast number of prisoners – helped Moscow’s army plug its manpower deficit, at least until the draft announced last month.

It seems to be this latter group that Medvedev is seeking to emulate with his bellicose rhetoric, alternately echoing Putin’s own words and going further than his one-time subordinate. Yet while Prigozhin and Kadyrov have become important contributors to the war effort – and thus significant players within the Putin regime – Medvedev languishes in near-irrelevance because of his comparable lack of credibility.

“Medvedev doesn’t have a political base of his own,” I was told by Seva Gunitsky, a politics professor at the University of Toronto, “so he just shifts to where the wind is blowing. In 2008, that meant being a liberal – on Russian terms – technocrat and moderniser. Today, that means being a rabid nationalist. But while he is personally not very politically relevant, he’s a good weathervane of a certain kind of elite-thinking in Russia where the main goal is to reflect the perceived priorities of the leader.”

Medvedev is believed to nurture hopes of one day returning to the presidency. In that context, his behaviour makes a certain amount of sense. As prime minister, he meekly avoided too high a public profile to avoid angering Putin. After the war began, Medvedev shifted position to where he believed contemporary politics to be heading. “It’s a cold calculation for the postwar era,” Zygar, the journalist, wrote in the German magazine Der Spiegel in August.

Those ambitions may be thwarted. As one Russia correspondent for a Western news agency put it to me: “Medvedev’s real instincts are probably close to those he showed as president. He thought he would be Russia’s next stage but ended up being given a series of increasingly irrelevant jobs as consolation prizes. This is him coming to terms with the fact that he is only ever going to be a historical footnote.”

[See also: Vladimir Putin is exposed as a failed war leader]

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