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‘Everything he does is meant to avoid suspicion’ What the hell happened to Dmitry Medvedev?

Source: Meduza
Ramil Sitdikov / Host Photo Agency / Getty Images

During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, more than a decade ago now, he briefly gave Western governments hope that true reform might be possible. Even after Putin returned to the office in 2012 and appointed Medvedev to the prime ministership, where he remained for the next 7.5 years, he was still viewed as a liberal — that is, when anyone thought about him at all. He remained in that post until 2020, when Putin “needed a real prime minister,” as one political scientist put it to Meduza. Over the two years that followed, though Medvedev continued to serve as deputy chairman of the State Security Council, he essentially faded from public life; to this day, he’s not even the first “Medvedev” to come up in Google’s search results (at least in English). In the 16 months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, the former president has reinvented his public persona, becoming one of Moscow’s most outspoken and hateful hawks, and making even Putin seem measured in comparison. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev explains Dmitry Medvedev’s dramatic shift.

After Vladimir Putin’s victory in the 2018 presidential election, Dmitry Medvedev stayed around as prime minister. This was part of the “deal” struck between Putin and Medvedev that led to the pair’s infamous “castling” move in 2011, two sources close to the Kremlin and a source who was close to the Russian government at that time told Meduza.

“Medvedev wanted to run [for president] again, but Putin wouldn’t let him. On the other hand, Medvedev was ‘guaranteed’ the prime ministership for the following two presidential terms. And the prospect of succession may have been looming there too,” one source close to the Kremlin told Meduza.

But even at that point, the source said, Medvedev was starting to “experience certain problems.” In 2018, for example, Russian security forces began targeting businessmen who were close to the prime minister, while Arkady Dvorkovich, one of Medvedev’s closest associates, failed to make it into the new government (according to Meduza’s sources, this was at Putin’s personal insistence).

“Putin wanted to weaken Medvedev. Putin most likely had no doubt that he would win reelection in 2024. But Medvedev’s situation wasn’t bad either — he would have stayed prime minister for another six years,” a source who was close to the government at the time told Meduza.

Instead, however, Medvedev’s time as prime minister came to an end in early 2020. He resigned immediately after Putin’s traditional Federal Assembly address, in which the president proposed a set of constitutional amendments (to which he would later add the “reset” of his presidential term clock to zero).

One of the new amendments gave Russia’s parliament the right to appoint the heads of federal ministries; previously, candidates had been nominated by the prime minister and approved by the president. In addition, the president was given “general direction” of the Russian government. This definitively made the prime minister a subordinate figure in the “power vertical.”

According to two sources close to the Kremlin, these amendments were not discussed with Medvedev in advance. “For Medvedev, the weakening of the prime ministership as a result of the amendments was a violation of the 2011 agreement. His influence was cut off,” said one source.

To this day, we don’t know for certain whether Medvedev chose to resign the prime ministership or whether he was forced. Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that Medvedev had a “negative reaction” to the amendments and that leaving the post may have been his own decision. BBC News Russia has reported that “people close to Medvedev” confirmed this version of events, though other sources who spoke to the agency insisted that Putin forced Medvedev to step down.

Political scientist Nikolai Petrov told Meduza that the version of the story about Medvedev choosing to leave himself was “complimentary.” “Putin needed an efficient government that would spend more effectively on social programs and that in so doing would help create a good impression among citizens ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections and the 2024 presidential elections,” he said.

The person chosen to head the new, more “efficient” Russian government was former tax chief Mikhail Mishustin. Meanwhile, a new position was chosen for Medvedev: deputy chairman of the State Security Council. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this has become one of the key state bodies in Russia’s system of governance; its chairman is Vladimir Putin.

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“Putin came up with [the new position] at a meeting with Medvedev [after his Federal Assembly address]. This was the premise: ‘You’ll be my deputy, and Putin’s deputy is a very high post.’ But since they were in a hurry, they initially didn’t determine what powers would come with the position, and Medvedev’s responsibilities remained ill-defined,” said one source close to the Kremlin.

The legislation establishing the post of Security Council Deputy Chairman says only that its powers are determined by the president. Later, Putin issued a decree that said his deputy in the body can hold meetings “on behalf of” the president, “inform” the president “on issues of national security,” and “participate in developing and implementing Russia’s foreign policy course.”

At the same time, according to two sources close to the Kremlin who spoke to Meduza, the true “master” of the security council remained its secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, while “Medvedev found himself in an auxiliary role.” Meanwhile, the former president didn’t get along particularly well with several other members of the Security Council, who were unenthusiastic about the idea of a “civilian” serving in the post.

“Medvedev was tossed into the most hostile environment possible. [It was like] instead of providing him with his own cottage, they gave him a bug-infested communal apartment where he wasn’t wanted,” said political scientist Nikolai Petrov.

Against that backdrop, things were “really bad” for Medvedev in the arrangement’s “early days,” according to sources who spoke to BBC News Russia: “He just sat around, relaxed, meditated. After all, he was the former president and former prime minister, and nobody had discussed the choice of his successor, Mishustin, with him, either.”

But as one source close to the Kremlin told Meduza, Medvedev’s seat on the National Security Council did mean that he still had access to one of the most important resources in the power vertical: “regular access to the man at the top.”

Before long, Meduza’s sources said, Medvedev had “built himself a new career track,” which promised to bring him closer to Putin — and possibly even to make him the president’s replacement.

Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

‘The president humiliated him’

In addition to becoming deputy head of the Security Council, Medvedev maintained another post as well: that of chairman of the United Russia party, which he had held since the fall of 2011.

But two sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that Russia’s ruling party had always held “little interest” for Medvedev: “He’d considered it supplementary to his post [as prime minister], something to improve his status. He hadn’t even tried to put his own people in the party’s leadership positions.”

In his “new career track,” however, he decided to make a bet on the party, according to two sources close to the Kremlin and one from United Russia itself. According to them, Medvedev decided that the optimal post for him to occupy would be that of State Duma speaker, which he would combine with his party leadership.

“Of course he understood that all of the government personnel decisions would be approved primarily by Putin, but as both the leader of the party with the largest faction and the speaker, he would also be ‘approving’ them. He [hoped] that [even the new] prime minister would consult him,” said a source from United Russia familiar with Medvedev’s plans.

However, the source said, Medvedev quickly realized he had virtually no “real leverage” to influence party officials. All of the significant positions in the party were held either by people close to General Secretary Andrey Turchak or by associates of the head of the Kremlin’s political bloc, Sergey Kiriyenko.

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This meant that Medvedev, despite being the party’s formal leader, was effectively unable to participate in its management. Nonetheless, he didn’t change his plan to serve as its main frontman in the fall 2021 State Duma elections. According to a source close to the party’s current leadership, Medvedev was counting on the support of Vladimir Putin, with whom he had maintained a “good and smooth relationship.”

Meduza reported at the time that the party considered having Medvedev lead the party’s electoral list its “basic” and “key” scenario. The Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing sources in the presidential administration and in United Russia, emphasized that as the leader of the party, Medvedev “cannot not be included on the list.” A source close to the party’s leadership referred to this as “inertia”: “By all logic, the party’s leader should head the list, and there were no signals that this wouldn’t happen.”

However, in June 2021, on the eve of the party’s pre-election congress, a “signal” appeared. According to two sources close to the Kremlin and a source within United Russia, Putin told Medvedev that he wouldn’t be included on the party list and thus wouldn’t be the State Duma’s speaker.

“Putin doesn’t like when people impose decisions on him, and that’s what Medvedev was doing. What’s more, Medvedev’s high level of initiative may have made it look like he aspired to succeed him. That’s why the president humiliated him, completely removing him from the campaign,” said a source close to the Putin administration.

According to BBC News Russia, there was another factor behind Putin’s decision as well: Medvedev’s approval ratings were too low for the Kremlin’s comfort. According to VTsIOM (the Russian Public Opinion Research Center), in June 2022, more than 68.3 percent of Russians surveyed said they didn’t trust the former prime minister.

“Putin is a good personnel manager: he understands Medvedev’s inability to handle responsible and serious work. Medvedev served as prime minister until Putin needed a real prime minister. Similarly, he’s incapable of being a real speaker. But since being the head of United Russia doesn’t require any real work, he can stay in that position,” said political scientist Nikolai Petrov.

Medvedev was so upset by Putin’s decision that he didn’t show up at United Russia’s headquarters on voting day 2021, saying he was sick. By the end of 2021, he had practically withdrawn from public life. Then came the full-scale war.

‘An armored train on a spare track’

Throughout the first year of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Medvedev, who had long been considered one of Russia’s main “systemic liberals,” transformed into a fierce Kremlin hawk. The former president became a frequent user of Telegram, where he began regularly threatening the West with nuclear weapons, referring to Germans as “Fritzes,” and calling America “Yankeeland.” Italians and Ukrainians get their own derogatory names as well.

“Our main goal is to deliver a devastating defeat to all of our enemies: the Ukro-Nazis, the U.S., their lackeys in NATO, including that despicable Poland, and all the other Western scum. It’s time for us to finally reclaim our lands and permanently protect all our people,” read one Medvedev post.

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Two sources close to the Kremlin and one close to the Russian government told Meduza that Medvedev made a conscious choice to use such inflammatory rhetoric (they said that the former president “at the very least edits the posts,” and that he writes some of them entirely “by himself”).

According to two of Meduza’s sources, after the Russian Security Council’s meeting on the eve of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in which Putin openly humiliated everyone who advocated for continued dialogue with the West, Medvedev “realized it would be better to err on the side of caution, lest anyone bring up his past liberalism.” The sources said that by shifting to attacks on the “collective West” and the war’s opponents, Medvedev helped not only to protect himself from criticism but also to secure a more significant post.

Social media users and bloggers often give a more mundane explanation for the former president’s metamorphosis: alcoholism. There’s no evidence to support this theory, however; while Medvedev may drink, there’s nothing that suggests it’s the reason for his provocative Telegram posts.

Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin also said the country’s top leadership is not concerned by Medvedev’s incendiary statements: “They understand that it’s his opinion, and there’s no reason to take these threats seriously. Everyone has gotten used to them.” Furthermore, according to the sources, Vladimir Putin agrees with many of Medvedev’s comments.

Political scientist Nikolai Petrov told Meduza that if Medvedev’s behavior during the war had been different, the Russian political establishment’s attitude towards him would have been much more critical. “He would have been the most natural representative of the counter-elite in opposition to Putin. He does everything to avoid suspicion in this regard, demonstrating to Putin that he’s beyond suspicion and to the West that he has nothing to offer them,” he said.

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Against this backdrop, state-owned and pro-government media outlets, which paid little attention to Medvedev in the two years before the full-scale war, have begun regularly quoting his posts. Two employees of these outlets told Meduza that the Putin administration has “strongly recommended” that propagandists monitor Medvedev’s posts and base news articles on them: “And if they manage to make multiple articles [out of each one], that’s even better.”

Meduza’s sources from the pro-Kremlin media speculated that the goal of these instructions is to make Vladimir Putin look restrained in comparison to Medvedev. But sources close to the Kremlin denied this, saying that there’s no “clever scheme” by the directive to quote the former president’s bold statements, and that they simply align with the Kremlin’s overall wartime strategy.

* * *

In late December 2022, Vladimir Putin created another new position for Medvedev: first deputy chairman of the Military-Industrial Commission. Now the former prime minister travels to defense enterprises around the country while openly quoting Stalin and threatening repression against anyone who disrupts state orders.

Dmitry Medvedev during a visit to the Kalashnikov Concern in January 2023

A source close to the Russian government stressed that while the new post has forced the country’s elites to take Medvedev into account more than before, it hasn’t given him any new “real authority.” Meanwhile, a source close to the Kremlin said that “Medvedev has influence, but compared to the status of prime minister, his influence has greatly diminished.” A source close to United Russia’s official leadership referred to Dmitry Medvedev as the party’s “figurehead,” while a source from a presidential envoy said Medvedev was “nobody” to them.

One source close to the Kremlin, describing Medvedev’s place in the Russian “power vertical,” called him an “armored train on a spare track” who might come in handy for Putin one day: “Maybe he’ll put it back on the rails as a vetted successor, and maybe it’ll rot there on the tracks. The president doesn’t intend to go anywhere anytime soon.”

Two sources close to the Kremlin said Medvedev has given up on his hopes of ever becoming president again. “He just wants one thing: for everyone to leave him the fuck alone,” said one source. “Both the patriots and the liberals.”

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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