Joe Biden has got it all figured out. In a round-table
discussion last week with a handful of reporters and columnists, the U.S. vice
president suggested that the Obama administration's nuclear arms reduction
treaty, New START, and its broader aim of "resetting" relations with Russia
could be a means of strengthening Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the
expense of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "The centerpiece of where Medvedev is,
is this reset," Biden said. "And [START] is the crown jewel inside that reset
because it wasn't Putin pushing this -- it was Medvedev."
Well, good luck with that. Two big problems with this approach
present themselves. First, if the past 20 years has shown us anything, it's that issuing
Washington brownie points to a Russian politician is a great way of ensuring
that person's ultimate marginalization and irrelevance. If you're Medvedev, getting yourself publicly identified as the man pushing a pro-Western
agenda is going to be a huge hindrance, not a help. Does Biden think that Russians
don't read the papers?
Second, Biden's remarks assume that Medvedev and Putin are participants
in a power struggle, each maneuvering at the expense of the other. I can see
why the vice president might think that Russia's leaders are engaged in full-fledged
rivalry; so many people seem to be taking that as a given these days. But I just
don't think it's true.
The notion of antagonism within Russia's leadership tandem
has become a staple of the media coverage of late. "Russian politics is in the
midst of a tug-of-war between Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the
long lead-up to the 2012 presidential election," wrote Japan's
Shimbun recently. "Medvedev may edge out Putin as Russia's top
leader," ran the
headline in Newsweek. That story hyped
the idea, without citing much in the way of specifics, that "the Russian elite
has lined up behind the new president, Dmitry Medvedev, rather than the old
one, Vladimir Putin." I should note, though, that even some Russian media have
been getting into the act. "Aides Noting 'Growth of Confrontation' Between
Medvedev and Putin," was the title
of one story earlier this month in the weekly Argumenty Nedeli.
The claims in these stories build on a handful of recent
Kremlinological plot twists. The most notable is the recent fall from grace of
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was targeted by Medvedev-friendly news media
before being removed
from office on Sept. 28. The removal or appointment of regional leaders is
the prerogative of the Russian president, so it's understandable why the move
was seen by many analysts as a demonstration of Medvedev's power over a figure
long regarded as virtually unassailable within his own fiefdom. Russia may be
the world's biggest country, but economic and political power are still
disproportionately concentrated in its capital, so controlling Moscow is
undoubtedly a requirement if you want to win a power struggle. Putin, by
contrast, evidently didn't see Luzhkov as much of a challenge and accordingly didn't
go to the trouble to clip his wings.
For believers in the theory of a full-blown rivalry within
the ruling duumvirate, this was merely the culmination of a series of similar
incidents. A few days before sacking Luzhkov, Medvedev killed the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft
system to Iran, underlining his insistence that Russia should go along with U.N. sanctions imposed on Tehran. That now-dead deal is said to have
enjoyed the backing of some of Putin's most powerful friends in the Russian
military-industrial complex. As Biden's remarks suggest, Medvedev's performance
at this weekend's NATO summit, where he agreed to
consider cooperating with the transatlantic alliance over missile defense, is
bound to inspire comparisons with Putin's stance on the issue. One need only
recall Putin's contentious
performance at the previous NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008.
In August, Medvedev vetoed plans to build a superhighway
through a nature preserve near the Moscow suburb of Khimki after the project
became the focus of an increasingly vocal protest by environmentalists and
regime critics. The main businessman behind the controversial development was,
once again, a
Putin ally. The rumors of cross-town feuding between the Kremlin (the
office of the president) and the White House (the prime minister's headquarters) also
draw sustenance from the provocative remarks fired off by people associated
with the various camps. One of the best-known snipers is Igor Yurgens, an
outspoken Medvedev supporter and the director of a prominent Moscow think tank.
He recently called
on Putin to quit in 2012.
So far, so good for the Kremlinologists. But what we're
still missing amid all this talk is any sort of reliable insight into the two
men's political intentions -- not that you ever really know that kind of thing
in Russia. "We don't really have one very important piece of information," says
Zlobin of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "We don't
know what they agreed in 2008. I'm sure Medvedev wants to be president again.
So he's trying to build up his background as a successful president -- but he's
a successful president insofar as Putin allows him to be successful."
An excellent point -- and one that goes straight to the
heart of the matter. Take a look at the actual constellation of forces in
Moscow, and you can't escape the conclusion that Medvedev remains very much the
junior partner in the tandem. Indeed, one of the most striking things about
this whole discussion is that almost no one operates under the assumption that
Medvedev is more powerful than Putin even though that's how it would be if
the rules laid out by the Russian Constitution actually applied. And there's a
reason for that. On paper Medvedev is the king. But in reality he's a leader
with strikingly few heavyweight allies in the upper reaches of the power elite.
And it's the power elite that counts in today's Russia -- not public opinion,
and certainly not the good wishes of the West.
"Medvedev has not succeeded in putting his own supporters in
his own administration," points out Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of the
Panorama think tank in Moscow. Pribylovsky even goes so far as to describe the
president as the "third man in the state" after Igor
Sechin, a Putin confidant whose official rank is that of a mere deputy
prime minister. That's because ex-KGB-officer Sechin -- along with fellow
former spook Sergei Ivanov -- is a leading member of the siloviki, the coterie of security-establishment bigwigs who
dominate today's Russian government, their official functions often overlapping
with their interests in the business world. (Sechin also happens to be chairman
of the board of Rosneft, Russia's biggest state-owned oil company.)
When you take a look at the tug-of-war rumors in this light,
things start to look a bit different. Yes, Medvedev fired the Moscow mayor -- but
the man who replaced Luzhkov was none other than Sergei Sobyanin, Putin's
former chief of staff. Yes, Medvedev nixed the missile sale -- but relations
between Tehran and Moscow have actually been deteriorating for some time, with the
two countries at loggerheads over issues ranging from Caspian Sea demarcation
talks to Russia's warming relations with Israel. And yes, Medvedev stopped the
Khimki project -- but the stop is actually a suspension, suggesting that a
compromise between various competing interests is probably still being thrashed
out behind the scenes.
Russia's cozying up to NATO is another good example.
Medvedev's rhetoric may be notably calmer than Putin's, but in terms of
substance Russia's current president hasn't given away anything that the
previous one didn't. Rhetoric counts, for sure. Yet earlier this year Medvedev
signed off on Russia's official military doctrine, which declares
NATO to be the No. 1 "military danger" to the Russian Federation. Nor have we
seen Medvedev back down on Russia's stationing of military forces on Georgian
territory. So I'm not sure there's quite as much daylight between the president
and prime minister on foreign policy as many people are assuming.
Now, it's certainly true that Medvedev has been taking the
lead over the past year or so in talking about the need for economic
modernization and has also expressed some admirable ideas on the need to fight
corruption and allow for
some form of political liberalization (though this is where everything
tends to get conspicuously fuzzy). And I don't doubt that there are many
Russians -- especially younger ones -- who yearn for reforms in this direction.
Indeed, recent opinion polls, insofar as they're to be trusted, suggest that
Medvedev's popularity ratings have been catching up to Putin's as a result of
some of this talk.
Under the terms of Russia's "managed democracy" though,
ratings don't reflect one's level of actual political capital. And most of what
Medvedev has proposed remains either small in scale or measly in impact, leading
some of my colleagues at Radio Free Europe, for example, to conclude
that Medvedev is actually pursuing a controlled exercise in tactical reform,
with Putin's express approval. As Zlobin points out, Medvedev's use of iPad and
Twitter make Russia's leadership look cosmopolitan and up-to-date, which is
certainly no threat to Putin. To the contrary, in fact. A genuine drive against
corruption, on the other hand, would be a totally different story -- a potential
threat to the vested business interests not only of Sechin but perhaps even of Putin
himself. But nothing like that has happened yet.
None of this excludes the future possibility, of course, of
some sort of genuine political competition within the tandem. There are indeed
some persistent signs of friction, even though it appears most likely that,
as Pribylovsky puts it, "there's a struggle between the two men's teams -- just
not between the two men themselves." Sechin and his allies, says Pribylovsky,
want Putin to assume the presidency again in 2012 when his term as prime
minister runs out; Medvedev's people, by contrast, would like him to stay on
for a second term.
And what about Medvedev himself? He's now had two years to
enjoy the fruits of office, and by all accounts he likes being where he is. And
he's not entirely without allies of his own -- first and foremost the shrewd Alexander Voloshin,
the publicity-shy political operative and business tycoon who once worked as consigliere to Boris Yeltsin and who gave
Medvedev his first staff job in the Kremlin in 1999. The question remains,
though, whether Medvedev can build a power base of his own by appealing to
members of the political elite who are discontented with the status quo -- or
even wants to in the first place.
We'll have to see. I suspect, though, that Russia's
leaders will resort to the easy solution when 2012 finally rolls around -- and that
both Putin and Medvedev will stay right where they are.
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images