Serving as president of Russia between 2008 and 2012, Dmitry Medvedev was always a placeholder for Vladimir Putin. Still, his presidency illustrated Putin’s high trust that Medvedev could serve competently. In 2023, however, Dmitry Medvedev is a sad shadow of his former presidential self.
President Medvedev sought to balance Putin’s power structure with sometimes bold economic and anti-corruption reforms. While these reforms had very limited success, Medvedev also facilitated a tentative warming of relations with the West. Today, Medvedev is little more than a social media influencer.
While Medvedev is technically deputy chairman of the National Security Council, his influence over national security policy is subordinated to uber-hawk Nikolai Patrushev. It is Patrushev who sets the ideological framework for Putin’s war in Ukraine. It is Patrushev who meets with top foreign officials such as U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Already, this week, Paturshev has met with senior officials in Oman and Egypt. He met with China’s foreign policy chief Wang Yi last week. Patrushev is the man who shapes Russia’s security activities on Putin’s behalf. Patrushev is the man who holds sway over Russia’s sprawling intelligence apparatus. Especially, that is, when it comes to that apparatus’s darker arts.
He spends his days making photo-op visits to troops and arms factories. But Medvedev’s main occupation seems to be that of ranting on the Telegram social media outlet. On Telegram, Medvedev launches daily tirades against the West and Ukraine. He appears to believe that this stance earns continued relevance and protection in a Kremlin that has responded to its unprecedented international isolation with a siege mentality. The problem for Medvedev is that where Patrushev and others such as energy tsar Igor Sechin retain real influence, the former president appears little more than a social media troll.
Take Medvedev’s latest Telegram post on Tuesday, which lists claimed affronts to Russia. As Medvedev put it, “1. Fraternization of Canadian animals led by Prime Minister Trudeau in his parliament with the Nazis. 2. Deliveries of Abrams tanks from NATO arsenals. 3. Promises to supply longer-range Army Tactical Missile System missiles to the Kyiv authorities.”
Medevev concludes, “It seems that Russia is being left with less and less choice other than a direct conflict with NATO on the ground, which has turned into an openly fascist bloc like the Hitler Axis, albeit of a larger size. We are ready, although the result will be achieved at much greater cost to humanity than in 1945…”
This play to the threat of NATO-Russia nuclear war is designed to reinforce Western fears that continued support for Ukraine will lead to Armageddon. It’s a play on the old Soviet gambit of attempting to divide and blackmail NATO into concessions. The problem for Medvedev is that he isn’t a very credible messenger. He is understood in Western intelligence circles to be a person of limited influence. When Putin makes these threats, they come across far more seriously, for example. Instead, Medvedev’s daily posts come across as almost pathetic.
There’s a deeper silliness to Medvedevs’ apocalyptic dreaming. While the U.S. would suffer grotesque loss of life in any nuclear war with Russia, its vast overmatch in nuclear weapon delivery systems and forces means it would likely survive such a war as a functioning nation-state. In contrast, Russia would suffer the same fate as that of the GRU-directed Wagner Group formation which attacked a U.S. military base in Syria in February 2018. Namely, annihilation. Putin senses this and the Russian general staff knows it. So while the U.S. must proceed with some caution on matters such as supporting future Ukrainian ground offensives into Crimea, it must also assess Russian nuclear threats in the context of their theatrical purpose.
That Medvedev is the conductor of these theatrics testifies to his best days being behind him.