Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin as Russia’s President this spring will once again align real and formal power in Russia, as they were during his earlier two terms in office. Although the Russia prime minister is nominally subordinate to the president, Putin has dominated Russian politics throughout Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency. As if to underscore that point, both Putin and Medvedev have implied that they had agreed on Putin’s return as a condition for Medvedev’s assumption of the presidency in 2008. (The Constitution banned a third consecutive term for Putin.) Although that was likely true only in a general way—that Putin reserved the right to return should circumstances warrant—the public insinuations stripped Medvedev of credibility as a leader and his achievements in office of any lasting political worth.
And there were achievements both at home and abroad, no matter how artificial the so-called Medvedev-Putin tandem may now appear. Abroad, Medvedev’s more “modern” image eased the repair of relations with the United States and Europe after the dark days of the last two years of the Bush Administration. At home, Medvedev’s presence as a second pole of power, albeit very circumscribed, fostered a much-needed broader elite discussion of the challenges facing Russia and the appropriate policy responses to them, enticing progressives suspicious of Putin to participate; Putin’s presence, meanwhile, reassured the more retrograde elements that Medvedev’s “reforms” would not spin out of control as Gorbachev’s had a generation earlier. As a result, Russia’s standing in the world improved and a spotlight was turned on the requirements for Russian modernization in the face of the corrosive effects of “legal nihilism.” Little was accomplished in a practical way in this latter portfolio, but there was at least hope, and hope can kindle morale and, ultimately, action.
Putin has now chosen to forego those benefits, and he has extinguished that hope. Neither Medvedev nor Putin has yet provided a satisfying explanation as to why. Medvedev’s argument that he deferred to Putin because of the latter’s consistently higher poll ratings has been ruthlessly—and rightly—ridiculed. Political developments of the past year suggest two rather more plausible explanations.
First, tension—if not significant policy differences—emerged between the two men as Medvedev tried to assert himself as a leader last spring. Insiders claim that Putin was especially perturbed by the vehement public denunciations of him by some Medvedev supporters. Second, the world turned more dangerous, with the looming threat of a double-dip global recession as the eurozone crisis metastasized and the profound geopolitical uncertainty and flux highlighted by the Arab revolts developed. Medvedev was inadequate for parlous times: he did not command respect; he did not project power; he did not look or act...