President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine epitomizes one of the most enduring features of Russian governance, the one that most sets it apart from liberal democracy: the disregard, if not contempt, that Russia’s rulers display toward their own people. The ruler’s needs, no matter how selfish or capricious, almost always trump any other considerations, including the rights of ordinary individuals. Prior to Russia’s invasion, for instance, the Kremlin’s chain of command appears not to have told Russian soldiers that they were about to enter Ukraine to fight a real war. Afterward, the same chain of command neglected to claim those soldiers’ bodies because acknowledging their deaths might embarrass the Kremlin.
Throughout Russian and Soviet history, rulers have regarded the people they govern as expendable, nowhere more so than on the battlefield. U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was incredulous when Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov told him that the Soviet army’s method for clearing minefields in World War II was to send infantry across them as if there were no mines. The phrase often attributed to Zhukov—“Women will give birth to more”—is used in Russia today to sum up the leadership’s attitude toward people as replaceable cannon fodder.
Now consider Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council and a former president. Medvedev now has staked out a public position as one of the most strident, unrestrained cheerleaders for Putin’s war. Fourteen years ago, when Putin handed off the presidency to him, he was seen almost as Putin’s liberal antipode, a reform-minded lawyer without a KGB background who excelled at finding a common language with Western leaders. It was Medvedev who took up former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration on its offer of a “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations in 2009 in the wake of Moscow’s war against Georgia the previous year. (Few Western leaders appeared to put much stock in Medvedev’s bellicose rhetoric surrounding that war.)
The reset paid dividends. For Putin, it drew international attention away from the war in Georgia without the need to apologize for anything. It paved the way for a U.S.-Russia strategic arms treaty that is still in force today. Medvedev blocked the sale of an S-300 air defense system to Iran in 2010 and decided not to veto a UN Security Council vote authorizing NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. The latter action sparked the greatest public display of friction ever between Medvedev and Putin, who was prime minister at the time.
A Brief But Real Presidency
Medvedev’s presidency is sometimes portrayed today as a hoax from beginning to end and as merely a way for Putin to dodge constitutional term limits, but it was not. The Libya decision, among others, demonstrated that Medvedev set Russian foreign policy, even over Putin’s objections. Medvedev had his own small but loyal team and gained the sympathy or support of a swath of Russian elites that included some of Putin’s own entourage such as political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, Kremlin political operative Vladislav Surkov, and oligarch Alisher Usmanov. Independent media outlets like TV Rain and largely uncensored digital platforms flourished to a degree they probably would not have under Putin.
In Russia, the presidency embodies real power, and there are few examples in the country’s history of any leader giving up power voluntarily. Pavlovsky, then an insider, once argued that it was far from certain that Putin would be able to persuade Medvedev to give the office back. Putin himself saw Medvedev’s presidency as a genuine challenge, judging by his eagerness after the fact to undo measures Medvedev had adopted and to dismiss, co-opt, or arrest nearly all his loyalists and sympathizers.
In contrast to the security state that Putin has built, Medvedev’s presidency in retrospect looks like a golden age of civility and hope. In the autumn of 2009, at possibly the apex of his independence, Medvedev challenged the principle behind hundreds of years of Russian rule, including that of Putin. He insisted that individual rights trump the needs of the state and took potshots at those who disagreed. “The impressive results of the two greatest modernizations in the history of the country—Peter the Great’s . . . and the Soviets’—were paid for with the ruin, humiliation, and destruction of millions of our countrymen,” he wrote in an essay entitled “Russia, Forward!” in September 2009. “Today, for the first time in our history, we have the chance to prove . . . that Russia can develop along a democratic path.”
In October 2009, on Victims of Political Repression Day, Medvedev went further. Recalling the millions who had perished under the Bolsheviks and former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Medvedev said,
But to this day you can hear it said that these many victims were justified by certain higher state purposes. I am convinced that no development of the country, none of its successes or ambitions, can be achieved at the expense of human grief and loss. Nothing can be placed above the value of human life.
Some Russian commentators at the time saw his statement as a “breakthrough”: Medvedev had taken on Stalinism and the growing ranks of its defenders. Indirectly, he had taken on Putinism, which also places the state over the individual.
Medvedev’s challenge to Putinism probably played a role in Putin’s determination to take back the presidency. According to Pavlovsky, the political consultant, Putin felt threatened enough by 2010 to try to do so. A turning point might have been in January of that year, when Medvedev’s plan to empower parties at the regional level—that is, to make Russia more democratic—caused Putin to publicly imply that Medvedev was trying to turn Russia into an anarchic Ukraine. Medvedev apparently had triggered two of Putin’s phobias: democracy and Ukraine.
Medvedev’s record of actual reforms was meager, and Putin later repealed most of them. But his message—what some Russians called the virtual Medvedev—had a major influence on Russia at the time. The message was that the country could change and become freer. According to this vision, Russia wasn’t doomed to remain in the thrall of one man’s backward-looking agenda forever. It was when such expectations were dashed, not long after Medvedev publicly said in September 2011 that he would concede the presidency to Putin, that tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Moscow and other cities. The proximate cause of the protests was fraudulent legislative elections; the deeper cause was indignation that the people once again were being treated with contempt.
Be Ready for Change—But Don’t Expect Too Much
Even if Medvedev had managed to coax or coerce Putin into relinquishing power for good in 2011, there is no guarantee that Russia would have made progress toward the democratic vision laid out in “Russia, Forward!” Medvedev showed no flair for overseeing Russia’s complex machinery of government, let alone its informal decisionmaking mechanisms and powerful networks of vested interests. He lacked the courage of his convictions. He compensated for his lack of hardline credentials with exaggerated displays of anger, against both domestic subordinates and external foes like Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili—just as he has done in recent months with his caustic broadsides against Ukraine and its leadership.
Medvedev’s truncated presidency nonetheless showed that a Russia ruled by someone other than Putin could be less hostile to the West and less repressive at home. In a universe that existed not long ago, a Russian president offered, however briefly, an alternative to Putin and Putinism. If Russia is ever to break its historical pattern of forever recreating variations of authoritarian regimes—under czars, general secretaries, or presidents—Medvedev’s time in office could have been as good a place as any to start.
The day when Russia is ruled by someone other than Putin is coming, whether it’s still years away or much closer. It is often argued that whoever replaces him could be even worse than he is. But confidence in such assertions appears less and less warranted. There is a serious case to be made that Russia’s next ruler could be less repressive, less anti-Western, and less backward-looking than Putin.
Following the Ukraine debacle, Putin’s legacy is likely to look much less attractive to the Russian elite. He bears responsibility for leading Russia into a strategic cul-de-sac of sanctions, the enduring hostility of fellow Slavs and much of the West, deeper subservience to China, an enlarged NATO that could include Finland and Sweden, a military in need of rebuilding, and a persistent dependence on energy exports. Russia’s next ruler is more likely to want a new approach rather than more of the same.
Just as former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin, it is easy to envision a successor who was once Putin’s enabler condemning his predecessor’s errors and inaugurating a de-Putinization campaign. That person could be Medvedev or even someone more hardline. After Stalin’s death, the chief of the Soviet secret police, Lavrenty Beria, had initiated his own de-Stalinization before Khrushchev ousted and executed him.
The harder part will be managing expectations in the West surrounding a transition away from Putin, which could be messy, opaque, and protracted. How Western countries approach the early days and months of a transition could be decisive in setting the tone of Russian relations with the West over the long term.
Similar to Medvedev’s aping of Putin’s rhetoric, a new ruler will need to demonstrate a sense of toughness to deter rivals at home and abroad, at least until he or she has consolidated power. There is also a good chance that the next leader will be the target of Western sanctions for complicity in the actions of the Putin regime. These factors will seem to validate assumptions that Russia is impervious to change and must continue to be punished and contained.
Assuming that Putin has left Russia weaker, the temptation to continue a policy of containment will be great. Moreover, any attempts by the new regime to offer olive branches to the outside world will be interpreted by some in the West as a signal to press it harder. An excessively punitive approach toward Russia after Putin leaves would likely validate hardliners in Moscow and poison long-term relations with the West.
If rival factions jockey for power in a post-Putin Russia, there would be a strong inclination to support the camp seen as most Western-friendly. Some actors involved in factional infighting, or their proxies, may reach out for Western support. Overly blatant involvement by outsiders, however, could taint the faction being supported, as happened to some extent in the post-Soviet era.
Conversely, Putin’s departure would likely raise unrealistic hopes for near-term change in Russia among some in the West. While a degree of liberalization and opening to the West could occur quickly, recentralizing and even authoritarian tendencies could be strong no matter who takes over. It won’t help that Russian rule-of-law institutions like the legislature, courts, and media are likely to be weak or absent. And much of the country’s elite and society would probably remain anti-Western even if the leadership adopts a less hostile approach. These factors are likely to produce early disillusionment with the new regime.
In “Russia, Forward!,” Medvedev said that the transformation into the Russia of the future, where human rights supersede the whims of the country’s rulers, would be slow and gradual. If such an evolution was ever even possible, Putin’s return to power and his war on Ukraine set it back and ensured that relations between Russia and much of the West will be hostile for many years. Still, things are not predestined to remain that way forever. Putin’s departure, whenever it comes, will be the next real opportunity to reset those relations, if not on a good trajectory, at least on a more realistic and potentially less hostile one.
Christopher Bort is a visiting scholar with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment. He is a paid employee of the U.S. government and conducted this research under a government-funded fellowship. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U.S. Government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views.