Does Russia’s Medvedev speak for Putin?
The Russian Federation’s former president and vice president, now deputy head of the Security Council, is at it again. Dmitry Medvedev, once considered a liberally inclined reformer, has embarrassed himself and his country again by mouthing off in a manner that befits a loony hooligan and not a serious statesman.
It was the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) issuance of an arrest warrant for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin that pushed Medvedev over the edge. At the core of his March 20 Telegram rant is the claim, shared by many countries in the Global South, that the ICC is ineffective and biased, ignoring “U.S. crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq” while focusing its attention on “three dozen unknown persons” (from Africa, he might have added). Had Medvedev stopped there and made a case for the ICC’s being less than neutral, he might have had a valid point. At the very least, he might have raised questions worth discussing.
But no, Medvedev couldn’t refrain from calling the ICC “sh-tty, useless” and engaging in further scatological references and obscenities: “It is obvious that the powerful shout from the USA that we supposedly did not ratify the Rome Statute at all, f-ck off pigmies, caused an animal urge in the judges to perform natural needs not related to justice.” By the way, Medvedev actually wrote “f-ck off, pigmies” in English.
Medvedev’s final paragraph takes the cake and is worth quoting in full: “The ICC judges got excited in vain. Look, they said, we are brave, we did not sh-t ourselves by raising a hand against the largest nuclear power. Alas, gentlemen, everyone walks beneath God and rockets. It is quite possible to imagine the targeted use of a hypersonic missile from a Russian ship in the North Sea at the Hague courthouse. It can’t be shot down, alas. And the court is just a miserable international organization, not the population of a NATO country. Therefore, they won’t start a war. They will be afraid. And no one will mourn them. So, citizen judges, look carefully at the sky…”
The final ellipsis is Medvedev’s transparent way of suggesting that the scenario he raises could very well happen in the future.
A few days later, Russia’s ex-president threatened Germany with destruction after its minister of justice said that Putin would be arrested if he stepped on German soil. Here’s Medvedev: “Let’s just imagine … [that the] current head of a nuclear state came to the territory of, say, Germany, and was arrested.
“What is this? A declaration of war on the Russian Federation! And even in this case, all our means will fly at the Bundestag, the chancellor’s office, and so on. Does he understand that this is a ‘casus belli,’ that this is a declaration of war? Or did he study poorly?”
These aren’t the first unhinged statements by Russia’s former president, who has engaged in irresponsible nuclear “saber rattling” on several occasions. Nor is this the first time that Medvedev has made generous use of undiplomatic language and obscenities. Some Russian analysts claim that he has become incapable of restraining his worst instincts, especially after reportedly consuming alcohol. That may explain his loony outbursts, but it doesn’t explain why Putin and his entourage tolerate — and perhaps even encourage — such statements by a once serious Russian policymaker.
Several possible explanations suggest themselves.
First, it may be that Putin fully agrees with Medvedev but prefers to have Medvedev play the crazy “bad cop” to his comparatively rational “good cop.” That way, the threat is made, the world trembles, and Putin gets to smile at his own genius. Of course, if this is true, then the world is dealing with a clever madman in the Kremlin and not a bumbling self-styled chess grandmaster. And if that’s true, then there is no chance whatsoever of negotiating with Putin about anything — and not just the war against Ukraine.
The only potentially realistic way of dealing with such a leader is to consolidate the West, mobilize the Global South, support Ukraine, isolate Russia, and hope that cold war supplants hot war. And the very last thing that one should practice is any form of appeasement and compromise, not because they would be intrinsically wrong-headed, but because they would only whet Putin’s and Medvedev’s appetites for war.
Second, it may be that Putin and his comrades recognize that Medvedev is making crazy statements but regard him as a useful tool for scaring the West and Ukraine and compelling them to accept the Kremlin’s terms for peace, nuclear arms control, and the like. This would be the far more hopeful scenario, but, alas, there is no way of determining whether or not Medvedev is Putin’s ideological doppelgänger or just a stooge. Optimists will be inclined to believe that Putin can’t be as unstable as Medvedev; pessimists will say that he can. The evidence for Putin’s rationality is mixed. Sometimes, he appears to share the same rationality standards as the West and acts accordingly, even if ruthlessly. At other times, such as with his idiotic decision to attack Ukraine, Putin seems to have lost all touch with reality.
Third, it may be that Putin has lost or is rapidly losing control over his entourage. Russian analysts point to growing rifts within the political elites. One liberal commentator, Valery Solovey, even speaks of a de facto anti-Putin alliance between the army and secret police. The war criminal Igor Strelkov regularly lambasts the regime for losing the war. In such circumstances, Medvedev simply could be speaking for himself and for equally unbalanced Russians such as Strelkov, but not necessarily for anyone else. Alas, although this interpretation is most attractive, we have no way of knowing whether it’s true.
This ultimately means that the West and the Global South have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. After all, the West and the Global South have a common interest in survival, one that overrides whatever sympathy the South may have for Russia and antipathy for the United States.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”
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