A new strategy for Central Asia
Russia's shakeup has implications for Putin, Medvedev and the US
Dmitri Medvedev is Vladimir Putin's Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Agrippa was Augustus Caesar's trusted and immensely powerful right-hand man. He was Caesar's Viceroy, ruling over Rome's Asian provinces. Medvedev has been president of Russia and subsequently, until Jan. 15, its prime minister. He may not have been as powerful as Agrippa was two millennia ago, but there can be little doubt that the positions he held afforded him considerable power.
Medvedev appears likely to remain at Putin's side in some capacity as long as the Russian leader remains in power. Putin is in the midst of his second seven-year term as president; his tenure ends in 2024. He would be 72 in 2024, younger than either Donald Trump or Joe Biden if wither were elected in 2020, and easily could remain active at the apex of Russia's government for an additional decade or more (Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany until he was 87). No one expects Putin to ride off into the sunset once his current term has ended; the question was what he might do to retain power.
Putin's Jan. 15 speech to the two legislative chambers that constitute the Russian Federation Assembly - which prompted Medvedev's resignation together with that of the entire Russian cabinet - provides the broad outlines of Putin's plan to retain his power over Russia's affairs. He proposes to strengthen the Duma, Russia's lower house, which would name the prime minister. His plan would grant the PM far more powers than Medvedev had in that role. Those powers essentially would be transferred from the presidency. In addition, the Russian State Council, which Putin established as an advisory body, would be transformed from what is currently more of a talking shop into a body with some legislative power.
These changes will have to be approved by a nationwide referendum, which Putin hopes to obtain by marshaling the support of his United Russia party. There was, however, one change that Putin was able to make immediately. He transferred Medvedev to the security council - Russia's equivalent to America's National Security Council - where he will serve as vice chairman; Putin is chairman. How long Medvedev will stay in that position is unclear; it is a demotion from his previous job. Nevertheless, given his close and longstanding relationship with Putin, the position may well be nothing more than a placeholder, until Medvedev moves to a more influential post.
Indeed, should Putin successfully manipulate Russia's legislature so that it would elect him as prime minister, Medvedev once again may return to the presidency. On the other hand, were Putin to opt for leading the newly empowered State Council, Medvedev could be installed either as president or as prime minister. Either way, Putin would have his trusted associate not only working alongside him, but, as in the past, implementing his policies.
One policy that surely will be retained under the new legislative arrangement, assuming that Putin is able to bring his constitutional plans to fruition, would be the priority that he has assigned to military spending. Ever since Putin has been in power, whether as president or as prime minister, and with Medvedev at his side, Russian defense spending has benefitted from secular growth, regardless of the state of the rest of the economy.
Under a prime minister Putin, or a prime minister Medvedev shadowed by Putin as leader of the State Council, Russia likely will continue to modernize its military capabilities. Moreover, indeed because of Moscow's growing military might, the risk that it might attempt to undermine the governments of its Baltic neighbors, or simply seize Belarus, will also continue to increase.
For as long as Putin retains control, American defense planners will have to account for a much longer-term Russian threat than they currently acknowledge. Any funds that Putin will commit to military modernization subsequent to his assuming a new position in 2024, will have the effect of extending Moscow's military power and reach for at least another two decades. In other words, the United States will have to plan against a Russian threat that could extend to las late as 2050, or even later.
The National Defense Strategy identifies China as America's major long-term threat; a militarily powerful Russia under Putin's leadership for a further decade will mean that the United States will have to plan against two major long-term threats. Moreover, given the increasingly close relationship between Moscow and Beijing, those threats may combine into a single global challenge to the United States. Whether the Trump administration is planning to field the resources to cope with such a threat, or even is seriously contemplating its likelihood, remains a troubling question that is yet to be fully resolved.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.