When Dmitry Medvedev was elected president of Russia in 2008, he was seen by many as a more liberal and Western-leaning than Vladimir Putin, the man who served as president both before and after him.
It didn’t matter that he was viewed largely as a placeholder for Putin, who was unable to serve three consecutive terms. Many still hoped he could take the country in a new direction.
But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Medvedev has become one of Russia’s most outspoken and threatening anti-Western figures, who has made frequent mentions of nuclear attacks and predictions of a collapse in Western civilization.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in December 2016. Sputnik/Pool/Dmitry Astakhov
Medvedev public persona has changed radically since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, with his statements more akin to that of a vitriolic warmonger.
“People often ask me why my Telegram posts are so harsh.” he wrote in June 2022. “The answer is I hate them. They are bastards and scum. They want death for us, for Russia. And as long as I’m alive, I’ll do anything to make them disappear.”
It is unclear if he was referring to Ukraine, the West, or both.
Medvedev also suggested last year that Ukraine might not even exist in two years, and called Ukrainian officials “cockroaches.”
He bragged that NATO wouldn’t respond if Russia were to nuke Ukraine, and predicted a war between France and Germany, as well as a civil war in the US that could lead to Elon Musk becoming president.
Earlier this month he called for hypersonic missiles to be put close to Washington, DC, and said that Russia could use nuclear weapons if it loses in Ukraine.
Threats to appease Putin
Experts told Insider that there’s a clear reason behind his rhetoric: Medvedev is in a weak position in Russian politics, and is trying to win favor with Putin.
Edward Lucas, senior advisor at the Center for European Policy Analysis, compared Medvedev ‘s role in Russian politics to characters in “The Sopranos” desperately trying to impress the Mafia leader.
“Medvedev is like one of the weaker guys in Tony Soprano’s circles, who just has to go and do horrible things to appease the boss.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during the United Russia party congress in Moscow, Russia, in December 2017. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool Photo via AP
Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian Politics at University College London, told Insider that Medvedev’s wild statements are a strategy to make up for his weak political position.
“In order to stay relevant – and safe – he has attempted to be even more hawkish than many existing hawks,” he said.
Lucas, meanwhile, noted that while many saw Medvedev as being more pro-Western, he always believed that to be “rubbish.”
From Western to wild
While Noble says that Medvedev’s transformation seems extreme, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he has fundamentally changed.
Instead, it appears that Medvedev has always been willing to do whatever it takes to curry favor with Russia’s elite.
“I think it would be wrong to conclude, however, that he has always been hiding his more recent, aggressive self. Rather, I think he has adapted with the times,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a government meeting in Moscow, Russia, in January 2020 Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via REUTERS
Lucas said that Medvedev had a “cosmetic Western interest” because he was particularly interested in technology and spoke English.
But added said Medvedev had not changed since his presidency: in both cases, his image and his public statements were made for the benefit of his bigger and more popular ally.
Medvedev is “playing the tune that comes in the inner circle, when the inner circle wants him to be liberal he’ll be liberal, when it wants him to be hard line he’ll be hardline.”
Trying to stay relevant
Medvedev vitriolic new persona can be explained by his weak political position, the experts said.
Medvedev’s time in office is widely seen as having been a placeholder for Putin: His election in 2008 came when Putin could no longer serve another back-to back term under Russia’s constitution, with Putin officially serving as his prime minister.
Some observers said that the election did not appear to be entirely free.
Putin became president again once Medvedev’s first term was up, and Medvedev duly became his prime minister, serving until 2020.
Noble said that, when Medvedev stepped down as prime minister, there was a sense “that he was a spent political force – a former placeholder president, who did not have any independent political capital of his own.”
He was given his current role, the deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, which Noble said was “seen as a consolation prize.”
His recent outspokenness therefore serves as a way for Medvedev to regain some popularity: “With his shift in rhetoric, it is possible that he has endeared himself with the more hawkish elements of the elite,” says Noble.
Clinging to power
Professor J.L. Black, author of “Russia after 2012: From Putin to Medvedev,” told Insider that Medvedev’s “West-lean was not so strong as many wishful thinkers in the West hoped,” but that he still stood out compared to most of Russian society for having “even a slight acceptance” of some Western ideas.
Still, Black described Medvedev as someone who “has always been a second stringer,” with Putin getting credit even when Medvedev had success.
He noted that Russia has “a general population that sees Medvedev as a weak link.”
Medvedev recent strategy, therefore, could be to try to show support so he doesn’t lose power if there’s a reshuffle by Putin, or if another right-ring leader takes over in Russia.
“If Putin leaves and Medvedev tries to access power, he doesn’t have a circle of ‘cronies’ to support him, nor does he have a popular base, so his aggressive stance is more likely a means to keep a role as a second-stringer if the right takes over — or if Putin decides on a purge,” says Black.
His remarks also stand in contrast to Putin, who has remained much more tight-lipped since the war began.
Lucas, from the Center for European Policy Analysis, notes that Putin doesn’t need to say much, since his allies do it for him — no matter what he wants to say.
“If Putin was to turn around and say ‘we’re gonna have a peace deal now,’ Medvedev would be saying ‘Absolutely brilliant, I wanted it all along, so pleased.'”