Eminentoes

Good Soldier Medvedev

He works for Vladimir Putin, who trusts him completely.

By 3.26.08

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At first glance Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev is a very ordinary man. He's a little guy, only five foot four inches in height, of oft times cherubic yet serious countenance. His detractors agree that whatever his weaknesses, he is a hard worker. Most importantly, however, he is completely trusted by Vladimir Putin.

At age 25 in early 1991 he went to work full time for his former law professor at Leningrad State University, Anatoly Sobchak, when the latter was mayor of St. Petersburg. Putin, a fellow Leningrader 13 years older, had left the KGB's First Chief Directorate and joined the politically powerful Sobchak as his deputy.

Medvedev swiftly became the former intelligence officer's acolyte. The younger man found in Putin the perfect mentor and Putin made the willing Medvedev into his loyal adjutant. It was an arrangement that has lasted until today.

"The kid" is now 42, awaiting his next birthday in September. Medvedev has grown into a role that only a man of his loyalty and acumen could assume. Putin does not readily accept advice from many, but he counts on the still youthful former business lawyer and part-time law instructor to provide him the intellectual sounding board that high office requires.

Dmitry Medvedev's job has been to think, analyze and evaluate. Putin knows how to use his aide. They come from the same school literally and figuratively. Unlike his boss, Medvedev is not a leader and that works perfectly for the dynamic Vladimir Putin.

This does not mean Medvedev lacks ambition. He just hides it very well. His mild manner can be, and has been, mistaken for a lack of cunning and toughness. This has been an error that not only has been to his advantage when dealing with the highly competitive group of former security and intelligence officers surrounding Vladimir Putin, but also of advantage to Putin himself.

There is great value in having a trusted aide who is not viewed as a competitor by the power elements pushing and shoving around the big man. That is one of the major factors in Medvedev's arrival as Putin's choice to succeed in the cleverly arranged pseudo-presidency of Russia for the next four years.

The process actually had begun in 2005 when Medvedev became first deputy prime minister in charge of the ambiguously named "national projects." This position, as well as appointment as chairman of Gazprom, placed Medvedev as overseer of the nation's politically important major investment projects, in consequence giving him international exposure. It also balanced the aspirations of Sergei Ivanov, the hard charging defense minister, and the more hard line factions.

It is already clear that Medvedev's presidency, formally beginning May 7, will lack the political power that the Russian constitution authorizes and implies. Even as prime minister Putin remains in practical terms the effective power center. He has said as much. In fact, President Dmitry Medvedev will give up his role as chairman of Gazprom in line with current legislation. It is possible that Putin will take over that internationally influential position as well.

THE QUESTION REASONABLY COULD be asked why, under the circumstances, Medvedev would be willing to accept what appears to be a figurehead job when he currently operates in a far more powerful position. The answer of course is that Vladimir Putin needs him to do so.

Putin sees the new president as assisting in continuing his balancing act between both liberal and conservative wings of the Russian leadership. Medvedev also can be of particular value in dealing with a new Washington administration and the European Union as a pragmatic and non-ideological Russian head of state.

The suggestion has been made that Dmitry Medvedev presents an image of thoughtful openness, which will allow Vladimir Putin to play his "tough guy" card whenever convenient. The good cop, bad cop routine has been a staple Moscow tactic going back to Soviet days.

The quiet young lawyer from St. Petersburg has risen swiftly from his Kremlin post as deputy chief of staff to Putin late in 1999 to president of Russia in 2008. Will he simply hold down the presidency long enough for Vladimir Putin to return for another eight years in 2012? Or will the temptation to utilize the power that exists intrinsically in that post lure Medvedev into exercising the strength the title gives him? Will Dmitry Anatolyevich ever tire of being the good soldier?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.