From liberal 'dove' to Kremlin's bomb-thrower: Dmitry Medvedev's curious evolution

From liberal ‘dove’ to Kremlin’s bomb-thrower: Dmitry Medvedev’s curious evolution

Moscow is waging war against “crazy Nazi drug addicts” and perhaps even against Satan, “the supreme ruler of Hell,” himself.

It is Ukraine, not Russia, that is sending waves of soldiers through a “slaughterhouse” en route to a human “meat-processing plant” disguised as a military strategy.

And the Kremlin would have “no other option” but to start an apocalyptic nuclear war rather than watch its troops lose in Ukraine.

Those are just a few of the most headline-grabbing comments in recent days from the mouth of Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council who was once heralded as a fresh-faced liberal, perhaps even a foreign policy dove, representing a new generation of Russian politicians.

A longtime political Robin to Vladimir Putin’s Batman, the 57-year-old former law professor served as the country’s caretaker president from 2008 to 2012, though even at the time there was little doubt that Mr. Putin — who both preceded and succeeded Mr. Medvedev in the top job — wielded the real power inside the Kremlin.

War has a way of promoting its own cast of characters. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy went from being a comedian-turned-politician and a bit player in President Trump’s first impeachment trial to a global figure on the strength of his leadership since the invasion began in February 2022. In Russia, it has been Mr. Medvedev, along with perhaps Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has carved out a distinctive role in the fight.

It’s a role few predicted Mr. Medvedev would get.

After that four-year term, Mr. Medvedev spent eight years as Russia’s prime minister, though his public profile diminished greatly during that time, with some analysts arguing that he had fallen out of step with the increasingly hardline, hawkish approach that dominated Mr Putin and his inner circle. 

But since Russia launched its full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Mr. Medvedev has re-emerged as one of the most prominent, quotable figures in the Russian power structure, trailing only Mr. Putin and Mr. Prigozhin in his international notoriety. Each day seems to bring another wild, often violent and sometimes blatantly belligerent comment from Mr. Medvedev, who appears to have happily settled into his role as the Kremlin’s most outspoken rhetorical bomb-thrower.

If there’s a headline that ways Russia is rattling the nuclear saber toward Ukraine and its Western backers, analysts say, odds are strong that Mr. Medvedev is the source.

Numerous Kremlin-watchers also point to his rumored drinking habit as one potential explanation for remarks that by traditional standards are far beyond the bounds of normal geopolitical discourse.

“Medvedev is reportedly a drunk who isn’t taken seriously by anybody in the establishment. Hence, his unhinged statements are supposedly generated by his being half sober much of the time,” said Alexander Motyl, a Rutgers University professor who has studied Russia and the former Soviet Union for decades.

Mr. Motyl and other observers say that if Mr. Medvedev believes his over-the-top rhetoric will lead him back to the top of the Kremlin, he’s mistaken. At the same time, the politically savvy Mr. Putin understands how to use someone like Mr. Medvedev for his own benefit.

“He may have hopes of advancement, but they’re illusory,” Mr. Motyl told The Washington Times in an email. “That said, Putin could muzzle him if he wanted to, so the fact that Medvedev can get away saying crazy things means one of two things, or both: He may be expressing Putin’s own views — likely — and/or he may be unnerving the West (definitely), and Ukraine (probably not).”

“Better still, even if Putin denounced Medvedev, we couldn’t be certain he means it,” Mr. Motyl said. “In sum, loony Dmitry is useful.”

‘Completely irresponsible’

If Mr. Medvedev is indeed useful, it may be in offering Kyiv and Washington a glimpse into how much worse things could get in Eastern Europe. Mr. Medvedev has repeatedly made direct references to Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, the largest in the world, and his own belief that using them may prove necessary sooner than later.

One of his most recent nuclear threats came late last month amid Ukraine’s slow-moving counteroffensive operation in the eastern part of the country.

“Imagine if the … offensive, which is backed by NATO, was a success and they tore off a part of our land, then we would be forced to use a nuclear weapon according to the rules of a decree from the president of Russia,” Mr. Medvedev wrote on social media, according to English-language media translations of his remarks.

“There would simply be no other option,” he said.

Western officials, unsurprisingly, condemned that rhetoric.

“Completely irresponsible comment by him,” U.S. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Washington Times in a recent interview.

The unhinged reputation he now enjoys marks a sharp comedown for Mr. Medvedev. While always seen in Mr. Putin’s shadow, his presidency from 2008 to 2012 was greeted by many in the West as a hopeful sign that the country’s authoritarian politics and Mr. Putin’s own KGB-colored foreign policy were moderating.

It was with the Medvedev government that President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first talked up the ill-fated “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations. And it was to Mr. Medvedev that Mr. Obama passed along a confidential remark caught on a hot microphone in 2012 assuring that Washington would have more “flexibility” to negotiate on missile defense policy after the 2012 election.

Now, however, bellicose, outlandish comments seem to have become the norm for Mr. Medvedev.

Last November, he said Russia was fighting against “crazy Nazi drug addicts” in Ukraine, and against their Western allies, who have “saliva running down their chins from degeneracy,” Reuters reported.

Russia’s mission in its war with Ukraine, he said, is to “stop the supreme ruler of Hell, whatever name he uses — Satan, Lucifer or Iblis.”

Earlier this month, he took aim at the Ukrainian counteroffensive in comments prominently displayed on the homepage of the Russian state-run Tass News Agency, underscoring that perhaps Mr. Medvedev is playing a strategically important messaging role for the Kremlin.

“The meat-processing plant that is [Ukraine’s] counteroffensive is now operating nonstop, sending thousands of unfortunate people to the slaughterhouse,” he said. “But this operation is already powerless to help the Kyiv regime, which has now advanced to the stage of post-mortem putrefaction. Nothing could regalvanize its corpse at this point.”

There are numerous other examples over the past 18 months. Mark Galeotti, a scholar and honorary professor at University College London who studies Russia extensively, summed up many of Mr. Medvedev’s “latest hits” in a March article for the British newsmagazine The Spectator. But Mr. Galeotti also dug deeper into the potential motivations, however misguided, beneath the surface.

“On one level, this is a former dove (or what counted for one in Putin’s Russia) trying to convince the hawks he’s one of them, albeit with no evidence of any success so far,” he wrote. “On another, it’s a desperate attempt by a man who notoriously falls asleep during most of Putin’s main public addresses, to continue to prove his loyalty and maybe even utility to the boss.”