20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Lucky Diplomat

It was no secret that even though he had become President, Medvedev hadn’t gained any political power. Vladimir Putin, who led Russian government for the next four years, remained the key figure in control of the country. Analysts could not hide their skepticism towards Medvedev’s role in Russian politics, sometimes bordering on hatred. They would call him “presidential placeholder,” “the technical president,” “Putin’s puppet,” and even “iPhone,” due to his admiration for Apple devices.


In early 2011, Medvedev met with Steve Jobs in California. The late CEO gave the Russian President a new iPhone 4G, as Medvedev was known for his admiration for the gadgets


Still, Medvedev was offered relative freedom in creating his own agenda, even though he was a part of the new Russian political formation – the so-called «tandem». In response to the criticisms, Medvedev rushed to work, as if trying to establish his authority, even though it was conditional.

His greatest success was in representing Russia on the international arena. During his four-year term, Medvedev traveled widely, visiting 53 countries. He went to Kazakhstan 10 times; Germany 6; and visited the U.S. 5 times.

Medvedev's foreign policy happened to be the most effective of all his undertakings. This is impressive considering that early in his presidency he was faced with an acute international crisis that could have not only ruined his political career, but gravely destabilized Russia. This was the five-day war between Russia and Georgia that took place in August 2008. It began with gunfire in the Southern Ossetian city of Tskhinvali, and ended with Russia’s annexation of two Georgian republics – Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian-Georgian war triggered a wave of diplomatic fury in the U.S. and the European Union condemning Russia’s actions. Dmitry Medvedev, the rookie President, was faced with the real threat of become a world leader others would be reluctant to shake hands with, like Mahmud Ahmadinejad and the late Kim Jong Il.

Overall, even though Medvedev's achievements were quite formal, due to a favorable set of circumstances he managed to magically overcome and capitalize all the negative effects of the international politics.

Fortunately, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the chairman of the EU that year, and he saw the crisis as an opportunity for his own political career. Sarkozy mediated the conflict. Because of his efforts, Russia and Georgia co-signed a peace plan quickly, which helped tone down the anti-Russian rhetoric in the West. The global financial crisis that broke out in the end of 2008 effectively erased the memory of the war from the Western politicians’ minds. Thus, President Medvedev escaped a deep diplomatic pitfall.

Among the achievements of Medvedev's foreign policy, it is worth mentioning his friendship with Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, which strengthened Russian-German trade relations, especially in the energy sector. Today, Germany buys about 30% of Russian gas. It is also Russia's partner in constructing and implementing Nord Stream, a strategic gas pipeline that crosses the Baltic Sea and provides direct deliveries of the Russian gas to Germany. Construction of this pipeline is also associated with Gazprom plans to develop the Shtokman natural gas fields, some of the largest in the world, located in the Barents Sea.

The second of Medvedev's achievements is his unexpectedly warm relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, established during the bilateral negotiation of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms that was signed in Spring 2010. In June of the same year, Russia supported the UN resolution on sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program, and even announced that it would not sell previously contracted long-range missile systems to the country. After the long cold period in relations between Russia and the U.S. during George W. Bush’s and Vladimir Putin’s terms, these shifts in Russian foreign policy were seen as the signs of a real thaw by many experts in America.

Officially, the new stage of the U.S.-Russian relations was called the reset. In 2009, a symbolic button, with this word on was pressed by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State. Nonetheless, the list of cooperative programs was short: an antiballistic missile treaty, the START II treaty, agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, cooperation in Afghanistan and the Near East, the war on international terrorism and drug trafficking. The real achievement on of this list, actively lobbied for by both Medvedev and Obama, was the new START treaty, which legally binds both countries to cut their respective nuclear arsenals by one third.

One last achievement formally attributed to Medvedev is Russia’s joining of the WTO. However, seeing that international negotiations on this issue lasted 18 years and had recently reached the final stages, it would be safe to say that Medvedev's role was truly minimal.

Overall, even though Medvedev's achievements were quite superficial, due to a favorable set of circumstances, he managed to overcome and capitalize on a number of negative situations in foreign policy.

A Mediocre Reformer

While Medvedev’s foreign policy was somewhat productive, his domestic initiatives were entirely fruitless.

His image of an intellectual lawyer, who seemed more flexible and reasonable than Putin, initially appealed to the Russian liberal elite. Medvedev’s claims validated their hopes that the vertical power structure could be destroyed. But these hopes were unfounded. Not only due to Medvedev’s weakness, but because of the liberals’ wishful thinking and unfounded expectations.

Throughout his career, Medvedev had consistently demonstrated his exceptional loyalty and ability to fit into the system, to balance and maneuver within it. There should have been no doubt that he was not going to reform or truly modernize the system. Medvedev was determined to complete the established tasks within his allotted time frame and in accordance with the rules established for political behavior.

Despite the false expectations, the work of any politician can be judged by two criteria: efficiency and keeping one’s political promises. Analysis of Medvedev’s work shows that he was unable to deliver on either count.

In 2009, Medvedev published an article in the online daily gazeta.ru called “Go Russia!” In his article, Medvedev outlined a list of priorities he had as President. It included modernizing the Russian economy, focusing on energy, nuclear technologies, IT, space exploration, and medicine.

His image of an intellectual lawyer, who seemed more flexible and reasonable than Putin, initially appealed to the Russian liberal elite.

He then turned to the discussion about the development of the civil society and democratic institutions. “The Russian political system will ultimately be open, flexible, and internally complex,” Medvedev wrote. “It will complement a dynamic, mobile, transparent and multidimensional social structure. It will respond to the political culture of the free, well-off, critical-thinking, and confident public.” He did remark, however, Russian democracy would not copy Western models. It was a logical reason that also allowed for a misinterpretation of the very term “democracy.”

Medvedev also spoke of raising the standard of living, resolving demographic problems, as well as the problems with the Northern Caucasus, bureaucracy, corruption, and the shortcomings of the judicial and legal systems. Medvedev called for a national dialogue on overcoming all of these problems together.

So what did President Medvedev actually do to achieve this?