'Bastards and Scum': Why Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Elites Fell in Line After Ukraine
Don't count on a revolt of Russia's rich and powerful
If you haven't caught up recently with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev, you might be in for a surprise. During his presidency from 2008 to 2012, Medvedev presented himself as a Western-friendly liberal counterweight to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Medvedev chowed down on burgers with President Obama. He met with Steve Jobs of Apple in Silicon Valley and got a (then) brand new iPhone 4. He sat for an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria. However, in 2017, back to being a Kremlin official, his approval ratings sagged after Alexei Navalny unveiled allegations of corruption against him, and he became one of the most unpopular political figures in Russia.
Since Putin invaded Ukraine, Medvedev has remade himself as a nationalist. He created a Telegram account on March 17 and started posting hawkish missives and using crude language like Putin or Donald Trump. He wrote on June 7, "I’m often asked why my Telegram posts are so harsh. The answer is I hate them. They are bastards and scum. They want death to us, Russia. As long as I’m alive, I will do everything to make them disappear.” (It isn't clear who exactly this invective is directed towards -- the West, Ukrainians, NATO, or all of them -- but Medvedev's previous posts have attacked all of the above.)
On August 2, a post appeared on Medvedev's account on the Russian social media network VK.com claiming that the post-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Georgia were "artificial" creations. To his 2.3 million followers, the post claimed that after taking Kyiv, Russia would expand its borders elsewhere. The post was taken down in ten minutes and Medvedev's spokesman claimed that he had been hacked. Hack or not, it's impossible to know whether Medvedev believes that Russia should launch wars on its neighbors beyond Ukraine -- because he does not appear to believe in anything.
How to explain Medvedev's transition from appearing as a Western-friendly counterweight to Putin to threatening the West? One answer comes from the Russian word, prisposoblenets. It means a man who knows what is expected of him and adapts his views accordingly. In the late 2000s, appearing friendly to the West served a Russian domestic political purpose. His posture drew many middle-class people into supporting the Russian political system; many of these people felt like they had been had once Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. In 2022, trying to appear hawkish towards the West signifies loyalty to the Russian state. A few months ago, nobody would have pegged Medvedev as one of the more hawkish officials in the Kremlin, but it's useful for him to be aggressive.
It's not just Medvedev. Many Russian elites have decided that it's better to be on the side of supporting the war than leave Russia or be a critic -- which is punishable by 15 years jail time. Dmitry Trenin was a centrist Russian expert who was director of the Moscow Carnegie Center before it closed due to the war. He was frequently interviewed in Western media. However, he recently wrote that Russia only has a future if it continues fighting the war and "authorities and society unite" and "mobilize all available resources." Five months into Putin launching a war into Ukraine, there is no broad-based elite opposition to it. Just one diplomat and one mid-level official in Putin's government have quit since the war. The official, Anatoly Chubais, reportedly resigned in March as Putin's climate envoy over the invasion. Chubais was hospitalized last week in Italy with mysterious neurological symptoms and was headed to Frankfurt for rehabilitation. Not only would Russian officials who would quit over the war be losing their high status positions -- but they are risking their life wherever they settle.
Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine has spurred a lot of loose talk about a palace coup against the Russian leader. The thinking goes that elites were caught off guard by the invasion; don't want it; are harmed economically by sanctions; and therefore will rise up against Putin to challenge him. That is theoretically possible. But it doesn't seem very likely. Sanctions, actually, drew elites closer to Putin -- because they don't have options to store their money in London or New York. Instead, the dominant elite thinking is like Medvedev -- go along with it, try to be useful, and stick with Russia against the West. The invasion against Ukraine may end if Russia runs out of troops or supplies -- but don't bet on elites forcing an end to it.
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