Medvedev responds by repeatedly trying to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin, which draws ridicule from politicians and pundits alike. As a consequence, the cabinet of ministers Medvedev chairs is barely able to function.
The Kremlin could halt the abuse any time it wanted to, said Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center. But Putin, she said, intends to send a clear message to the rest of his circle that Medvedev is irrevocably out of favor. And it is a symptom of one of Putin’s strongest characteristics, she added: “He enjoys it when other people are being hurt.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, a once-trusted Kremlin insider who was fired in 2011, has a darker view: that Putin has convinced himself that Medvedev betrayed him, has conflated Medvedev with the political protesters who in fact oppose both men, and is lashing out in all directions in a fight against demons that only he can see.
This, Pavlovsky said in a recent interview, explains the anti-Americanism, the trials of political foes and the strident denunciations of the liberal elite. Worse, he said, the mood of distrust is infecting the whole political establishment, ushering in what he called a Russian McCarthyism. A case in point is the Duma, the lower house of parliament, where members try to outdo each other in finding new menaces to ban while ignoring the challenges Russia actually faces, he said.
It wasn’t always this way. From 2008 to 2012, Medvedev was president and Putin prime minister. Putin had already served two terms as president, and stepping into the prime minister’s job was a way to remain in power without violating the constitution. The idea was that they would be a “tandem” in running the country, with Putin in control but Medvedev faithfully carrying out the duties of the presidency.
It worked for a while, said Pavlovsky, a principal architect of the arrangement. His hope, he said, was that it would constitute a transition toward an actual electoral democracy. But even as Medvedev showed himself to be more tentative and cautious than he had to be, he began talking in 2011 as though he might seek reelection. Communications between the two leaders were bad, and Putin, Pavlovsky said, suddenly sensed betrayal.
That is when he decided to take the presidency back. Medvedev acquiesced but insisted on becoming prime minister, and Putin, perhaps out of misplaced fear that he would become a leader of the opposition, agreed.
But Putin was so wounded by what he believed to be Medvedev’s motives, Pavlovsky said, that he is now suspicious of everybody. This is not only bad politics, he said, but it has left all those close to Putin unsure of where they stand or what will happen.