When Vladimir Putin anointed Dmitry Medvedev, 43, president and himself prime minister three months ago, it was taken for granted in the West that the former was a figurehead and the later Russia’s strongman.
A joke making the rounds illustrates this perception: Putin buys Medvedev a sumptuous Mercedes with all the latest gadgets including a computer that finds a space and parks the car automatically. When Medvedev seats himself in the car, he looks around and asks: “Where’s the steering wheel?” Putin just smiles.
After close study of the way the Georgia conflict was managed by the Kremlin, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources refute this perception absolutely.
In fact, they say, the president and prime minister worked smoothly in tandem and withstood the tests of the crisis in and around South Ossetia. From the moment it erupted on August 7, not a single case of contradictory orders handed down by the two heads of government is known.
This is not surprising, given the fact that the two collaborated closely in government for 17 years and for two years, Medvedev was first deputy prime minister.
The decision-making mechanism operating in the crisis in Moscow is not a one-man show; it works through a National Security Council, which meets several times a day, to determine the next steps.
Medvedev wanted a tough response against Georgia
President Medvedev and prime minister Putin both have seats on the council with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, head of the FSB security services Alexander Bortnikov, the chief of the general staff, General Nikolay Makarov and a number of other officials and officers.
Russian officials, who talked to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources about the division of labor among the council members, disclosed that on August 8, after the Georgian army invaded South Ossetia, the council took one decision only and that was to send in the Russian army to throw the Georgians out of the enclave.
Nothing else was determined at that point.
The decisions to occupy the Georgian town of Gori and the Black Sea port of Poti were made later by council members and endorsed by Medvedev and Putin.
Our sources in Moscow disclose that the president originally favored a tough response to the Georgian attack of South Ossetia, belying the impression in some Western quarters that he is a liberal.
The way the two leaders performed in public gave the impression that Medvedev was in charge of foreign policy and the army, while Putin dealt with economic assistance to South Ossetia and the refugees streaming into Russia. In fact, both were closely involved in the crisis and both were in tune on general policy, proving that there is no truth in the assessment in the West that the new president is the softer of the two and dominated by the tougher Putin.
Too new for a trusted team of advisers
One of the most amazing discoveries of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources was that Medvedev has been running his side of the Georgian conflict virtually single-handed, because in his three months on the job there was no time to pick a team of his own. He therefore dueled with powerful US military and political interests in the Caucasian and Black Sea without the support of trusted military or diplomatic experts. The Russian president availed himself of army and foreign ministry experts before forming policy.
Dmitry Medvedev has therefore emerged from this testing period as a ruler as sharp, tough-minded and astute as his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.
Until he builds a presidential staff, he is accompanied by three close associates: the most prominent is his close personal friend, the director of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, along with defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who is turning out to be too independent-minded for Putin’s inner circle, and Sergey Prikhodko, his assistant and liaison officer with the foreign ministry.
Putin’s team of advisers in the Georgia crisis is led by his closest ally, Igor Sechin, vice prime minister who has been with him since he was mayor of St. Petersburg.
Sechin is responsible for Russian industry, including the energy sector.
The president – not just in name
He lost some of his power bases when he followed Putin out of the Kremlin into the prime minister’s office, as did Putin’s former assistant and chief of staff, Viktor Ivanov, who has been appointed director of the Federal Service for Drugs Control.
In the Russian system of government, defense, interior, foreign affairs, emergency, and the prosecutor’s office fall under the president’s authority. Therefore, the president’s advisers, albeit minimal and random at this time, have carried more clout in the South Ossetia crisis and its growing ramifications than Putin’s loyalists.
The future of another of Putin’s proteges, defense minister Serdyukov, is now bound up closely with the presidency.
Vice-premier Sergei Ivanov, former foreign minister and failed candidate for the presidency, may qualify as mayor of Moscow. The incumbent foreign minister, Lavrov, led the tough line in Moscow against Georgia and its president Mikhail Saakashvili. Both he and Ivanov maintained their foothold during the transfer of power in the Kremlin and the Georgian crisis.