Betting Against the President

When Medvedev can't even convince party insiders to stick up for him, does he have a shot at keeping his job?


MOSCOW — On July 7, Russia’s most respected independent newspaper, Kommersant, published a remarkable full-page interview with the chief designer of Russia’s strategic missiles, Yuri Solomonov. Ostensibly about defense budgeting and the state of the Russian strategic arsenal, the interview was actually a stinging attack on President Dmitry Medvedev’s leadership in one of Russia’s most politically and internationally fraught arenas: strategic nuclear weapons. The Russian commander in chief emerged from Solomonov’s portrait as a bad strategic planner, an inept manager, and a Khrushchev-like shoe-banging blusterer who is making Russia’s already weakened position in global politics even more perilous.

A rare public insight into Kremlin decision-making in an especially secretive area, the interview was even more interesting as the first public, honest answer to Russian officialdom’s question of questions: Whose side are you on in advance of next year’s "elections," the Regent prime minister or the Dauphin president?

Solomonov began by describing the technological base of the Russian missile industry with a degree of frankness not heard from a Russian in a position of authority since the halcyon days of glasnost. Russia, he said, is utterly dependent on imports from the West because there are technologies that it "cannot make itself." We "simply don’t have anything," Solomonov told Kommersant. (According to Solomonov, the share of high-tech in Russia’s total exports is one-fourth of 1 percent.) One ought not be surprised that Russia is "looked down" on, he continued; for the West, Russia is just a "territory with a lot of nuclear weapons."

China, which he called the "world’s second economy," has only between 200 and 250 missiles. The same goes for France and Britain, whose "economies cannot be compared to ours" but which, too, don’t have anything on the level of Russia’s arsenal. In this context, Solomonov continued, haggling with the United States over the exact numbers of permitted strategic missiles is plain ridiculous — a "psychological" itch and a "short-term political game" rather than a national security imperative. Thus, Medvedev’s crowning foreign-policy achievement, the New START missile reduction treaty, is hardly a triumph. According to Solomonov, Moscow could have, and should have, gone below the 1,550 New START minimum at least to 1,200 or even 1,000 strategic warheads.   

Medvedev is not simply allowing a bad situation to continue, Solomonov averred, he’s making things worse. The 2010 defense procurement order has fallen through, and Medvedev only now, "half a year later," got around to holding a meeting with government officials and industry figures to look into what happened. Small wonder then, that, according to Solomonov, the 2011 defense plan is also a failure: The defense industry cannot possibly fulfill it.

But instead of focusing on bringing the industry up to standard, Solomonov said, Russia is acting like a bully, threatening Europe with increasing one category of weapons or "embarking on a rapid deployment" of another in response to an alleged threat of a pan-European missile defense system — a threat that, Solomonov insists, simply "does not exist, did not exist, and will not exist." And even if it did, Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles are already perfectly capable of breaking through it.

Medvedev is not mentioned by name, but Solomonov’s account is an apposite summary of the Russian president’s bombastic warnings at the meeting with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Sochi just days before.

To be sure, Solomonov criticized Vladimir Putin as well. But he described his offenses in such a positive light — unlike Medvedev, Solomonov said, the prime minister gives very reasonable orders and is guilty only of not following through quickly enough — that it just felt like a pro forma gesture.

And that, undoubtedly, is just how Solomonov wants it. For months now, Kremlin-watchers have been observing — mostly with malicious amusement — the agony of top government functionaries as they try to guess the victor of the presidential contest and position themselves accordingly.

Yuri Solomonov has just placed his bet. Both his own high position in Moscow’s power structure and the publicity of his declaration signal a major weakening in Medvedev’s chances, as seen by those who ought to know.

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.

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