The Fall and Fall of Dmitry Medvedev

How the former Russian president went from geeky technocrat to deranged war hawk.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gives a press conference.
Then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gives a press conference.
Then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gives a press conference during an official visit to Le Havre, western France, on June 24, 2019. Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

In the summer of 2010, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev set off on a tour of Silicon Valley in search of investors and ideas on how to modernize his country’s resource-dependent economy. The young president, known for his love of technology, paid visits to Google, Apple, and Twitter in what the social media platform’s co-founder Biz Stone described as “one of the most special days in the history of Twitter.”

It was there that Medvedev sent out his first ever tweet. “Hello everyone, I’m now on Twitter and this is my6 first message,” he wrote in Russian, complete with a typo. These days, Medvedev tends to use Twitter and other social media platforms for shitposting about U.S. and European officials as well as making thinly veiled threats to attack the United States and wipe Ukraine from the map. In a post on Telegram on Monday, he said the United States should beg for Russia to restart arms control negotiations. “Let them run or crawl back themselves and ask for it,” he wrote. 

Despite tweeting his bellicose Mad Libs in a number of languages, Medvedev’s audience is most likely domestic, analysts say, as he looks to cover his back and shore up his political future as the domestic turmoil brought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine begins to unfurl and speculation about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health continues to mount. 

In the summer of 2010, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev set off on a tour of Silicon Valley in search of investors and ideas on how to modernize his country’s resource-dependent economy. The young president, known for his love of technology, paid visits to Google, Apple, and Twitter in what the social media platform’s co-founder Biz Stone described as “one of the most special days in the history of Twitter.”

It was there that Medvedev sent out his first ever tweet. “Hello everyone, I’m now on Twitter and this is my6 first message,” he wrote in Russian, complete with a typo. These days, Medvedev tends to use Twitter and other social media platforms for shitposting about U.S. and European officials as well as making thinly veiled threats to attack the United States and wipe Ukraine from the map. In a post on Telegram on Monday, he said the United States should beg for Russia to restart arms control negotiations. “Let them run or crawl back themselves and ask for it,” he wrote. 

Despite tweeting his bellicose Mad Libs in a number of languages, Medvedev’s audience is most likely domestic, analysts say, as he looks to cover his back and shore up his political future as the domestic turmoil brought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine begins to unfurl and speculation about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health continues to mount. 

“There’s a lot of worry among the elite, even among those who are considered to be under Putin’s krysha [protection],” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “For some, it means keeping a low profile. For some, it’s posing as a hawk. But it all stems from this general sense that winter is coming and no one knows how it’s going to be.” 

In October of last year, shortly before Russia began building up its troop presence along its border with Ukraine, Medvedev published an essay in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, which seethed with conspiracy theories and contempt for Ukraine’s leaders. In a passage laced with antisemitic overtones, he accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, of being beholden to Nazis. 

Threats of fire and brimstone have become the norm from senior Russian officials and hosts on Russian state television. But even by these standards, the remarks from the once mild-mannered Medvedev have raised eyebrows. The former president’s descent into a barely intelligible rage against the Western machine mirrors Russia’s broader shift from annoying neighbor to an existential threat to Europe—and maybe worse.

“It’s one of the [bigger] intrigues of current domestic policy,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst and founder of the R.Politik consultancy. Cognizant of circling hawks, Medvedev’s outbursts are likely an attempt to curry favor in Russia’s new political climate, which has become markedly more nationalist and intolerant of dissent since the invasion of Ukraine in February.

“Russia has changed. And Medvedev has to show that he belongs to this Russia,” Stanovaya said. 

Scorned by liberals for his willingness to please Putin and regarded with suspicion by the strongmen of Russia’s security services for his overtures on the United States, Medvedev has grown increasingly isolated in recent years as his allies have been arrested or driven into exile, leaving him dependent on Putin’s good graces. 

“Medvedev is one of the most vulnerable figures in the Russian political elite,” Stanovaya said. 

In a post on Telegram this month, Medvedev sought to address some of the speculation around his newfound jingoism. “People often ask me why my Telegram posts are so harsh. The answer is that I hate them. They are bastards and scum,” he wrote, presumably about Ukraine. “And as long as I’m alive, I’ll do anything I can to make them disappear.” 

When Medvedev was inaugurated as president in 2008, after Putin’s first two presidential terms in office, it reinvigorated hopes in Russia and the West that reform was still possible. Medvedev cut a markedly different figure from his predecessors. At just 42 years old, he was largely untainted by the Soviet political system, having graduated from law school just a few years before the fall of the Berlin wall. He talked the talk, calling out the country’s “weak democracy” and “ineffective economy,” and he appeared to embrace the tech optimism sweeping the world. 

Sensing an opening, the United States’ own reform-minded then-president, Barack Obama, pursued a “reset” in the country’s relationship with Russia, traveling to Moscow during his first year in office. “Together, we can build a world where people are protected, prosperity is enlarged, and our power truly serves progress,” Obama said in his commencement address at Moscow’s New Economic School in 2009.

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sat down to hamburgers at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia, on June 24, 2010.

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sat down to hamburgers at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia, on June 24, 2010.Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images

But the very traits that were the cause of optimism among Western officials drew derision and suspicion from conservative political circles in Russia. Medvedev’s avid iPad use garnered the nickname “iPedik,” which tacked Apple’s signature prefix onto a Russian homophobic slur. In 2011, a video of Medvedev dancing to the 1990’s Russian pop hit “American Boy” at a university reunion was leaked online and quickly went viral. “We’re rocking out last year at a reunion with my (university) class,” tweeted Medvedev, confirming the video’s authenticity. 

Despite Medvedev’s rhetoric, it gradually became clear that he was little more than a placeholder for Putin, who was paying lip service to the constitutionally imposed term limits. The pair ruled as a tandem or, as the U.S. ambassador to Russia put it in a 2010 cable later leaked by Wikileaks, a “bicephalous ruling format.” After flirting with running for a second term in 2011, Medvedev quickly stepped aside to allow Putin to return to the presidency, humiliating himself in the process. 

“Since then, he’s basically been in retreat as an independent political figure,” said Eugene Rumer, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia program. 

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny capitalized on the widespread contempt for Medvedev, making him the target of an extensive and highly embarrassing anti-corruption investigation released in 2017, which prompted tens of thousands of Russians to take to the streets across the country, outraged by the corruption underpinning Medvedev’s luxurious lifestyle. Russian teenagers who don’t know a country without Putin, brandished yellow rubber ducks as a symbol of protest, a nod to the duck house at Medvedev’s luxurious summer home uncovered by the Navalny investigation, complete with a marina, ski slopes, and trio of helipads. 

In 2020, Medvedev abruptly resigned as prime minister, with his approval ratings in the doldrums—by Russian standards—at 38 percent. While he was down, the former president was not out and was appointed to the newly created post of deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, though it’s unclear what the role actually entails. “He has a job, which no one really knows what it is supposed to be,” Galeotti said. 

Despite his unpopularity, Medvedev’s survival is a testament to Putin’s loyalty to his obedient foot soldiers. “Putin doesn’t like change. He doesn’t like churn. He doesn’t like to see people go out of his circle,” Galeotti added.

Speculation about Putin’s health has electrified tabloids in the West, as the Russian president continues to keep his distance from crowds and even his own senior officials two years into the pandemic. These rumors have not gone unnoticed in Moscow either. Although Putin’s health is a closely guarded secret, it has underscored the political and physical mortality of Medvedev’s long-standing patron. 

“He’s fighting for his future place in post-Putin Russia,” Stanovaya said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.