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Putin’s useful madman

Putin’s useful madman


When he was president Dmitry Medvedev was relatively moderate. Now he’s threatening to use nuclear escalation.

Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev has said it may use nuclear weapons if the Ukrainian counter-offensive is successful. It’s the latest in a series of remarks he’s made about nuclear escalation.

Medvedev is currently deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council. He was born in 1965 in what’s now St Petersburg and studied law at university before initially pursuing academia. 

He met Vladimir Putin whilst working in local government. Their relationship has defined his career: as Putin climbed the political ladder, he brought Medvedev with him. 

Giles Whittell, Tortoise’s world affairs editor, interviewed Medvedev in the Kremlin in the early 2000s. “My overwhelming impression was that he was a tedious man with a legalistic turn of phrase,” said Whittell. He later spotted Medvedev at Heathrow airport “laden with Harrod’s hat bags”. 

It’s an image that fits with Medvedev’s political reputation at the time. He was widely considered more interested in the West, more dovish and more moderate than Putin. 

In 2008 Medvedev succeeded Putin as president and Putin became prime minister. “A lot of people hoped that he would be his own person, and be more liberal and more western-oriented than Putin,” said Whittell. In reality, he was Putin’s man – and a “stooge”. 

In 2012 Medvedev and Putin swapped roles, and Medvedev remained prime minister until 2020, when he resigned and was made deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council. 

At this point his position appears to have hardened, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “His role has been to articulate the gravest threats that Russia can present to the West… namely nuclear escalation,” explained Whittell. 

Medvedev’s threats allow Putin to appear dovish, said Nina Kurayata, Tortoise’s Ukraine editor. By allowing someone else to invoke nuclear weapons Putin seems more reasonable.

They tend to happen when there is Ukrainian military success, for example, or new western plans to equip Ukrainian forces. “It has become a ritual,” said Whittell. “‘Remember: we have the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal’.”

So far, none of Medvedev’s threats have been followed by action – but even the repeated spectre of nuclear weapons forces the international community to pay attention. 

This episode was written by Claudia Williams, with Giles Whittell. Additional reporting by Nina Kurayata. It was mixed by Imy Harper.