The phrase stuck. Over the past four years Medvedev has done nothing to dispel the impression that he is anything other than a useful seatwarmer, his time in the Kremlin a legalistic blip in an epoch of endless Putin rule.
It wasn’t always like this. At the start of Medvedev’s presidential term there were faint hopes that he might preside over a partial liberalisation of Russian society. The president himself spoke of ending “legal nihilism”. Commentators, meanwhile, scrambled to make sense of Russia‘s historically anomalous ruling arrangement – the “tandem”, as it became known.
In the shadow world of Kremlin politics it was hard to work out what was going on behind the scenes. Some looked in vain for signs of an intra-leadership struggle. Others speculated that Medvedev might eventually escape from Putin’s gravitational pull, or even fire his mentor.
The Obama administration tried to reach out to Medvedev in the hope this would nudge Russia’s foreign policy away from its hawkish Putin vector towards a more constructive approach. By 2010, however, US diplomats had concluded that Project Medvedev was hopeless.
Medvedev’s position became one of humiliation. I heard one expert describe Russia’s ruling model not as a tandem but as “a bicycle with a child’s seat in the front”.
US diplomats even cabled back to Washington the following joke: Medvedev sits in the driver’s seat of a new car, examines the inside, the instrument panel, and the pedals. He looks around but the steering wheel is missing.
He turns to Putin and asks: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, where is the steering wheel?” Putin pulls a remote control out of his pocket and says: “I’ll be the one doing the driving.”
Medvedev’s announcement on Saturday that he was stepping down to allow Putin a third presidency came as a surprise to no one, then. Medvedev’s only significant act as president was to extend Russia’s presidential term from four years to six, hardly a democratic step forwards. This was seen, rightly, as teeing up the conditions for a triumphant comeback during elections in the spring of 2012: Putin’s.
So what now? Putin’s return means the west faces another decade of difficult relations with Russia. During his first two stints as president, the former KGB agent demonstrated his gift at G8 gatherings and other international get-togethers for sardonic repartee mixed with snide remarks about western hypocrisy and double-dealing. We can expect more of this.
There is no prospect of any real improvement in UK-Russian relations. David Cameron did manage to meet Putin this month during his trip to Moscow, the first contact with him for four years. But until Downing Street caves in to the Kremlin’s demand that it resumes co-operation with Russia’s FSB spy agency – suspended after Alexander Litvinenko’s polonium murder – no “reset” is possible.
The prospects for Russia itself are equally gloomy. The country now faces a long period of political and economic stagnation and single-party rule. Increasingly the Putin era resembles that of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, another too-long authoritarian period sustained by a commodities boom, which left ordinary citizens frustrated. Increasing numbers of talented but Disenfranchised Russians are voting with their feet and moving abroad.
In theory Putin could go on until 2024, when he will be 72. Or longer.
This week, however, the blogger and anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny predicted that Russia’s kleptocractic system would collapse well before that. “People now realise it doesn’t work. It worked between 2000-2005. There was stability up until 2008,” he said. “But now it’s useless, even for the corrupt people who benefit from it.”
With no political mechanism for removing Putin from power, Navalny said, another Russian revolution was inevitable. At some point, he said, frustrations would boil over. “Maybe in five months, maybe in two years, maybe in seven years,” he said. Asked what would spark it, he suggested: “The Caucasus.”
Many observers have plausibly argued that Putin is tired of being leader. So why did he come back? The Kremlin, of course, is more prestigious that then prime minister’s office, and gives Putin an international platform. More than this, though, it allows Putin to protect his own alleged secret assets and those of his team, US diplomats believe. And it allows him to avoid potential law enforcement prosecution – inevitable, once he steps down from power.