Cablegate: Medvedev Loses Out in Russia-Georgia War


DE RUEHMO #2563/01 2391404
P 261404Z AUG 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L MOSCOW 002563


E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/22/2018

Classified By: Ambassador John R. Beyrle: Reasons 1.4 (b, d).

1. (C) Summary. Unlike Putin, whose leadership during the
Chechen war strengthened his political power, Medvedev's
performance to date has reinforced his status as junior
member of the tandem. Two anecdotal reports suggest that
Putin was displeased with the President's performance at the
start of the conflict; Putin, not Medvedev, set the tone and
tenor of Russia's war policy. The conflict exposed Medvedev's
weaknesses, his lack of a "team" of advisers, and the paucity
of levers that he holds to influence policy, particularly in
foreign affairs. While most Russians have yet to calculate
the long-term consequences of the Georgian war, a near term
conclusion is that the conflict has reinforced Medvedev's
need for a "regent" and validated Putin as the man most
Russians trust to protect their national interests. End

Medvedev Stumbles

2. (C) The war in Georgia capped Medvedev's first 100 days in
office, and provided him the chance for a defining moment as
the country's military and political chieftain. Yet, two
anecdotal reports suggests that Medvedev blinked when the
Georgian conflict began. xxxxx told the German Ambassador that Putin was deeply
concerned by the failure of Medvedev to take immediate
actions and to show resolve on August 8. Putin intervened
repeatedly from Beijing, where he was attending the Olympics.
Several phone calls took place between the Prime Minister
and Medvedev, with Putin using a meeting with Kazakh
President Nazarbayev to set the initial Russian public
hard-line. Similarly, in either an indiscretion or a
deliberate slight, FM Lavrov confided to the French
Ambassador (on the margins of Sarkozy's August 12 visit to
Moscow) that Medvedev had come in for significant criticism
among the ruling party elite for his handling of the initial
hours of the crisis.

3. (C) At first glance, the interaction between the two
during the Georgia war appeared a confirmation of the
"regency" model of leadership posited by many Kremlin
observers about the tandem, with Putin taking charge when his
protege faltered and then stepping back once he had righted
the ship of state. Putin, not Medvedev, made the first
strong public Russian address on the conflict after his
return from China. His bristling speech in Vladikavkaz on
August 9 set the tone and message of Moscow's approach:
accusations of genocide, promises of aid to mitigate the
"humanitarian disaster," and an explanation of Russian action
as justified and legitimate. In the days that followed, a
pale and tired Medvedev met with various military and
government officials before the television cameras, but he
never addressed the people directly -- in part because Putin
had already done so. Olga Kryshtanovskaya of the Academy of
Sciences Institute for the Study of Elites characterized
Medvedev's performance during the first days of the war as a
schoolboy who learned his lessons by rote, but without the
vehemence of true conviction. Indeed, at one of the few
public meetings between Putin and Medvedev, the Premier
resorted to "suggestions" that the military prosecutor should
look into evidence of "genocide" in South Ossetia, and
Medvedev duly agreed to give the order.

4. (C) As the conflict cooled down and Medvedev took a
visible role in hammering out a ceasefire agreement with
French President Sarkozy, the public portrayal of the tandem
began to shift back to its "proper" balance, even as the
French told us it was Putin who joined the meeting to broker
the "Medvedev-Sarkozy" agreement. Medvedev moved to the
forefront of Russia's government controlled television stage
and Putin returned to focus on other matters. According to
the newspaper Kommersant, Levada Center polls in August
showed a slight increase in popular perceptions of Medvedev's
position in the tandem, with 14 percent of respondents
agreeing that real power is in the President's hands, up from
9 percent in June, but still far below the near 20 percent
figure at the time of Medvedev's inauguration. Tellingly,
nearly half of respondents saw Medvedev and Putin sharing

100 Days Leaves Medvedev Poorly Prepared

5. (C) Few are surprised that Medvedev was unprepared for the
Georgian war. Before the conflict, Medvedev had focused on
domestic issues that had been his forte as Deputy Premier.
He had taken initial steps in his first three months in
office to define himself: promoting the domestic themes of
anti-corruption, economic modernization, and, in foreign
policy, a new European security architecture. He also went as
far as indirect criticism of Putin's attack on the Mechel
coal company in late July. Pro-Kremlin commentators like
lawyer Pavel Astakov and analyst Dmitriy Orlov in recent
weeks penned paeans to what they claimed were Medvedev's
successes in launching judicial reforms, promoting small
business, and tackling the thorny issue of pervasive

6. (C) While debates have continued over whether Medvedev is
a "liberal" or a Putin flunky, there is general consensus
that Medvedev remains circumscribed in his ability act
independently. xxxxx conceded
that Medvedev had ambitions and was being pushed by his inner
circle (largely remnants of the Yeltsin team) to be "more
liberal," but he had no capacity to carry them through.
xxxxx attributed this to Putin's shift of Kremlin cadre to
the White House -- a move that left Medvedev largely adrift
in his own administration. Editor/owner of the independent
xxxxx judged Medvedev
politically naive, despite 17 years in the inner circle.
xxxxx who with eight other prominent editors attended a
long, liquid dinner with the President, described Medvedev as
saying the right things, but with no clear ability to
translate them into practice.

7. (C) While Medvedev spoke vaguely of new European security
structures, some argued that Putin remained the real foreign
policy helmsman, who used informal relations and the creation
of new White House entities to forge his own policy team. The
newly appointed Director of the Russian Institute for
Democracy in NY, Andranik Migranyan, judged to us that even
before the Georgia crisis, Medvedev had taken a beating in
foreign policy, with the appointment of Ambassador Yuri
Ushakov to the White House a clear sign of Putin's
encroachment on Kremlin turf. Medvedev lacked a foreign
policy team, and his hesitancy, or "lack of tonality," on
important issues was apparent in the diplomatic mishap at the
G8 over Zimbabwe. Migranyan predicted that Putin would
continue to dominate the policy milieu through his connection
to the intelligence services and deployment of Ushakov.

Looking Ahead

8. (C) For those who see Putin as protecting and developing
his successor as "regent" -- including xxxxx and Gleb
Pavlovskiy -- the conflict gave some indication of Medvedev's
strengths and weakness during times of crisis. Medvedev
stills needs Putin, according to Pavlovskiy, as the primary
source of the President's legitimacy. If Putin were to leave
office today, Medvedev would have a tough fight; in the eyes
of half the Russian public, trust of Putin constitutes
Medvedev's writ. Kryshtanovskaya argued that Putin cannot
afford to allow Medvedev to lose his legitimacy as president,
in that Putin has staked his reputation on his successor.

9. (C) For others, the war showed that Medvedev is not up to
challenge of leadership. Russian Caucasus experts told DCM
August 21 that Russia could not show weakness in the face of
Georgia's challenge in South Ossetia for fear of both
external and internal security consequences. Putin, not
Medvedev, understood that and orchestrated the required
action to meet the challenge, they argued.

10. (C) While most of our contacts agreed that 100 days is
too short to draw conclusions, xxxxx and Kryshtanovskaya
predicted the war could hasten a shift towards a
parliamentary system. xxxxx characterized Putin's public
persona as Russia's CEO, rolling up his sleeves on issues
that matter more to Russians while Medvedev handles the
ceremonial duties of President. He likened the situation to
the German model, which Putin well understands, and posited
that the Premier may aspire to play Chancellor to Medvedev's
German President. Kryshtanovskaya likewise sees Putin as
laying the foundation for a parliamentary republic, by taking
the lead of Russia's most politically powerful party and
shifting many formerly presidential functions to the White


11. (C) After the Georgian conflict, nobody questions Putin's
dominance of the political system. What remains to be seen
is whether he intends to transfer the power mantle to
Medvedev, as the "regency" school predicts, or to further
consolidate his power as Premier. Putin's modus operandi is
to create options and to avoid picking one particular path,
suggesting that we will see him continue to follow both
options as he waits to see how things play out. Among the
populace, there is a sense of national pride and patriotism
as the vast majority of Russians rally around the Kremlin.
The success of Moscow's "short, victorious war" accrues to
the tandem team, although we assess more so to Putin than the
President. The Russian elite, highly attuned to signals from
the Kremlin, are likely to see the Georgian war as evidence
that it is too early to dismiss the influence of the silovik
wing or its captain, Putin. And in light of the Kremlin
wagon-circling we expect to follow the independence
recognition decision, Medvedev's agenda of economic
modernization, anti-corruption, and European security focus
will lose any sense of urgency that it might have had. End

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