As Dmitry Medvedev is sworn in as Russia's third post-independence president today many will doubtless succumb to the undying attraction of the Kremlin tea leaves and ask, "Who is Medvedev?" It won't be time well spent.
The interest in Medvedev is understandable; he will be assuming what is at least nominally a very powerful position in an increasingly assertive country that remains mysterious to many Americans almost seventeen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Medvedev's predecessor and soon-to-be prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has unquestionably become a major figure on the international stage.
But if anything should make clear the fruitlessness of the "who is [insert Kremlin leader here]" game, it should be Putin's own presidency. Eight years ago, many American backers of Boris Yeltsin who also supported heavy-handed involvement in Russia's economic policies welcomed Putin. They saw him as a reliable successor to Yeltsin who would be better able to use the powers of the presidency to force further policy changes. When Putin made it his first priority to undermine and effectively exile the so-called "oligarchs" who had supported other candidates for the presidency, the then- president's KGB background became a focus of excited but often oversimplified attention (Putin was a foreign-intelligence officer, after all, not a domestic security informer or enforcer).
Since then, "who is Putin?" has gone on for eight years and has yet to produce much that is useful-mainly because the people who ask the question normally want simple answers and Putin, like most others on this earth, is not a simple person. The same seems likely to be true of Medvedev as well.
Much more informative is the slower, more complex, and considerably-more-nuanced business of actually watching what Putin, Medvedev and other leaders do over time. And there are certain things to watch out for. In Mr. Medvedev's case, we will soon see who is appointed to senior positions and who is not. Understanding the appointments will not be easy-Medvedev is unlikely to have a completely free hand and Mr. Putin will clearly have significant influence; though probably more in shaping the government that he will head than in selecting the Kremlin staff that will work for his protégé and successor. Key roles for an already-strong economic team, including long-serving Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, could be an important plus. And an extended fight over personnel issues could augur poorly for historically unprecedented power-sharing between Medvedev and Putin, possibly leading to paralysis or worse.
In addition, will Medvedev try seriously to take on corruption after saying that Russia suffers from "legal nihilism"? Mr. Putin said that he wanted to establish a "dictatorship of law" and that the government should be "equidistant" from the oligarchs. Neither happened in practice because Russia's powerful business leaders remain a key political constituency supporting the current political system (and Putin took on only those who did not). Medvedev is unlikely to confront oligarchs who support the regime, but might be able to impose new rules on their behavior-something that would be a major accomplishment.
Medvedev's approach to the media will also be revealing. Under Putin, the Russian media had noticeably more leeway in criticizing the prime minister and the government than in assailing the president and the Kremlin. If the same arrangement continues, unwelcome attention could well be focused on Prime Minister Putin, especially if Putin's government is not fully successful in implementing its ambitious national projects in education, health, housing and agriculture. Yet tighter control over media discussion of the government (as distinct from the Kremlin) could eliminate one of the few remaining "safety valves" that prevents dissent from becoming something more-and provoke Western criticism, though this will probably be secondary in Medvedev's calculations.
In foreign policy, the U.S.-Russian agenda is over-full and underachieving: differences on missile defense, NATO enlargement, Kosovo and a host of other issues have undermined progress in areas of shared interest like combating terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Mr. Medvedev is not likely to spend much effort cultivating an outgoing American president-especially when consolidating his own position may take some time-but a different approach to the new American president in January could help to turn the relationship around. (Some degree of reciprocity would obviously be required for it to do more.) Medvedev's interaction with key U.S. partners in Europe, especially the United Kingdom, which has even-rockier ties with Moscow at present, could be an early indicator of what is to come.
Understanding Russia is difficult at best and predicting Russian behavior doubly so, especially in times of transition. But we could do ourselves a big favor by focusing less on unanswerable questions instead looking at actions over the coming year. It's the only way to develop sound and effective policies for the United States in dealing with another major power.
Paul J. Saunders is the executive director of The Nixon Center and the associate publisher of The National Interest.