In any case, if you read carefully what Putin and Medvedev have said on the subject of reform, it is not clear that the differences between them are really so great. Putin, like Medvedev, has always emphasized Russia's economic backwardness and the terrible role played by corruption. Putin has not done much about high-level corruption-but then, given the way the Russian system works, it is not at all clear that Medvedev would be able to either. Medvedev has emphasized the need for greater democracy, but in his recent article on the web, he also spoke in very Putinesque terms of the importance of stability and the risks posed by radical change:
Not everyone is satisfied with the pace at which we are moving in this direction. They talk about the need to accelerate changes in the political system. And sometimes about going back to the ‘democratic' nineties. But it is inexcusable to return to a paralyzed country. So I want to disappoint the supporters of permanent revolution. We will not rush. Hasty and ill-considered political reforms have led to tragic consequences more than once in our history. They have pushed Russia to the brink of collapse. We cannot risk our social stability and endanger the safety of our citizens for the sake of abstract theories. We are not entitled to sacrifice stable life, even for the highest goals.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if the present Russian system collapses in ruins at some point in the medium term-though if this happens, it will be due above all to global economic developments. Equally, it wouldn't surprise me if Putin succeeds Medvedev as president in 2012, and then Medvedev Putin in 2020, and the present system trundles on for a generation or so. In the words of the French police chief in Casablanca, "Personally, Major, I will take what comes." The one thing that would absolutely astonish me is if Western views have any impact at all on these outcomes.
Anatol Lieven, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.