are Russia’s two most powerful men: but while Putin negotiated gas supplies, his boss gave virtual skiing advice.

If today’s “outline” gas agreement between Ukraine and Russia holds, there will be no doubt who brokered it: Vladimir Putin, Russia’s busy ex-president. A week ago, as the crisis peaked, Russia’s constitutional head of state, President Dmitri Medvedev, delivered a virtual address from the alpine resort of Sochi. Standing in front of a picturesque mountain backdrop, he spoke about the importance of Russians learning how to relax.

Why was Medvedev, a former chairman of the board at Gazprom – the Russian state energy company at the heart of this ugly dispute – not on the other end of the phone? This glaring question invites a closer investigation into the nature of the relationship between the two most powerful men in Russia.

When he took office in May 2008, doubts were cast on Medvedev’s true level of independence from Putin, his predecessor. As Putin’s former chief of staff and then deputy prime minister, he was expected by many critics to act as no more than a figurehead for the previous president’s continued domination. His pledge to appoint Putin as the constitutional head of government solidified this perception.

However, early interviews seemed to offer hope of a more liberal regime. Medvedev spoke earnestly of the need to tackle corruption and further an agenda of civil and economic freedoms. His status as the first Russian president with no known links to the old Communist party or Soviet secret service was music to western ears.

Any casual glance at Russian papers or TV news bulletins will tell a different story. One person is in control, and it’s not Medvedev. The president can often be seen shaking hands with foreign leaders, exchanging gifts or signing treaties – and now, perhaps, in this new hobby of video-blogging to a nation with a 23% internet access rate. It is Vladimir Putin who answers the questions, makes the speeches and outlines policy proposals. And the strangest thing is that nobody even tries to pretend governance happens in any other way: Putin knows, the media knows, the people know. And surely Medvedev knows.

Putin evidently sees no need for the smoke and mirrors of political theatre. He is happy to project his cultivated image as a stoic figure of authority, the heroic leader who revived Russia’s global standing and transformed the ailing state into a major emerging power. His popularity ratings are consistently higher than the man who is supposed to hold the keys to the Kremlin, even while they both pointed financial fingers everywhere else amid thousands of Russian job losses.

The situation was compounded in the last months of last year, as Medvedev introduced a package of constitutional reforms that sped through parliamentary approval and were ultimately passed on December 30. Its main feature is an extension of the presidential term from four to six years, applicable from the next election in 2012. Some Kremlin observers believe this was originally drafted during the Putin presidency, and that it is designed to prepare the former KGB operative for a return to power in the long run. Of course, Putin has gone on record to vehemently deny this; but it must be noted that Medvedev’s professed anti-corruption ideals have taken a back seat – the constitutional alterations are his only significant legislative achievement from the first eight months in office.

On the other hand, there have been rumblings and rumours from the presidential residence. The Financial Times reported that Medvedev had been moving to distance himself from the idea of a bilateral decision-making process with his prime minister, openly stating he would “not be able to share this responsibility with anyone“. This ran contrary to his former emphasis on consultation. Even more overtly, he then went against the previous line to criticise Putin’s government for a slow response to the economic crisis. The Putin circle has been tight-lipped, but recent developments regarding the gas negotiations and Medvedev’s apparent demotion to blogger-in-chief suggest that something may have happened backstage.

Over the next few months this subtle tug-of-war will be an intriguing story. The Russian government has attempted to gloss over the severity of the financial crisis, but, as its effects increasingly emerge in the public sphere, someone will have to talk about it. Any statements from Putin in the coming days will be significant, as it seems Medvedev has already initiated a little blame game with his supposed number two. This could be the start of a new self-confidence campaign, as the president attempts to assert himself as the face of power; he’s even adopted faint echoes of an Obama-style web consultation by opening his blog to moderated comments.

Indeed, Barack Obama will present the next major challenge for Medvedev and Putin. Constitutionally, Obama’s Russian counterpart controls foreign policy, but the PM may have something to say about that.

Published @, 19/1/09 – click here for original.