Is Medvedev the lapdog of Putin? Or is he biting his mentor's ankles? No one knows, which makes taking sides a dangerous guessing game, particularly for the White House.
Vladimir Putin defied that description. By May 2008, when his eight years as president ended, Mr. Putin had clearly and purposefully turned Russia into a "managed democracy," cutting back political and human rights, leading an aggressive foreign policy, and reintroducing state control of giant corporations, especially oil and gas. No question about intentions there.
But mystery again shrouds the Kremlin's high walls, as people inside and outside Russia wonder what direction it is headed in. The uncertainty poses a particular problem for the White House, which is attempting to press the "reset button" in strained relations with Moscow. It needs Russian cooperation on front-burner issues such as Iran and the war in Afghanistan.
Until recent months, it's been assumed that Mr. Putin, now the prime minister, still runs Russia; that his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev, is his political lapdog. Mr. Medvedev, however, appears to be straining at the leash. Will he eventually slip his collar?
In speeches, he sounds as if he wants to steer Russia away from the Putin model. In his Internet manifesto in September, in his state-of-the-nation speech earlier this month, and last weekend, when addressing his colleagues in the United Russia party, Medvedev sharply criticized much of what his mentor had built up (without naming names, of course).