Is Vladimir Putin sick?

‘Insatiable interest’ in the Russian president’s health is likely to be ‘wishful thinking’

Vladimir Putin
Putin is seen gripping the side of a table
(Image credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP)

Speculation about Vladimir Putin’s ill health has grown since the start of the Ukraine war.

The Russian leader has been said to have cancer, Parkinson’s and mental health problems. “On any given day, depending which news outlets you believe, the Russian president is terminally ill with any number of different diseases,” said Katie Stallard at The New Statesman. “Or perhaps, as several British tabloids have suggested recently, he is already dead.”

It seems we have become “obsessed” with Putin’s health, said Ed Browne at Newsweek. The Kremlin has denied that he is ill, “but it hasn’t stopped observers from probing small details in videos of Putin”.

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The oligarch claims

In May, a leaked recording of a Kremlin-linked oligarch suggested Putin might be seriously ill with blood cancer.

New Lines, a Middle East-focused magazine, said the audio was captured by a “Western venture capitalist” in mid-March “without the oligarch’s foreknowledge or consent”. It said it had been “able to authenticate the oligarch’s identity and voice” but not his claims about the Russian leader’s health.

The Sun also reported that an oligarch close to the Russian leader had told associates that “stories about him going bonkers are not a joke”. The source told the paper they had been told that “the emperor’s madness is real, and the nuclear strike’s threat is very real, too”.

The video speculation

The disclosure that government-linked oligarchs were speculating about Putin’s deteriorating health came after video footage showed the president coughing and huddled under a blanket at Russia’s Victory Day parade in May.

Putin had a “thick green cover draped over his legs” despite the “relatively mild” weather as he watched a military procession in Moscow’s Red Square, said The Independent.

And that appearance came just weeks after he was seen “slouched in his chair” during a meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, The Telegraph said. Putin “refused to let go of the corner of the table, which was gripped by his right hand, during the meeting”.

The most recent rumours come from Telegram channel General SVR, which claimed that Putin’s relatives were worried about his coughing fits, nausea and lack of appetite, reported the Daily Mirror. The anonymous channel, which has long argued that he is suffering from cancer, enjoys “a large following and is widely quoted in Western media” but “has offered no evidence to support its self-proclaimed affiliation with former or current Russian intelligence officials or the country’s security apparatus”, according to Newsweek’s Fact Check team.

Putin’s state of mind

The Russian president appeared “bloated, irrational and lacking the cold control that he had been famed for” in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, said The Telegraph. Then, as the war has ground on, he has been prone to angry outbursts, denouncing Ukrainian leaders as “drug-takers” and “Nazis”.

Despite their protestations that Putin is fine, “the Kremlin does not have a good track record of being honest about the health of Soviet or Russian leaders”, noted the paper. It pointed out how the illnesses of previous leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Boris Yeltsin went largely undisclosed to the public.

In February, he forced visiting French and German leaders to sit at the far end of a four-metre table, sparking rumours that he was terrified of catching Covid. This “extreme form” of social distancing as well as “the unexplained bloating of his face” could have been a sign that he is taking steroids for an undisclosed medical condition, said Paul Taylor on Politico.

Senior figures in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which comprises Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, believe Putin may have suffered a “psychological deterioration caused by physiological factors”, reported the Daily Mail the following month.

The evidence

“To be clear, there is no verifiable evidence that Putin is seriously ill,” said Stallard at The New Statesman.

She suggested that the “insatiable interest” in Putin’s health is likely to be rooted in “wishful thinking” by those hoping for an end to the war. Yet it could have real-life consequences for the Russian leader if he “starts to be seen as yesterday’s man”.

“Perhaps he is just an ageing despot with a lousy temper and a bad back, who sometimes feels the cold,” said Stallard. But if it is shown that he is ailing, his allies and enemies “will begin manoeuvring in earnest to replace him”.

While they cannot be verified, the fact that the rumours are circulating is “politically significant”, agreed The Economist’s Russia editor, Arkady Ostrovsky. “It is evidence of how brittle this regime is and how quickly it could unravel, how much it is held together by Putin and how many people want him dead.”

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