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Is Putin dead?

What the persistent rumours about the Russian president’s health do and do not tell us about the country’s future.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 2 June 2022 and has been updated to reflect recent events. When Vladimir Putin visited a military base southeast of Moscow on 20 October, a Ukrainian journalist pointed out possible track marks on the back of his right hand, which once again increased speculation that he might be dying from cancer. When he gave a speech at the Valdai forum in St Petersburg on 27 October, several news outlets carried photos of his right hand, which they said was bruised, consistent with the earlier images of the supposed track marks, although it was not visible on photos taken from other angles.

Vladimir Putin is dying from blood cancer. Or thyroid cancer. Or maybe abdominal cancer. No, it is Parkinson’s. He has dementia. He is losing his sight. His limbs are “shaking uncontrollably”. On any given day, depending which news outlets you believe, the Russian president is terminally ill with any number of different diseases. Or perhaps, as several British tabloids have suggested recently, he is already dead. 

Citing an unnamed intelligence source at the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6, the Daily Star reported on 28 May that Putin was “very ill”, possibly “already dead”, with the Kremlin using lookalikes to conceal his demise. Not to be outdone, the Sunday Mirror followed up the next day with its own wholly unverified assertions under the headline, “Vladimir Putin may already be dead with body double taking his place, MI6 chiefs claim.”  

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The rumours about Putin’s decline spread so far and so fast that Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was forced to deny them during an interview with the French television channel TF1. “President Vladimir Putin makes public appearances on a daily basis,” Lavrov said, according to the Russian news agency Tass. “You can see him on TV screens, read and listen to his speeches. I don’t think that a sane person can suspect any signs of an illness or ailment in this man.”

To be clear, there is no verifiable evidence that Putin is seriously ill. Still less so that he is dead. The unnamed sources who are quoted in these articles do not offer definitive proof, perhaps unsurprisingly given the secrecy surrounding the president’s health and security. Instead, they rely largely on rumours swirling within the intelligence community and the old Soviet-era practice of Kremlinology, in which analysts scrutinise the leader’s public appearances for signs of physical decline and clues as to who might be in favour or out, in the absence of reliable information.

The most compelling reporting to date as to what, if anything, might be wrong with Putin’s health has come from the independent Russian media outlet Proekt, which used leaked travel documents to show that Putin is, at a minimum, under close medical supervision. According to an investigation published on 1 April, he has frequently been accompanied on trips to his Black Sea residence in recent years by a team of top doctors, including an oncology surgeon and two otolaryngologists, which the outlet said was consistent with treatment for thyroid cancer. Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov has dismissed the claims as “fabrication and untruth”.

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Other purported proof of the 69-year-old’s imminent demise is circumstantial at best, relying on the subjective analysis of video footage that some observers insist shows the president attempting to conceal a tremor or grimacing in pain. A televised meeting with the defence minister Sergei Shoigu on 21 April, for instance, attracted particular scrutiny as Putin slouched in his seat and gripped the table in front of him throughout the 12-minute encounter, prompting speculation that he was trying to hide a trembling hand or the involuntary movements associated with Parkinson’s disease.  

More unnamed Western intelligence sources have noted his “ashen and bloated” face during recent appearances, and his “increasingly erratic behaviour”, as signs that he is receiving steroid treatment for cancer or a degenerative neurological condition. Likewise, his decision to use a woollen blanket to cover his knees while watching the Victory Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square on 9 May has been held up as evidence of his rapid decline. As the Sun newspaper reported, “‘Cancer-stricken’ Putin watches military parade with BLANKET over his legs as rumours swirl around tyrant’s health”.

Maybe it is all true and the Russian leader is in his final days. But perhaps he is just an ageing despot with a lousy temper and a bad back, who sometimes feels the cold.

It is easy to understand why the rumours about Putin’s health generate so much coverage. They are irresistible clickbait. Who doesn’t want to read about how long his doctors have given him to live, and how this explains his obsession with his place in history and his otherwise nonsensical assault on Ukraine? The president and his propagandists also bear some responsibility for this state of affairs by placing so much emphasis on his supposed physical prowess during his early years in power, staging photographs of him riding a horse bare-chested and swimming in a Siberian lake to demonstrate his literal fitness for office, after the shuffling, frequently drunken figure of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

The insatiable interest in the Russian leader’s purported maladies is also surely motivated in part by a degree of wishful thinking about how his increasingly repressive rule and the devastating war in Ukraine might come to an end. Instead of a long, bloody conflict that might go on for many years, it is tempting to believe that its architect might simply disappear, leaving more reasonable minds to call back the Russian troops and end the senseless violence. 

This presupposes, however, that whoever comes after Putin would be more reasonable, less paranoid about Russia’s place in the world, remotely interested in democracy or the rule of law. But there is no reason to believe that this would be the case.

According to the Russian constitution, if Putin dies, the prime minister Mikhail Mishustin should take over as acting president, followed by a new election within three months. But Mishustin is a low-profile technocrat with little previous political experience, and while it is possible that his mediocrity could be seen as a selling point by some among the regime elite, who might view him as a loyal frontman who would do as he was told (as Putin was similarly viewed by his early backers), he is unlikely to be a serious candidate.

In fact, there is every possibility that Putin’s successor will be even more autocratic than he is. Leading contenders from within his inner circle would likely include the security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who scholar Mark Galeotti has described as a “hawk’s hawk” and “the most dangerous man in Russia” for his hard-line nationalist, anti-Western views; and Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor agencies of the KGB. In other words, the death of Putin isn’t likely to solve any of the West’s problems with Russia.

Yet Putin is mortal, and while the latest rumours of his death may be greatly exaggerated, the persistent speculation about his health could become dangerous for the president if these questions linger and he starts to be seen as yesterday’s man. Nobody wants to be the first to raise the issue in public, but if it becomes clear that Putin is ailing, his allies and enemies – and those in both camps who would like his job – will begin manoeuvring in earnest to replace him.

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s “dirty bombs”]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man