The tabloid press, bolstered by a sudden efflorescence of Twitter diagnosticians, certainly seems to think so. Since his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine got underway, the 69-year-old Russian president’s deteriorating health has been a subject of frenzied speculation — speculation that press secretary Dmitry Peskov has downplayed, citing Putin’s “excellent” health.
Boris Karpichkov, a KGB defector to Britain (and formerly an officer of the Second Chief Directorate, specializing in counterintelligence) thinks his fellow sexagenarian ex-spy suffers from Parkinson’s disease, along with “numerous” other maladies including dementia. “He is — or at least acts — insane and obsessed by paranoia ideas,” Karpichkov told Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, comparing Putin in this respect to Stalin, who was the victim of at least one stroke.
A Telegram channel called “General SVR” and purportedly helmed by a former officer from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service has stated that Putin is set to undergo surgery for an unspecified form of cancer in the near future and that while he’s on the operating table, his temporary replacement will be the grim Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, a fellow ex-KGB man and longtime director of one of its successor agencies. Patrushev, as New Lines has documented, is also one of the most hawkish ideologues of the regime.
The evidence for the preponderance of disparate if not contradictory claims of Putin’s imminent demise is Putin himself. He certainly looks bad. The bullfrog mien, awkward gait, fidgety behavior at televised events including his April 22 meeting with his embattled defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, at which a slumped Putin clung to the edge of a parodically tiny table as if to steady himself against a tremor or vertigo. There is also his notorious self-isolation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the oft-cited reason for his conducting meetings with foreign visitors, both before and during the war, at medieval banquet-length tables. (Anyone who wants to get close to Putin, Russian independent media have reported, must take a PCR test and even provide a fecal sample.)
What New Lines can establish is that there is indeed a growing chorus of those close to Putin or in his domestic intelligence apparatus who are murmuring much the same as those quoted in the supermarket checkout lane rags and who are in a better position to know of his state of mind and body. Whether these sources are telling the truth or trying to sow disinformation is unknown. It would behoove those disillusioned by Putin’s totalitarian leadership, for instance, to portray him as incapacitated or not long for this world, the better to weaken his hand at home and on the battlefields of Ukraine. Spreading rumors of his declining health could also preempt something more catastrophic such as an order to launch a nuclear weapon, which is less likely to be carried out by military commanders on behalf of a terminally ill despot.