There is even growing speculation that his personal decision to go to war with Ukraine was as a result of being terminally ill. For Vladimir Putin it became a matter of now or never.
London: It was that video with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu last week which increased speculation that Vladimir Putin could be seriously ill. In the footage posted online by the Kremlin, the 69-year-old Putin grabs hold of the corner of the table with his right hand as soon as he sits down for the meeting, and keeps hold of it for the entirety of the 12-minute clip, as if desperate to steady himself. All the while his feet are tapping awkwardly. In fact, both men looked as if they were in poor health. Shoigu had reappeared on state media after a long absence only a few days before his meeting in the Kremlin, which prompted speculation that he had become ill or that his position had been usurped. In contrast to Putin, who sat slightly hunched with his spine pressed flat against the back of the chair, Shoigu sat on the edge while reading his report on the situation in Mariupol with a slurred speech, suggesting that rumours of a recent heart attack could be well-founded.
Throughout the whole of his 22-year reign, Kremlin media-managers have continuously presented Vladimir Putin as a “мужик”, a man with pugnacious masculinity. Recall those pictures of him riding a horse bare-chested, or salmon fishing topless in Siberia, images which have been a major part of how he brands himself to the Russian people and the world. Now, all we have is a pastiche of Soviet gerontocracy, with Putin nodding perfunctorily, offering a grunt through his botoxed jowls to Shoigu, ordering him to seal off Ukraine’s Azovstal steel plant so that “not a fly should be able to pass through”.
While his sanity has been questioned over the decision to invade Ukraine, Putin’s physical health has also been a subject of intense debate over many weeks. In a recent “Five Eyes” report, an alliance comprising of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US, intelligence officials believe that there is a physiological explanation for his increasingly erratic behaviour and bloated appearance. They claim that the Russian President is suffering from a brain disorder caused by dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or “roid” rage resulting from steroid treatment for cancer. “There has been an identifiable change in his decision-making over the past five years or so,” they write, “and close confidants have seen a marked change in the cogency and clarity of what he says and how he perceives the world around him.” One particular source said that this failure to think clearly was also compounded by the lack of a “negative feed-back” loop, as the Russian leader “is simply not being briefed” on elements of failure with the invasion.
Days before the attack, there was certainly evidence to back up this theory when Putin sat alone behind his desk, looking across an expanse of parquet floor at his trembling security council as they squirmed awkwardly in their chairs at a distance, waiting to be grilled by their boss. “Speak directly”, Putin snapped twice at Sergei Naryshkin, the hawkish head of Russia’s spy service, who stuttered uncomfortably as Putin questioned him on whether he supported the supreme leader. A few hours later, the Russian President appeared on state television to give an angry, rambling lecture about Ukraine which had no right to exist. All a classic demonstration of “roid rage”.
Back in December 2020, Professor Valery Solovei, a political scientist and former head of the Public Relations Department of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, claimed that President Putin had emergency surgery in February of that year for abdominal cancer. According to the Russian investigative group “Proekt” (now banned), oncology surgeon Evgeniy Selivanov carried out the operation and is now one of Putin’s most valued medical consultants. Over the course of the past four years, Selivanov has attended him 35 times and spent a total of 166 days with the head of state. In his statement, Professor Solovei also claimed that the President was suffering from early onset Parkinson’s disease. “Absolute nonsense”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “everything is fine with the President”. Shortly after making his claim, there were reports that Solovei had been arrested.
Nevertheless, experts in the field are convinced that Putin’s “puffy face” is a side-effect of chemotherapy drugs or steroids. Recent evidence indicates that people taking immune-suppressing medication, such as cancer patients or those with chronic conditions, are known to be at risk of catching a severe case of Covid. Many are speculating that this was behind Putin’s decision to sit at an absurdly long desk, metres away from foreign leaders and even his own colleagues. It was also reported that during the Covid crisis, those who met Putin had first to walk down a tunnel being sprayed with disinfectant before isolating in adjacent rooms for two weeks and then tested for the virus before being allowed to meet him. There is even growing speculation that his personal decision to go to war with Ukraine was as a result of being terminally ill. For Vladimir Putin it became a matter of now or never.
With the invasion well into its third month, there are numerous reports that with military losses mounting and the country facing unprecedented international isolation, a small but growing number of senior Kremlin insiders are quietly questioning Putin’s decision to go to war on 24 February. So far, however, these people perceive no chance of the Russian President changing course and no possibility of any challenge to him at home. More and more reliant on a narrowing circle of hardline advisors, Putin has dismissed attempts by other officials to warn him of the devastating economic and political cost of the “special military operation”. Many insiders are concerned that Putin’s commitment to continue the invasion will doom Russia to years of isolation and heightened tension that will leave the economy crippled, its security compromised and its global influence gutted. Such concerns, however, receive short shrift from the Kremlin.
But what if the war in Ukraine doesn’t end? Currently there is the real possibility that neither side will accomplish what it wishes to achieve, with Ukraine not being able to expel Russian forces fully from the territory they have taken to date, and Russia being unable to achieve its main political objective—control over Ukraine. Instead of reaching a definite resolution, the war may well usher in a new era of conflict characterised by a cycle of Russian wars on Ukraine. Such a long time-line to any conclusion would not fit well with a terminally-ill Putin, keen to get results before he meets his maker. Perhaps the latter scenario might be the final act in this story of a series of catastrophic errors by the dictator. The sick villain, distant and pathologically alone expiring at the end of his long table, and the valiant hero dressed in khaki braving death to save his nation. Add to this the remarkable plot twist of Russian military incompetence and Ukrainian battlefield success and you get moral and narrative arcs which suggest there might be a happy and safe ending for the world after all.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.