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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

What The Obsession With Putin’s Health Says About The Grim State Of The War

The ongoing speculation around the Russian president being suddenly gone from power, because of either illness or death, captures the reality that this is Putin’s war. What could come next is no less troubling.

Photo of Vladimir Putin thinking on live TV

Vladimir Putin live on Russian TV Channel One

Cameron Manley

Every few days, a fresh round of speculation circulate about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deteriorating health: He’s got Parkinson’s or Rett syndrome or inoperable cancer. The latest reports this week declared that Putin was heading any day into surgery for cancer, and would be out of the public eye for an extended period and temporarily turn over the reins of power to a deputy.

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Part of the explanation is that, objectively, Putin has appeared weaker and less steady in recent public appearances. Some point to a widely viewed video last month of the Russian President showing signs of limp arm during a meeting with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, followed a week later by an apparently shaky Putin during Easter Mass.


The reports tend to remain in the confines of social media threads and tabloid headlines, though some serious news outlets have dipped in and out of the rumor mill. Still, the curiosity around Putin’s personal health and well-being persists, and has weaved its way into the larger narrative surrounding the war in Ukraine, which is widely considered his war.

Rumors of cancer surgery

The most recent rumblings suggest the 69-year-old leader is braced for critical surgery. These comments made their first appearance on the anonymously run Telegram channelGeneral SVR.

The channel isallegedly run by a former General of the Foreign Intelligence Service and who acquires information not available to the general public. The resource was significantly popularized by the famous anti-Putin political scientist Valery Solovey, who in many of his speeches referred to the materials of the Telegram channel.

Diagnoses have ranged from Parkinson’s to cancer.

The channel’s post onApril 28 states: “Putin's doctors insist that he will need surgery in the near future. Although Putin has not given his consent in principle and a date for the operation has not yet been agreed, Putin hastened to inform Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev about his situation.”

Over recent months, diagnoses have ranged from Parkinson’s to cancer, strung together using clips of Putin’s tremoring hands or bloated cheeks. Many have since been debunked by health experts and doctors.

And yet, these new remarks have gone beyond the British tabloids of the Daily Mail and The Sun, making headlines in their Russophoneequivalents and serving as topics of conversations forpolitical commentators. The same can be said onUkrainian media, where the headlines are used to stir up hope of a potential end in sight or as a mighty comparison to the young and fit Zelensky standing on the front line. An investigation was even carried out by Russian media siteProekt at the beginning of April in which it was revealed that in recent years Putin has been followed to major events by ‘brigades’ of doctors, who specialize in thyroid and oncological problems.

In an interview with Italian television companyMediaset, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was questioned on the "many hypotheses about the state of health of Russian President Vladimir Putin" existing in the West. After a chuckle, Lavrov cryptically replied: "Ask the foreign leaders who have been in contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently, including UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. I think you will understand what is at stake."

Pro-Kremlin speculation about Biden's alleged senility

In an attempt to deflect attention from Putin’s health, some pro-Russian media sites have pushed stories regarding U.S. President Joe Biden’s age and alleged senility. OnNews.ru, head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is quoted calling on the White House to take care of the U.S. president, and not "sit back and indifferently watch the head of state suffer from dementia syndromes."

Moscow-based daily Kommersant published a stand-alone story on Wednesday that Biden had mistakenly stated that the United States was supplying Russia with Javelin anti-tank missile systems, when in reality the supplies were going to Ukraine.

Still, the impact of any potential Biden health issue pales in comparison to the stakes associated with Putin’s fate. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, back in early Marchpushed speculation that Putin was indeed ill, though cautioning that the precise condition from our side of the hospital curtain was almost impossible to determine.

​Wishful thinking of peace

We of course can only wait to see which, if any, of these speculative stories do in fact prove true. But their multiplying effect points to what is a question looming for many around the world: Is there any visible path out of the accumulating catastrophic events unfolding in Ukraine? Does imagining Putin out of the picture offer the only real glimmer of hope of achieving peace and avoiding escalation?

The only means of stopping the man is through debilitating illness or death.

Indeed, since the war began, Russia and Putin have come to mean one and the same thing. Putin is Russia and vice-versa. The only way to stop Russia, is to stop Putin. And as it currently stands, the only means of stopping the man is through debilitating illness or death.

But with possibilities of Putin’s departure from power, we find ourselves dealt another concerning question: Who will come next? Indeed, the recent round of stories on the would-be cancer surgery, which cite hard-line intelligence chief Patrushev as an interim decision-maker. If he were to become Putin’s actual successor, Kremlin watchers warn to be careful what you wish for.

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