Is Vladimir Putin sick or even dying?
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.
Western governments, not to mention the news organizations they leak to, are similarly inclined to have us envision Putin and the regressive state he rules in the worst possible light. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn sought an allegory to depict the Stalinist slave empire after the purges — one in which everyone from the Central Committee member to the petty apparatchik to the man-in-the-street was made to look complicit in the cannibalization of society — he opted for cancer. Treatment for a metastasizing tumor, as Solzhenitsyn knew from firsthand experience, could be every bit as destructive to the organism as the pathology itself.
Perhaps something of Solzhenitsyn’s literary legacy informs the whispers of Putin as the modern Sick Man of Europe. Then again, maybe he is just that. New Lines has obtained an audio recording of an oligarch close to the Kremlin who describes Putin as “very ill with blood cancer,” although the type of blood cancer was unspecified. Needless to say, we are unable to independently confirm this allegation, Putin’s medical charts being notoriously difficult to come by. But the recording represents rare testimony by someone with proven ties to the Russian government that its fanatical dictator may well be seriously unwell. And the oligarch had no idea he was being recorded.
A Western venture capitalist taped the conversation in mid-March without the oligarch’s foreknowledge or consent. The source provided the recording to New Lines on the condition that we not publicly identify him. He says he betrayed a colleague’s trust out of disgust with the war in Ukraine — a disgust his secretly recorded interlocutor evidently shares. “He absolutely ruined Russia’s economy, Ukraine’s economy and many other economies — ruined [them] absolutely,” the oligarch says of Putin. “The problem is with his head. … One crazy guy can turn the world upside down.”
New Lines was easily able to authenticate the oligarch’s identity and voice. We have taken the decision to withhold his name or any compromising details of his biography because of the high probability disclosing it would lead to state retaliation. Russia has imposed a sentence of 15 years imprisonment for those found guilty of spreading “fake” information about the war in Ukraine, which is to say stating the facts about it. Oligarchs in particular have much to lose, given that their ability to earn and spend their hundreds of millions or billions is inextricably tied to their fealty to the Kremlin. Roman Abramovich, erstwhile owner of the Chelsea Football Club in London, may have been poisoned while trying to help Ukraine negotiate a peace deal. In all, eight oligarchs, many involved in Russia’s lucrative energy sector, have turned up dead since January; two under eerily similar circumstances as geographically distant as Catalonia and Moscow, alongside their wives and children, whom they were thought to have murdered before committing suicide.
For the purposes of this article we’ll refer to the oligarch as “Yuri.”
We can reveal that Yuri is currently outside of Russia. As of 2021, his net worth was high enough to qualify him as one of Russian Forbes’ 200 richest businessmen. He is preoccupied with the pariah effect that the country’s economic isolation and U.S. and EU sanctions have had on his own portfolio in Europe, spending the bulk of the 11-minute recording asking the Western venture capitalist as to how he might indemnify himself.
Yuri also lets rip, denouncing the war in vehement terms, trashing the Kremlin’s initial pretext of “trying to find Nazis and fascists.” Yuri then goes on to say that “we all hope” Putin dies from his cancer or possibly from some internal intervention in Moscow such as a coup to spare Russia from further misfortune — either an accidental switch of pronoun or one reflective of shared oligarchic opinion. Furthermore, Yuri personally blames Putin for killing “more than 15,000 Russian soldiers and 4,000 or 5,000 civilians in Ukraine. It’s unbelievable. For what? He killed more people than in 10 years in the [Soviet] Afghan war.”
Yuri’s bona fides were easily established through open source verification methods and consultations with past and present intelligence officials. One former European security chief described him as belonging to a “close circle of 20 to 30 people” with whom Putin met in 2014 in advance of his stealthy seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. “The goal was to explain the motivations of his military actions, why this was the only way,” the ex-official told New Lines of that conclave, indicating that Yuri is — or was at that time — one of Putin’s confidants and plenipotentiaries. Another associate of the oligarch added that he is still in a position to provide “concrete information” about the inner workings of the Presidential Administration of Russia (the formal name of the leader’s executive office).
Somewhat bolstering the fact that Yuri’s allegation is now widespread in the elite corridors of Moscow is that on March 13, a top-secret memo was dispatched from the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency, to all regional directors of the FSB. “The memo instructed the regional chiefs not to trust rumors about the president’s terminal condition,” Christo Grozev, the head of investigations at Bellingcat, a forensic research website famous for unmasking Russian spies and assassins, told New Lines. “The directors were further instructed to dispel any rumors to this effect that may spread within the local FSB units. According to a source at one of the regional units who saw the memo, this unprecedented instruction had the opposite effect, with most FSB officers suddenly coming to believe that Putin indeed suffers from a serious medical condition.” As in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, nothing is believed until the state says it’s a malicious falsehood.
There is always the possibility that Yuri’s revelation is one.
“There is no way to know for sure from the outside, but there are two consistencies in evaluating the Kremlin,” said John Sipher, a former CIA officer specializing in Russia. “Their instinct is to lie and spread disinformation on the one hand, and so this chatter may be an effort to deflect attention. Or, equally likely, we are seeing flashes of elite infighting. Putin has long acted as the de facto mafia boss of the Kremlin, the arbiter between those fighting for influence or money. Those clans are now positioning themselves to survive no matter how this crisis ends. Leaking Putin’s health crisis — or inventing one — would be one to gain leverage.”
The timing of the FSB memo was curious, coming less than a month before Proyekt, a well-respected Russian investigative news outlet, published an exposé showing that Putin routinely travels within Russia in the company of specialist doctors. Among them are Alexei Shcheglov and Igor Yesakov, both head-and-neck surgeons; Konstantin Sim, an orthopedic traumatologist; and Evgeny Selivanov, a neurosurgeon who has produced scholarship on thyroid surgery and on thyroid cancer in geriatic and senile patients. Shcheglov, Yesakov and Selivanov are Putin’s “most frequent travel companions,” Proyekt found. Putin has also taken to homeopathic and nonscientific folk remedies, according to the outlet, such as soaking in baths filled with the blood of deer antlers, which is thought to improve cardiovascularity and skin complexion.
Putin is known to have sustained several injuries to his back since he first became president of Russia in 2000. He fell off a horse during his first term, an accident that incapacitated him for a time, according to a source cited by Proyekt. He can also be seen limping in more recent videos, a conspicuous feature of his public appearances such that the Kremlin press service at one point banned state news agencies from referring to it. He also took a nasty spill at an ice hockey match in Sochi in May 2017 after another player knocked into him. On that occasion, Sim, the orthopedic traumatologist, remained close to Putin’s residence for eight days. “In at least two cases,” Proyekt reported, “Putin underwent either an operation or a very serious procedure, most likely in the back.”
The president’s poor health was also said to be the reason for his prolonged absences from the spotlight beginning in 2012. Those absences have led to proliferation of what the Russians have dubbed “canned food” or prerecorded footage of his seemingly real-time meetings with visitors. One famous helping of canned food was Putin’s meeting, aired on Feb. 21, with his national security chiefs just before the launch of his latest war with Ukraine: That meeting, judging by the dates shown on the attendees’ watches, was filmed earlier.
Yuri, too, cites Putin’s back problems and suggests they are linked to blood cancer. The oligarch says Putin underwent back surgery in October 2021 — just a few months shy of his “special military operation” in Ukraine — although New Lines could not find any evidence to substantiate this allegation. Whatever the case, Putin isn’t exactly spry these days.
On March 18, at a large pro-war rally in Moscow, Putin delivered an address and was filmed walking off stage down a short flight of stairs putting most of his weight on his left foot. Just this past week, at Russia’s Victory Day celebration in Red Square to commemorate the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, Putin sat with an FDR-esque blanket draped over his lap. (The temperature in Moscow on Victory Day — May 9 — was a non-Arctic 48 degrees Fahrenheit.) His walk during the Victory Day parade was visibly awkward, possibly to conceal a limp that has elsewhere been observed. And his face was even puffier than usual.
Ashley Grossman, a professor of endocrinology at Oxford University, told New Lines, “Putin has always been a very fit-looking man with a slightly gaunt appearance. But over the last couple of years, he seems to have filled out in the face and neck. Cushingoid appearance, it’s called, and it’s compatible with steroid use.”
Steroids, Grossman said, are typically prescribed for various kinds of lymphoma or myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells, which “can cause widespread bone disease and definitely affect the spinal column and back.”
Lymphoma is typically a more aggressive type of blood cancer, requiring heavy-duty chemotherapy that leads to hair loss, something Putin is not known to have ever experienced. Other lymphomas are lower grade, may not require chemotherapy and are less likely to afflict the bones.
Myeloma, even the more aggressive forms of it, doesn’t necessarily require chemotherapy at all anymore. It can often be treated with immnuno-modulatory agents and steroids, neither of which precipitate hair loss. Myeloma can, however, lead to compression fractures of the spine, which make a patient hunched (see again that abnormal vignette with Shoigu) or even shave inches off height.
Steroids – a common one is prednisone – attack malignant lymphocytes that circulate in the blood, but they are also known for two common side effects.
The first is a high risk of infection owing to how badly they deplete immune cells. “Anyone on heavy doses of steroids will find it much easier to contract COVID-19,” Grossman said, which might account for Putin’s extreme germophobia and recourse to Howard Hughes-like seclusion. Pneumonia, too, can easily kill an immunocompromised steroid user.
And the second side effect?
“Deeply irrational or paranoid behavior.”