Is Vladimir Putin sick, seriously ill, even at death’s door? Here is a report from The Guardian: “Vladimir Putin’s limp sparks health rumours.” Here is another, from the Associated Press: “The Russian leader whose image of physical vigor is key to his success has canceled several foreign trips in recent weeks, postponed his annual live televised question-and-answer session with average Russians, and has rarely left his suburban residence outside Moscow.”
Breaking news? No—these stories are both from 2012.
How about these headlines? “Is Putin ill? ‘Everything is fine’ despite cancelled meetings and old photos,” “Putin Pictures Fail To Halt Sickness Rumours,” and “Vladimir Putin returns to public but illness rumours continue over ‘pale’, ‘puffy’ and ‘sweaty’ face.” These are all from 2015.
There is a new wave of rumors, reports, and speculation about Putin’s health circulating right now. Photos of Putin’s “puffy face” and stories that he has blood cancer are all over online news outlets. The story has gotten so big that the Kremlin has even denied it. About two months ago, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked directly if Putin had thyroid cancer. Peskov responded that this idea was “fiction and lies.” There is a good summary and analysis of the current writing/speculation out there by Michael Weiss at New Lines Magazine. Most intriguingly, Weiss obtained an audio recording of a Russian oligarch stating that Putin is “very ill with blood cancer.” Weiss writes that New Lines was able to authenticate the oligarch’s identity and voice, but could not confirm the allegation of illness. It is entirely possible that Putin is sick now. It is also possible that he really was sick during these two previous times in 2012 and 2015, and that his successive illnesses have been kept from the public eye.
However, when we are discussing Putin’s health it is wise to be especially cautious about believing any sources, even highly placed ones, whose motives should be questioned and examined. Putin’s health is not like the health of some celebrity, or even of a major Western politician like the president of the United States or the prime minister of Italy. Putin is the head of a “counterintelligence state.”
The “counterintelligence state” is an idea and a phrase coined by Dr. Jack Dziak, a retired senior official in the U.S. Defense Department who is also a Ph.D. in Russian history. Dziak first introduced the term “counterintelligence state” to the public in his excellent book Chekisty: A History of the KGB (1987). The basic idea is this: We Westerners often incorrectly called the security organs of the USSR “intelligence” organs, likening them to our CIA or Britain’s MI6, etc. The KGB did collect intelligence, but the nature of the regime meant that the primary role of the KGB was counterintelligence. The importance of identifying enemies in a counterintelligence state is so great that eventually “Police and counterintelligence operations (such as arrest, investigation, penetration, provocation, deception, entrapment, denunciation, informants, spy mania, censorship, dossiers, and so on) soon characterize the behavior of the whole state structure, not just of the security organs.”
Dziak says he wrote this book after teaching classes at George Washington University and realizing that his students were trying to understand the USSR without understanding the all-important role of the security services in this state. He wrote it was like studying “physics without mathematics.” I believe that his insights into the nature of the Soviet state are doubly relevant in the post-Soviet Russian state, when the head of state is a former KGB officer. Putin and his servants are obsessed with preventing accurate information about the inner workings of his regime to an extent that we in the West might find it difficult to comprehend. This is not a few thugs breaking into an “enemy” campaign office or a president erasing some tapes or shredding some records, nor are we just talking about some manipulative political appointees lying or twisting the truth for D.C. journalists hungry for an inside scoop. Imagine if the primary goal of the FBI and the CIA were to deceive the world about Joe Biden’s thoughts, activities, state of mind, and health. And also imagine if the top people at these institutions had been doing it for decades, and are the pupils of teachers who have been doing it for decades more.
This is not to say that the U.S. or U.K. or other democratic countries don’t engage in deception operations; we surely have excellent specialists in these arts, but this is not the primary purpose of our intelligence agencies or the obsession of our head of state. When we think about or read about topics that would be highly sensitive to Putin and his inner circle, we should be extra keyed-up to beware of deception, especially deceptions that tell us what we want to hear.
For example, Putin may be deliberately spreading fake information about his ill health in order to encourage Western powers to “take it easy” on Russia. What is the point of permanently damaging relations with Russia if Russia’s entire foreign policy could be gone in a month or two? Such a line of reasoning would be especially attractive to European countries that are dependent on Russian energy exports. Combined with other initiatives, a coordinated deception that Putin is near death could be an important Russian tool in fracturing the Western alliance and preventing further sanctions or even aid to Ukraine.
There is also the possibility of a Ukrainian deception operation, or an operation by a Ukrainian friend to create or amplify rumors of Putin’s imminent demise. This kind of operation would be aimed at upsetting Russian politics and therefore harming Russia’s war effort. For example, a major weakness of Putin’s system of government, if it can be called a system, is that nobody has any idea what will happen the day after Putin dies. What the Russian constitution says is immaterial. If Putin were to suddenly kick the bucket and your worst political enemy manages to seize power, then it might be time to head to the West to avoid the trouble. Infighting among the upper circles of the regime in preparation for a succession could hamstring attempts to build unity within the ruling regime during a time of war.
Then there is the possibility that it is a combination of several operations, even combined with Putin actually having some kind of illness. It is possible that something like this happened during World War II. A 1993 article by the archivist Lawrence H. McDonald described how the morale operations (MO) branch of the OSS spread rumors about Hitler’s ill health or disappearance during WWII:
“In the form of gossip, MO used many variations on the theme ‘Where is Hitler?’ MO spread rumors that Hitler was to speak at certain anniversaries, while his rumored death, disappearance, illness, psychotic condition or flight from Germany were all part of the orchestration of misinformation on his whereabouts and silence. MO ‘Comeback Studies’ showed that these plants were reported as facts in the press of neutral countries. To counteract the effect of these rumors, German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels actually maintained that he had planted misinformation regarding Hitler’s illness to lull the Allies into complacency.”
Toward the end of the war, Hitler actually was suffering from some serious health problems, including what was probably Parkinson’s disease. American intelligence was also spreading rumors about his poor health, and also (if Goebbels is to be believed) the Germans were spreading disinformation about Hitler’s poor health as well.
If Putin were really ill, then we should expect some stories about his illness to be deliberately planted in the press, stories that would direct attention away from his actual disease and toward things that can be discredited (i.e. a story that he has terrible cancer and is going to die in a few weeks gets planted to help disguise the truth that he has a long-acting disease).
One should also be wary of the “insanity” explanation for Putin’s behavior. Some people, especially people shocked with the idiocy of the invasion of Ukraine or those who had what they believed to be a coherent model of Putin’s behavior before the war and who have been surprised, might be inclined to accept a story about some rapid deterioration in Putin’s mind. Why else would he make these awful decisions and put everything at risk? Surely he must be undergoing treatment for some deadly disease, and is taking medication that alters his mood or clouds his mind. One version that I have heard repeated is that Putin is dying, so he decided to rush an invasion of Ukraine to preserve his legacy.
Putin may be dying. He may not. Information about his actual state of health is surrounded by a bodyguard of lies and well-resourced bureaucracies staffed by the smartest and most competent people in Russia. Putin is certainly under a lot of pressure right now, probably more pressure than he has ever experienced in his life, courtesy of some Ukrainians who won’t surrender. This, combined with his evident COVID fears, is a perfect setup for some wild rumors—or planting some excellent disinformation. Getting good information about topics like Putin’s health is why countries should have well-funded foreign intelligence agencies, which can spend many years and millions of dollars recruiting the kinds of sources who would never leak to the press. In the meantime, we’re best off paying attention to the known facts on the ground and not paying too much attention to speculation that may be the result of well-resourced disinformation operations.
Andrew Fink received his Ph.D. from the law school at Leiden University in 2020 on the history of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and violent extremist ideologies.