Why Russia Might Want Us To Think Putin Is Sick

Never shy to brandish an image of vigor during his presidency, a seemingly frailer than usual Vladimir Putin has added to speculation over whether the Russian leader is the sick man of Europe.

Whether it was riding a horse bare-chested or cutting an agile figure playing hockey or showing off his judo skills, the Kremlin has cultivated a narrative of a leader who is strong physically, and by inference, politically.

But this image is at odds with footage of Putin that has emerged over the last few weeks, such as his trembling hand when he welcomed his ally, Belarusian leader Aleksander Lukashenko to Moscow.

Rumors over his health have gained momentum. In a meeting with his defense minister Sergei Shoigu on April 21, Putin gripped the edge of a table, looking uncomfortable and fidgety. Political analyst and Kremlin critic Valery Solovei has long claimed Putin had cancer, as well as Parkinson's disease, and that he had emergency surgery in February 2020. New Lines magazine reported tapes of an unnamed oligarch with Kremlin ties saying that the Russian leader was "very ill with blood cancer."

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Rumors are swirling over the health of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This image shows Putin riding bare-chested in Siberia in 2009, left, and at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on April, 26, 2022. Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Telegram account General SVR, purportedly run by a former Russian Foreign Intelligence Service official, known as Viktor Mikhailovich, has made other claims about Putin's maladies and an upcoming operation.

The Kremlin, which Newsweek has contacted for comment, has repeatedly said that the Russian leader is in good health. Also, as Putin faces global condemnation for his invasion of Ukraine, diagnoses made from the bar stool rather than the bedside could just be wishful thinking.

"The question of whether Putin is sick or not is likely a very tightly guarded secret and I suspect that very few people know the actual answer to this question," said Joshua Tucker, Kroll Institute Fellow and Director of the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.

"That being said, it would not be surprising for domestic enemies of an autocratic leader to circulate rumors that the leader was terminally ill in an effort to weaken their hold on power," he told Newsweek.

"If someone was interested in weakening an autocrat's hold on power that was not facing term limits to their rule any time soon—as is the case with Putin—suggesting that their health was failing would be one way to try to do this."

Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis believes there is no truth to the rumors about Putin's ill health, although she did suggest it could be a Kremlin ploy.

"I honestly don't believe any of it and am very curious why Russia is putting these rumors out," she told Newsweek.

As Newsweek previously reported, Lautman said earlier this month that with Russia being such a controlled society where Kremlin officials keep a tight rein on information, Putin's exhibition of symptoms of sickness could only be "theatrics and distraction."

But just what officials could be up to is unclear. She believed it could be a plan to see if anyone was attempting a power grab, or to lay the groundwork to put a new face in the Kremlin.

Another reason might be a way to float the idea that a sick Putin may step down so there is no need for them to worry about his iron rule.

"Just because we might think that circulating rumors about a leader's health would be a potential strategy to try to weaken the leader's hold on power, it does not mean that the leader in question could not actually be sick," said Tucker. "I suspect very few people know the answer to that question."

Faced by huge troop losses, whose true number the Kremlin does not acknowledge, and a retreat from Kyiv, Putin's invasion of Ukraine is faltering and his demeanor is closely scoured for signs of weakness.

"Unconfirmed reports that Putin is sick are common as people seek simple reasons to explain Russian military incompetence and Ukrainian battle successes," said Chris Dolan, politics professor at Lebanon Valley College, Annville (PA).

"Russian disinformation tends to be very strategic, well-planned, and coordinated," he told Newsweek. "If this is coming from inside the Kremlin—and we don't have much to go on aside from a statement from a Russian oligarch—it is random or just a baseless statement designed to explain away Russia's incompetence, ineptitude, and self-destructive invasion of Ukraine."

Dolan believes that the image of Putin as a rational, calculating leader has changed since he seized Crimea in 2014. "We now see a Putin who is emotional and motivated by historical imagination and narrative revisionism.

"Many are using health rumors as possible explanations for Putin's evolution from rationalism to emotionalism."

During the May 9 military parade for Victory Day in Moscow, observers noticed the president was limping and made much of him sitting with a blanket over his lap. Video of a meeting on Monday with his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon that showed him with fidgety feet, has added to the rumor mill.

However, rumors will continue about whether the Kremlin is failing to hide Putin's alleged illness, or doing something to deliberately reveal it.

"He suffers from an obvious tremor and cannot control the movements of his right leg. He also appears to have lost some dexterity in his arms and his right hand also appears to be shaking when not held down," said Diane Nemec Ignashev, Russian professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, an observer of Russian media and Putin's public appearances.

"But people can live on for decades despite these maladies," she told Newsweek. "Not only then, is this all unverifiable, the real question remains as to what would change were Putin not head of the government—either due to death or incapacitation."