Is Vladmir Putin ill?

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The Kremlin has publicly insisted Vladimir Putin’s mental state is “normal” after persistent rumours that he could be seriously ill or even dying.

The Russian president appeared “bloated, irrational and lacking the cold control that he had been famed for” in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine. And as the war has ground on without the expected quick victory he has been prone to angry outbursts, denouncing Ukrainian leaders as “drug-takers” and “Nazis”, said The Telegraph.

As the world witnessed his “unhinged televised ramblings” and the ease with which he threatened nuclear war, “it may be time to revisit our assumption that the Russian president is a cold-blooded statesman taking logical, if deeply undesirable, decisions,” wrote Paul Taylor for Politico

The rumours

Once a “svelte figure” Putin now seems “bloated and slow”, fuelling rumours he could be suffering from “cancer, a brain tumour or may have developed an addiction to steroids”, said the Telegraph.

A former director of US national intelligence, Jim Clapper, has described Putin as “unhinged” after the president spent months in isolation in Moscow due to his paranoia over Covid 19, said the paper. Meanwhile Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state, told Fox News: “He was always calculating and cold, but this is different. He seems erratic.”

Speculation over Putin’s state of mind began last month when he forced visiting French and German leaders to sit at the end of a four-metre-long table, sparking rumours that he was terrified of catching Covid. 

This “extreme form” of social distancing as well as “the unexplained bloating of his face” could be a sign that he is taking steroids for an undisclosed medical condition, said Politico. 

Sir Richard Dearlove, a former head of MI6, speculated that the “best explanation” for his odd behaviour “is that he may have Parkinson’s”, something the Kremlin has previously denied. “That certainly I’ve heard from several neurologists who say that loss of restraint, psychosis, are very common Parkinson’s symptoms,” he told GB News. 

Senior figures in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which is comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, believe Putin may have suffered a “psychological deterioration caused by physiological factors”,

The paper also speculated that he could be suffering from Parkinson’s disease, or perhaps dementia. Another explanation for his angry outbursts could be “roid rage”, resulting from the prolonged use of steroid treatments for cancer, intelligence sources told the paper.

“There has been an identifiable change in his decision-making over the past five years or so. Those around him see a marked change in the cogency and clarity of what he says and how he perceives the world around him,” said one intelligence source, who added that his muddled thinking was being compounded by a lack of a “negative feedback loop” with the Russian leader “simply not being briefed” on the failures of the Russian invasion.

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Intelligence sources also claimed that his decision to “physically isolate himself from guests” – as he did when meeting French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – show signs of a fear of “co-morbidities” or that he is using drugs that suppress the immune system and leave him open to infections.

The facts

In a Q&A last week, Sky News correspondent Alistair Bunkall pointed out that there is “nothing factual to suggest he is ill” and the rumours seem to stem from “a search for reason behind his actions in Ukraine”. 

And Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated this week that the president was simply working hard and that his “emotional state… is normal”.

This is not the first time there has been speculation over the Russian leader’s health. In November 2020, Professor Valery Solovei, a former historian at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, reportedly said Putin was suffering from both cancer and Parkinson’s and would soon have to quit over “health fears”, said The Scotsman. But the Kremlin denied the claims, and Solovei was later detained at a protest in Moscow.

And despite their protestations that Putin is fine, “the Kremlin does not have a good track record of being honest about the health of Soviet or Russian leaders”, noted The Telegraph, pointing to how the illnesses of previous leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Boris Yeltsin went largely undisclosed to the public.

And there is an alternative explanation for his behaviour, wrote Dominic Lawson for the Daily Mail earlier this month: “that power has gone to his head”. 

He now enjoys “more control within the domestic political system than at any time”, said Lawson. “But what that means is that he is more able to be ‘himself’. We are seeing Vladimir Putin as he really is, and always was, undiluted by constraint,” he added. 

And “whatever the state of Putin’s health, whether he’s physically ill, mentally unstable or just rational and dangerous”, said Politico, it remains a fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine means “serious implications for the rest of us”.

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