Speculation regarding Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s health has been rife in recent years. Before February, it was purely in the realm of gossip.
Yet the topic got a boost after Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine. Soon, activists, journalists, and even intelligence agencies were all publicly sharing information regarding the dictator's health – and the implications it had on the course of the war.
The biggest revelation came in May when pro-Kremlin film director Oliver Stone said on a podcast that Putin was a cancer patient in remission.
“Remember this, Mr. Putin has had this cancer and I think he’s (recovered),” said Stone, becoming the first person directly linked to the Russian autocrat to acknowledge his supposed health problems.
The closest thing to proof came in 2021 when Russian investigative journalists discovered that a large group of doctors, including thyroid cancer specialists, has been accompanying Putin on his travels within Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian intelligence had publicly made the most sweeping claims about Putin’s health.
“We completely confirm this information (that Putin has cancer),” Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda in May. “He has several severe diseases, including cancer. But we shouldn't hope that Putin will die tomorrow. He has at least several years ahead whether we like it or not."
Neither Budanov nor Stone provided proof of their claims.
Unverifiable rumors that Putin had cancer, or another serious disease, have been circulating since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when the Russian dictator substantially decreased his public appearances. He soon reappeared in public, meeting his counterparts and domestic henchmen behind ridiculously long tables.
The once custom public handshakes also disappeared from Putin's life. The dictator's opponents have been alleging that Putin spends most of his time in a special compound, a sort of bunker, where he's kept isolated from the real world.
In his guest essay for the New York Times, a well-known Russian journalist and writer Mikhail Zygar, the author of “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin," wrote that "Putin spent the spring and summer of 2020 quarantined at his residence in Valdai, approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg."
"His guards have imposed a strict protocol: No one can see the president without a week’s quarantine — not even Igor Sechin, once his personal secretary, now head of the state-owned oil company Rosneft," Zygar wrote. "Sechin is said to quarantine for two or three weeks a month, all for the sake of occasional meetings with the president."
Zygar goes on to write that he believes that's where and when the isolated Putin decided to launch a full-scale, brutal war against Ukraine.
Putin's visibly present paranoia about meeting people during a ravaging pandemic was when the first major rumors of Putin's health being weak surfaced.
However, with the Kremlin being mute about the dictator's health, the question of whether Putin will see tomorrow was picked up by dubious people with questionable reputations, including Valery Solovey, a former Russian professor turned political pundit, and several opposition activists that were forced out of the country by Putin's regime.
The first credible information on Putin's health came from Stone, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker turned conspiracy theorist and supporter of dictatorships worldwide.
Stone, who interviewed Putin multiple times between 2015 and 2019, and produced several pro-Kremlin documentaries, said in an interview on Lex Fridman Podcast released in May that the dictator had cancer, yet he was now supposedly in remission, which is why he was kept isolated from people during the pandemic.
Western intelligence claims
Western intelligence has also been looking into Putin's medical history.
In June, Newsweek reported, citing its sources, that a classified U.S. intelligence report suggested that Putin underwent cancer treatment in April. The magazine cited three intelligence officials: One in the office of the director of national intelligence, one a retired Air Force senior officer, and one from the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“If we’re talking about Solovey’s statements, it’s meaningless to discuss them,” Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the Kyiv Independent. “But Western intelligence is another matter, it makes sense to talk about it.”
Western intelligence at least got some things right – for example, it predicted Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, he added.
However, the report was soon dismissed by the spokesperson of the U.S. National Security Council. Furthermore, William Burns, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in July that Putin was healthy.
Even if the intelligence report on Putin’s cancer does exist, it is not clear if it can be trusted completely.
“It should be treated carefully," Oreshkin said, adding that it may be in the West's interests to predict Putin’s impending death. Yet, he added that "Western intelligence agencies would not lie explicitly.”
Sergei Sazonov, a Russian-born political philosopher at Estonia’s Tartu University, was even more skeptical. He told the Kyiv Independent that he doubts the quality of Western intelligence.
U.S. intelligence has made blunders in the past. After Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, U.S. media reported, citing U.S. intelligence, that Kyiv was likely to fall within days.
Similarly, false intelligence information was supplied to the U.S. about the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s diseases. Newsweek reported in June that such intelligence is often supplied by enemies of the U.S. themselves in order to spread disinformation in their interests.
Apart from the explicit claims that Putin has a lethal disease, some indirect evidence of his deteriorating health has surfaced.
In April, Project, a Russian investigative media outlet, published an investigation about Putin’s health.
According to the story, Putin is obsessed with his health and was regularly accompanied by five doctors on average since at least 2016.
One of the doctors was Yevgeny Selivanov, a thyroid cancer specialist. Putin was also accompanied by an otorhinolaryngologist, who was supposed to identify thyroid diseases, including cancer, Project reported. In 2020, Putin also publicly met Ivan Dedov, the head of the National Endocrinology Research Center.
Project also found evidence that Putin had several surgeries in 2017-2019.
According to Project, Putin also has a penchant for alternative medicine. Specifically, he bathes in blood extracts from severed deer antlers.
In Putin's Russia, unproven medicine became widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic, with officials ordering devices that "decrease the spread of coronavirus with electromagnetic fields," while during official events hosts were giving out medical masks with silver particles. Both devices have been debunked as having no influence on the spread of coronavirus.
However, despite Putin having some health issues, some of the evidence of his health problems may be attributed to his age – he will turn 70 in October.
Mike Mirer, a neuropathologist from New York, told anti-Putin Russian columnist Yulia Latynina in July that cancer is common among post-Soviet men of Putin's age and social group, most of whom have had an unhealthy diet.
However, even if he does have severe disease, it does not mean Putin will die soon.
“He doesn’t look like someone who will die tomorrow,” Mirer said.
Note from the author:
Hello! My name is Oleg Sukhov, the guy who wrote this piece for you.
I was born in Russia and moved to Ukraine in 2014 because I couldn't stand the suffocating atmosphere of that totalitarian country. I used to think it might be possible to transform Russia into a liberal Western-oriented country. Now it's clear that it's a lost cause. But at least I can atone for the crimes of my homeland by exposing its barbaric aggression against Ukraine and providing objective and independent coverage of what is going on there. I'm also trying to contribute to Ukraine's transformation into a full-fledged Western liberal democracy strong enough to defeat Russia.
Our publication needs help from every one of you — support Ukrainian wartime journalism, become a patron of the Kyiv Independent.