Moscow denied rumors – again – that Russian President Vladimir Putin suffers from a debilitating illness, with one of his top advisers stating publicly that he is not in poor health.
“President Vladimir Putin appears in public every day,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told French television channel TF1 over the weekend. “You can see him on the screens, read his speeches, listen to his speeches.”
“I don’t think sane people can discern any sort of symptom of disease in this man,” he concluded.
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Lavrov, among several top Russian officials to come under Western sanctions since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine more than three months ago, has become only the latest in a long line of Kremlin officials to respond to unsubstantiated – but persistent – rumors about the 69-year-old leader’s health. While few facts about Putin’s condition have become public, Moscow’s acknowledgements of such reports are almost certainly uncomfortable for an autocrat who has worked diligently and deliberately to project an image of physical strength and virility during more than two decades in power.
Footage circulated widely on social media and online in recent weeks appears to show Putin exhibiting signs of some form of neurological or physiological condition. One particular clip from April supposedly shows him quivering uncontrollably and appearing to grip onto a table for support. Another appears to show his right hand shaking before he grabs it with his left hand moments before embracing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Christopher Steele, the former British spy who became notorious for his dossier of unsubstantiated intelligence observations regarding former President Donald Trump, has also lobbed disturbing assessments of Putin’s health and grip on power, saying the Russian leader is constantly surrounded by a team of doctors and that state business is routinely interrupted for the president to undergo medical treatment. Business Insider quoted him as saying Putin “probably” is experiencing Parkinson’s disease, though he acknowledges that the exact details of any potential ailment are unknown.
One particular unfounded rumor, originating from an anonymously run Telegram channel and repeated by several news outlets, claimed Putin was preparing to undergo intense surgery for cancer and made plans to hand over power temporarily to a former FSB chief.
“This is all circumstantial,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Business Insider in response to other recent images that appear to show Putin’s face more swollen than usual, adding doubt that anyone within the U.S. intelligence community “knows for sure whether he’s ill or not.”
“That sort of info is traditionally very hard to come by,” Clapper said, but specifying the line of inquiry remains “legitimate.”
Several medical specialists and former Western intelligence officials have thrown further speculation on the rumors. One neurogeneticist told DW.com, “he did not look well,” before adding, “but not Parkinson’s disease.” “I can find no evidence that I can tell of parkinsonism in Putin,” another specialist told the outlet.
It remains unclear what effect Putin’s debilitation would have on the future of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and elsewhere regardless of what causes it. The Pentagon acknowledged this month that it does not fully understand Russia’s chain of command nor how it would alter without Putin at the top.
“Mr. Putin is the leader of his country. He’s certainly the leader of his armed forces, and how they execute orders down that that chain of command is not perfectly visible to us in every way,” then-Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters, after first declining to comment on the knock-on effects in Russia were Putin to become incapacitated.
“Nor is it perfectly visible to us how information bubbles up from below the ranks up to him,” he added. “So, I think I just am going to not speculate on that.”