Smoke hangs low over Europe’s skies. Most of it comes from Ukrainian cities that were destroyed by Russian artillery. Some of it comes from the never-ending rumours about Vladimir Putin’s health. Does fire always start when there’s smoke? What good does it do to guess about the dictator’s health? What might his health say about why he invaded Ukraine and how he ran the war after that? And what could it tell us about how we think?
The whispers of today come from two places. The first is how much Putin has changed in how he looks. Even as recently as five years ago, his face was thin and reddened. It was past its prime, but still good enough for photos that showed off his perfect machismo. This year’s photos show a different side of Putin. His face is now grotesquely swollen. The second is a meeting on April 21 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. The video, which has been looked at as if it were a lost Zapruder tape, seems to show Putin holding on to the table to stay standing.
Some people think that Putin’s physical change is due to his overuse of fillers or Botox, which may have been inspired by his friend Silvio Berlusconi. Others say it’s just a normal part of ageing for a man who is getting close to 70. But there is no doubt that the loudest voices come from those who think Putin is very sick.
American intelligence says that Putin was treated for “advanced cancer” in April, according to a report in Newsweek. People in the Biden administration seem to be talking a lot about his health. Students attending the Shoigu meeting are sure that Putin has Parkinson’s Disease. An unnamed FSB officer said that Putin has an aggressive form of liver cancer and only has three years left to live. Kyrylo Budanov, who is in charge of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence, has said that Putin does have several serious illnesses. So loud have the rumours gotten that Shoigu recently had to deny them himself.
Many people say that Putin’s choice to invade was a sign that he was sick. Even though the war has only been going on for 100 days, it has already cost so much in blood, money, and prestige that it could only have come from a sick mind or one that no longer cares about the future. Perhaps. But the Kremlin’s strategic mistakes are better explained by the fact that Putin has set up a system in which gives honest and fearless advice is a career-killer and people who don’t speak their minds get ahead.
Simply put, many people want Vladimir Putin to die.
#Putin rejected a peace deal with #Ukraine that had been negotiated by his aide as the war began, report claims.https://t.co/FtzjaYi1fJ
— The Hindu (@the_hindu) September 14, 2022
In reality, it’s hard to say anything for sure about Putin’s health because there isn’t much good information about the Kremlin. Remember that most experts greatly overestimated Russia’s military power before it invaded Ukraine. Before that, many important facts about Putin’s private life and government were kept secret. Journalists and political opponents who try to show how the regime works from the inside are killed without punishment. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s diplomatic isolation since the 24 February invasion, most of the reliable intelligence has disappeared.
But serious analysts, no matter how close they are to power, should still be ready for the possibility that Putin gets sick. Why? Even if the illness isn’t a good reason for the mistakes Putin has made so far, it could help predict what will happen next.
Shortly, Kyiv and its allies can’t rule out the chance that Putin, who is sick, will keep making irrational decisions. Maybe he will care even less about the lives of Russians and Ukrainians being lost. Or, since he knows he won’t be alive in the world that comes after, he might not follow the rules for using nuclear weapons. It’s hard to deal with a crazy person or a sick person who has nothing to lose.
Looking further ahead, accepting for now that Putin is sick will help the West get ready for the political changes that will happen in Russia when he dies. Whether Putin dies in six months, three years, or another ten years will have a big impact on what kind of country Russia will be in ten years. The more quickly he dies, the more different the military and political outcomes in Ukraine and at home will be. The longer he stays in power, the more likely it is that his despotic political order will get stronger, that Russia will stay cut off from the west, and that it will look for dirty friends.
Simply put, many people want Vladimir Putin to die. Partly, this is because it is natural to want to get even. But this shows that we don’t understand or have any control over how the war he started will end.
The way the war goes will depend a lot on Putin’s health. Whether it comes from an assassin’s gun or God, his death will cause both joy and chaos in almost equal amounts. In the meantime, we should be careful not to believe false information, no matter where it comes from. We should also watch out for wishful thinking and reasoning based on what we want to hear. Be wary of anyone who has gone from amateur epidemiology to geopolitics to faraway oncology without missing a beat.
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