Suddenly, we are all diagnosticians. Clips of a puffy Putin slurring his words, his hands twitching or clutching a table for grim death, have led to all kinds of speculation about his health. It does seem probable that he is suffering from some ailments, to be sure. However, we need to be careful we do not get carried away with the speculation.
Putin is notoriously private and his health is considered well off-limits. For a man who built much of his personal brand on his judo-fighting, ice hockey-playing, bare-chested horseback-riding persona, illness and ageing are obviously sensitive topics.
Nonetheless, it has long been known that he suffers from recurring back problems, and appears to have undergone surgery more than once. There has been more recent talk that he has Parkinson’s, based on his twitches. The evidence that he has repeatedly been attended by senior cancer specialist have raised thoughts of thyroid cancer. Most recently, apparently some ‘oligarch’ was recorded claiming that he is ‘very ill with blood cancer.’
Quite likely he is ill with something serious, and may also be on steroids, which could even account for his impatient, erratic behaviour of late. Indeed, the invasion of Ukraine may prove to be the first ‘roid rage’ war, given the lack of checks and balances in the system.
However, part of the fascination with speculating about Putin’s health also reflects a desperate hope for a deus ex machina. Whatever the Ukrainians’ current successes on the battlefield, it looks as if this conflict will last months, if not years. The high energy prices, the refugees, the cost of the torrent of weapons heading towards Ukraine, the balancing act needed to keep the western coalition together, all of these challenges will become even more difficult to manage over time.
The idea of Putin succumbing to some malady is, like that other topic of over-heated speculation, the palace coup, is often a hope for some quick, magic answer to the West’s problems.
Yet beware magical thinking. The prevailing medical opinions appear to be that whatever Putin may have, it is not likely to lead to imminent death or incapacitation. It may well be that he is ill enough to be more reckless and less concerned about the long-term risks, but not so ill to quickly be out of the picture.
This is also, for now, likely to make the regime more, not less repressive. Putin’s kind of personalistic authoritarianism tends to become brittle. Even if it looks formidable it may be vulnerable to systemic shocks and unpredictable challenges. Eventually, if the pressure rises the possibility of elite defection begins to look credible. But we’re not there yet, by a long stretch.
In the meantime, concerns about the potentially destabilising and delegitimising effects of Putin’s ill health is likely only to encourage the elite to shout out their loyalty to the tsar all the more loudly, and crack down on the country all the more ruthlessly. The vicious circles of mutual institutional suspicion that is the system’s best guarantee against coups and conspiracies. The Kremlin Guard watch the spooks, the spooks watch the soldiers, the soldiers watch the National Guard, and so forth.
There is constitutional provision for when the president dies in office or is unable to perform his duties. The prime minister steps in as interim, with new elections to be held within three months. Yet prime minister Mikhail Mishustin, for all his reputation for techno-authoritarian efficiency, is not likely to be in a position to fill a Putin-sized hole in the Kremlin. Indeed, with defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s reputation shrinking along with his army’s, it is unclear whether anyone could.
Although I remain unfashionably optimistic about Russia’s long-term trajectory back towards a liberal path, my fear is that right now Putin’s untimely end might precipitate a dangerous tussle for power in Moscow or the rise of one of the Homo Sovieticus generation. A Soviet style leader would be eager to prove that he (it would be a him) could succeed where Putin had failed, and this would likely lead to an escalation of the war in Ukraine.
However tempting, we should sometimes be careful what we wish for.