One of my favorite books on Josef Stalin and his time as dictator of the Soviet Union is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar. Before the Kremlin closed off most of the Soviet archives to western historians, Montefiore was able to delve deep inside them to sleuth out the secrets of Stalin’s inner circle. Intrigue and betrayal were rife as an ever-rotating cast of characters along with a few trusted henchmen vied for Stalin’s favor. Degeneracy and decadence can be found throughout the book. The stories of Stalin’s private world are fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Those of us living in the late 20th and early 21st century have been lucky to learn this history before the Kremlin closed ranks and safeguarded any secrets from further discovery. Even then, what information came to light took a half century to find its way into the hands of historians.
Something similar is likely to happen when historians try to unearth the Putin regime’s inner workings. Unless Russia takes an unlikely post-Putin turn towards liberalization, those archival documents that reveal the inside story of the regime will remain the preserve of a shadow world. Big reveals may not come for several generations into the future. If that is so, then the Putin regime’s internal workings will remain the subject of conjecture. In the meantime, those looking to know what is really happening behind the walls of the Kremlin will have to rely on leaks and rumors to discover some semblance of the truth.
Communication Breakdown – Interior Lines
Figuring out what is going on in the inner world of Vladimir Putin has been difficult at the best of times. Since the Covid-19 pandemic started and most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, understanding the Putin regime has turned into an exercise in guesswork and innuendo. The few times Putin has appeared in public have been the focus of intense scrutiny as intelligence analysts and armchair Kremlinologists look for clues to his health and well-being. Another source of information has been leaks on the internet by purported insiders. They offer details which may or may not be true. It is impossible to take these at face value, but they should not be disregarded either. These accounts are likely as close to the truth as we will get unless a high-level insider flees abroad and goes public with the Kremlin’s inner workings.
One of the more fascinating sources of insider information comes from the General SVR Telegram channel. The informant claims to be a former Russian security services officer. In the past week, the channel has contained information on such disparate topics as succession planning in the Kremlin, attempts to undermine the Italian government, future negotiations with Turkish President Recep Erdogan where Putin plans to offer concessions, and the use of a body double to cover public events for an ailing Putin. The latter was a particularly juicy piece of gossip.
The informant contradicted reports from American intelligence that Putin was “too healthy.” Supposedly, medical personnel had to be called to Putin’s residence in the early hours of the morning because he was suffering from severe nausea. Doubts about Putin’s physical health continue to plague the Russian President. The General SVR channel only adds fuel to the fire. Whether or not such reports are true, there is little doubt that the Kremlin is a hive of intrigue led by a weakened and dangerous Putin, whose regime is floundering in the face of a war gone badly wrong.
Seaside Surprise – A Lack of Self-Control
The latest appearance in public by Putin came in Sevastopol for Russia’s Navy Day celebrations. News reports focused mostly on what Putin said concerning a new Russian Naval Doctrine. Putin predictably inflates their power and blames the western world for threatening the nation’s freedom and sovereignty. The most notable part of these proceedings had nothing to do with Putin’s talking points, instead they centered around video footage of the Russian President talking with Knesia Shoigu, the daughter of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Putin was dressed in a blazer and an open collared, starched shirt. He looked more like a stand in for an overaged, nouveau riche bachelor on a night out at the Monte Carlo Casino, than the decadent despot of a nation engaged in a ferocious war. The semi-casual and stylish look was likely scripted to show a more relaxed Putin enjoying himself near the seaside.
The footage that made news occurred while Putin was conversing with Knesia Shoigu. While she talked Putin was distracted by an insect which he attempted to swat away. The odd thing was that while the insect must have been on the right side of his face, Putin only attempted to swat it with his left hand. The entire time he never used his right hand or moved his right arm. From the footage it looks like Putin cannot use his right arm. Whether this has something to do with his health is open to the usual speculation. There is obviously something wrong with Putin physically. Gone is the vigorous Russian uber leader who was photographed in charismatic poses while enjoying the outdoors. Putin has looked nothing of the sort over the last few years and especially since the war started.
Stress Test – An Ailing Putin
There is the distinct possibility that Putin may be suffering from multiple illnesses. While no one can say for sure, the evidence continues to mount that Putin’s health is in decline. If true, then the war in Ukraine is likely contributing to his ailments. The stress he has inflicted upon himself, his regime and Russia by deciding to invade Ukraine must be constantly on the verge of overwhelming him. Trying to maintain a full schedule while a war is raging would test the nerves of a healthy person. Someone who may be suffering from multiple ailments like Putin would have an even tougher time. The war has likely exacerbated his existing health problems. Massive amounts of stress are the last thing anyone needs while hurting physically. Whether the war will be the end of Putin remains to be seen. There seems little chance that he will be removed or resign from office. There now seems a much greater chance that physical ailments could render Putin physically unable to perform his duties. Whatever happens to Putin, the western world will probably be the last to know.