War takes its toll on Putin: How Russian president’s physical and mental state has deteriorated after a gruelling year since ordering invasion of Ukraine
- Rumours about Putin’s health and mental acumen intensified over the last year
- He has been seen gripping tables and looking frail in public appearances
Vladimir Putin was accused of being ‘terribly scared’ by a former Russian secret service General on Friday, adding to speculation that the Russian president’s position at the top of the Kremlin is growing increasingly untenable.
Rumours about Putin’s declining health, mental acumen and unstable position have swirled since long before he ordered the invasion on February 24, 2022. In the year since, the rumours have only intensified as the war appears to have taken its toll.
Video from official meetings and appearances have shown him gripping a table for support, tapping his feet seemingly uncontrollably, and looking unsteady as he walked – while in recent years he has grown puffy and bloated.
And amid his military’s failings in Ukraine, there have also been rumours about a Kremlin plot to depose Putin, or that a successor is being prepared.
According to retired General Yevgeny Savostyanov – the former chief of the Moscow division of the FSB – Putin has badly misread the West’s resolve to stand up to him, and did not realise his army’s incompetence.
Vladimir Putin was accused of being ‘terribly scared’ by a former Russian secret service General on Friday, adding to speculation that the Russian president’s position is growing increasingly untenable. Pictured: Putin, pictured in April 2022, looks frail and bloated as he grips the side of a table during a meeting with his defence minister Sergei Shoigu
‘Putin perfectly understands the mood of people who have lost everything because of him,’ said Savostyanov . ‘He understands this anger can find a way out, so he keeps them away. ‘Putin is now terribly scared. He understands that he is in trouble.’
Putin’s problems were self-inflicted by going to war, he added. ‘He lived happily [yet] with his own hands, he took and ruined everything. Amazing story.’ Now, he is ‘in such a psychological state that he is clinging to any opportunity to win’.
On Thursday, leaked documents suggested the FSB mislead Putin about his chances of victory in Ukraine, telling the despot that his forces would seize Kyiv in just three days, and that Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers with open arms.
However, today marks one year since Putin launched the invasion. Russian forces are pinned down in the east, and Volodymyr Zelensky remains Ukraine’s president.
And while Russia has managed so far to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions, Savostyanov said thanks to Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, the Russian people ‘will live very poorly no matter what – it’s already inevitable’.
The Russian president’s physical prowess as a hunter, martial artist, ice hockey player and horseman has long been a cornerstone of his portrayal across state media as a strong and admirable leader, endearing him to the public.
The Kremlin has in the past released pictures purportedly of him riding bare-chested on horseback, lounging topless in the sun and besting other fighters in judo matches – in a bid to show off his physique.
But the 70-year-old autocrat is now bloated and puffy. He has been wracked with coughing fits. In some footage, he appears to be struggling with motor control – clinging to the side of a desk or tapping his feet while speaking to officials.
Such signs can be markers of potential ill-health, that have coincided with Putin’s decision to pull out of numerous public appearances and planned events.
In December, for example, Putin at the last minute pulled out from a presidential trip to Pskov due to ‘unfavourable flying conditions’ despite weather forecasts suggesting the skies were clear.
He then shelved a visit to Russia’s biggest tank plant in Nizhny Tagil, and also cancelled his usual appearance at an end-of-year meeting of his ministers.
Putin also refused to go ahead with his traditional December press conference which typically sees the president speak for up to four hours. He would typically field questions from journalists and viewers.
Putin even cancelled his beloved end-of-year ice-hockey game, in which he has previously taken part in.
Adding to the persistent rumours, there have been several occasions in the past year where Putin has appeared extremely uncomfortable.
The Russian president’s physical prowess as a hunter, martial artist, ice hockey player and horseman has long been a cornerstone of his portrayal across state media as a strong and admirable leader, endearing him to the public. Pictured: Putin is seen taking place in an ice hockey match in Moscow on December 23, 2017
Putin is seen touching the World Cup Trophy during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium on July 15 that year
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a training session with the Russian national judo team at the Yug-Sport Training Center in Sochi, Russia on Thursday, February 14, 2019
Tthe 70-year-old autocrat – who has often shown off his athleticism (seen right in 2017) is now bloated and puffy, and in some footage appears to be struggling with motor control – such as clinging to the side of a desk while speaking to officials (right)
May 9, 2022: The 70-year-old appeared to walk with a limp and had a blanket over his lap as he attended Russia’s 2022 victory day parade in Moscow
NOVEMBER 4: Putin appeared to show signs of a limp as he approached a war memorial, and seemed uncomfortable as he bent down to lay the bouquet, during this public appearance
He was seen gripping the edge of a table for support as he hunched in his chair during several meetings with officials at the Kremlin – a far cry from the barrel-chested hunter state media make him out to be.
Other clips of him on diplomatic visits showed the despot squirming as he sat, his legs and feet seemingly twitching and gyrating uncontrollably.
On one visit to a war monument in July, he was seen sweating and stumbling on unsteady legs as he attempted to swot mosquitos away from his head with one arm while the other hung limply by his side. In another visit to a war memorial, he also appeared unsteady as he knelt down to lay flowers.
And he has been unable to hide a constant cough which has plagued many of his recent speeches and addresses.
Some have even suggested that Putin has had plastic surgery, while Ukraine’s military chiefs said in October last year that he uses body doubles.
These factors have precipitated claims from a host of sources – including exiled Russians, ‘insider’ Telegram channels and even Ukrainian intelligence chiefs – that he is battling severe health conditions, including Parkinson’s and cancer.
Commentators have also questioned his mental state, with author Ian McEwan describing him as ‘a deranged and unpredictable adversary’. Others have called him ‘crazy’ or suggested he is taking anabolic steroids.
With his invasion of Ukraine, the Russian leader has sent thousands to their deaths. Several other high-profile military figures have – indirectly at least – questioned his leadership. This, some have said, is bound to take its toll on anyone.
But others have argued he is not mentally unwell, just evil.
If these claims are to be believed then Putin, who is no doubt keen to avoid being forcibly deposed as his health deteriorates and his grip on power weakens, will instead be forced to nominate a successor after more than two decades at the helm.
Savostyanov predicts a move by Putin and his henchmen to pass on the presidency to an ally less toxic in the West, yet a figure who will preserve 70-year-old Putin’s circle, in the hope of preventing any kind of domestic revolution.
He suspects this figure will be agriculture minister Dmitry Patrushev, 45, son of Putin’s hardline security advisor Nikolai Patrushev, 71, one of the architects of the disastrous war in Ukraine.
‘Patrushev’s son is named as a possible successor,’ said Savostyanov, 70, also a former deputy head of the Kremlin administration who had predicted Putin’s unexpected rise to power before the year 2000.
Dmitry Patrushev was seen as a ‘suitable figure’ who ‘will be provided with strong support’ to control Russia. And ‘in the eyes of the West, he is not too smeared’, having had no significant role in the war. Significantly, Putin praised Dmitry Patrushev in his state of the nation address this week.
Pictured: A 47-year-old Vladimir Putin takes oath watched by the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin during the inauguration ceremony in the Kremlin, Moscow, on May 7, 2000
Left: Russian Prime Minister Putin shakes hands with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Moscow in 2008, during the four years he stepped aside for Dmitry Medvedev. Right: British Prime Minister David Cameron shakes hands with Putin outside No. 10 Downing Street in 2012
Putin seen at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on three different occasions across five years. Left: Putin is seen during the trophy ceremony of the 2018 World Cup final. Centre: Putin in 2022 delivers a speech during a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Right: Putin marks first year anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2023. His face has become noticeably more puffy over the last five years
Yet there was ‘no reason for optimism’ due to the ‘absurdity’ of the crisis facing Russia, caused by Putin, Savostyanov told Republic in savage criticism of Putin.
‘Russia is slipping down into the role of the leader of the third world, where we are needed only as long as we can give money,’ he said.
‘The time will come, and [in Russia] we will see empty shelves, goods shortages, people impoverishment, and technological backwardness in all areas.
‘One of Putin’s mistakes is that at the beginning of last summer, he did not catch the moment that the West stopped being afraid of him and would no longer retreat.
‘The first mistake is to lead a campaign against the West. The second is to believe that in Ukraine, they were waiting for us with flowers and hugs.
‘Corrupt propagandists and those who mastered big money allocated for creating the ‘fifth column’ in Ukraine – this is his mistake.
‘The third is that he, it turns out, did not know how his own army works. And this is the most amazing thing. The army was built all these years in the expectation that there would be no need to fight in the West,’ Savostyanov said.
‘The calculation was that Europe is in a hopeless energy situation.
‘It can spin as it wants, but it will not do without Russia, so it will again be forced to devour what will be put on the table.’
Putin calculated the West would swallow his hoped-for ‘quick victory’ in Ukraine, but he got that wrong just as he did not understand his army’s incompetence in a ‘tragedy of mistakes’. Russia has suffered several defeats in the last year, as well as a series of damaging blows against the Moskva cruiser and Kerch bridge.
‘When we see that Russia puts private military companies to the front, in addition to being staffed with an armed criminal element, it denies the very idea of its own statehood,’ the former FSB chief said.
Savostyanov predicts that Russia now faces a bleak future. If Putin somehow succeeds in Ukraine he would enact a repressive crackdown.
His angry inner circle ‘which has lost everything accumulated over 20 years’ would need to be eliminated.
‘If the [war] fails, the question will arise – either hard tightening the screws to keep order in the country – or chaos. Under the conditions of sanctions and restrictions, nothing good can be expected either.’
Despite Putin’s desperation, Savostyanov rated the chances of Putin using his nuclear arsenal as slight. ‘I can say no more than one per cent that Putin will decide to carry out the nuclear threat,’ he said.
‘The fundamental difference is that when I predicted who would replace [Boris] Yeltsin [is that the] procedure was obvious. The procedure for replacing Putin, frankly, is not obvious. But I understand one thing. In the foreground, there should be a person who will keep the situation under control.
‘There will be too many factors that will be able to increase destabilisation – from the [tanking] economy to separatist sentiments in the regions.’
Friday marks one year since Putin launched the invasion. Russian forces are pinned down in the east, and Volodymyr Zelensky remains president. Pictured: Ukrainian troops drive a tank close to the city of Bakhmut – the focus of heavy fighting in recent months – on February 19
A Ukrainian squad launches one of four rockets at a Russian infantry position from their BM-21 Grad 122mm multiple rocket launcher, in the southern Donbas region, on February 20
Pictured: Retired General Yevgeny Savostyanov, who has said Putin is ‘terribly scared’ of his position amid his failing on-going invasion of Ukraine
This could lead to breakaway attempts by some regions, he said.
‘As the federal budget is reduced, subsidies will be reduced, respectively, in the regions…., and they will say: ‘Why do we need Moscow?’
He forecast an attempt to bring to power a figure who ‘will be able to keep the situation under control and, on the other, start reforms’.
This could be Dmitry Patrushev who, through his father, secretary of the Kremlin security council and a former FSB chief, might fulfil this role.
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