The CIA’s top spy on Thursday dismissed persistent speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin is suffering from medical issues as he wages an unprovoked and brutal military campaign in Ukraine.
“There are lots of rumors about President Putin’s health,” CIA Director William Burns said during a talk at the Aspen Security Forum. “As far as we can tell, he’s entirely too healthy.”
Putin is, however, deeply misguided in his justification for launching the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Burns said, before ultimately specifying that his comments do not represent “a formal intelligence judgment.”
“His views have hardened,” Burns said, “but he’s got his own way of looking at reality. And as we could see in the first stages of this war, it was based on some profoundly flawed assumptions and some real illusions.”
Putin has defined his tenure as Russia’s leader – the longest since Joseph Stalin – with carefully orchestrated demonstrations of his virility, including photoshoots of his riding shirtless on horseback or his affinity for judo. The Kremlin has taken the unusual step of denying – repeatedly – public speculation that Putin is in any form of poor health, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling a French television channel in May, “I don’t think sane people can discern any sort of symptom of disease in this man.”
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Controlling the perception of his vitality remains a priority for the Russian government. Its state news service on Wednesday published a post preemptively explaining why he coughed before answering a question during a forum in Moscow the day after returning from a summit visit in Iran.
“Yesterday it was very hot in Tehran, above 38 [degrees Celsius],” state news service Tass reported Putin as saying in an article and accompanying video of the exchange with a questioner. He referenced the need for air conditioners at the facilities he visited, before apologizing.
Footage circulated widely on social media and online in recent months has led to speculation that Putin was exhibiting signs of some form of medical condition. One particular clip from April supposedly showed him quivering uncontrollably and appearing to grip onto a table for support. Another appeared to show his right hand shaking before he grabbed 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, had 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 acknowledged 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.
Those familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments have similarly indicated something may be wrong with the Russian leader. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted in February, “I wish I could share more, but for now I can say it’s pretty obvious to many that something is off with Putin.”
“He has always been a killer, but his problem now is different and significant,” Rubio wrote.