Report: Russian oligarch caught on tape claiming Putin is "very ill with blood cancer"

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

How many different diagnoses is this for him now? At different times I’ve heard Parkinson’s, thyroid cancer, and forthcoming surgery for some unspecified form of cancer.

Cancer does seem to be a recurring theme, though.

Yesterday at New Lines, Michael Weiss wrote that he’s obtained audio recorded in March of an unnamed Russian oligarch who’s “close to the Kremlin” admitting that Putin is very ill. Notably, the source of the recording claims the oligarch didn’t know he was being recorded when he said it. There’s no shortage of reasons to be skeptical, though: It could be that the oligarch was lying to the source for whatever reason, or was honest but misinformed, or even that the leak to Weiss was a deliberate attempt by someone to spread disinformation. I can’t see how Putin would benefit from people believing he’s sick if he isn’t but I can certainly see how his domestic enemies might. (Weiss’s source said he shared the tape out of a sense of disgust with the war.)

It could also be the oligarch told the truth. Remember, at least one member of the U.S. government with access to classified material has claimed that “something is off” with Putin but that he can’t say more.

Cancer of the blood, perhaps? So says the oligarch, whom Weiss has dubbed “Yuri”:

New Lines has obtained an audio recording of an oligarch close to the Kremlin who describes Putin as “very ill with blood cancer,” although the type of blood cancer was unspecified. Needless to say, we are unable to independently confirm this allegation, Putin’s medical charts being notoriously difficult to come by. But the recording represents rare testimony by someone with proven ties to the Russian government that its fanatical dictator may well be seriously unwell. And the oligarch had no idea he was being recorded…

Somewhat bolstering the fact that Yuri’s allegation is now widespread in the elite corridors of Moscow is that on March 13, a top-secret memo was dispatched from the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency, to all regional directors of the FSB. “The memo instructed the regional chiefs not to trust rumors about the president’s terminal condition,” Christo Grozev, the head of investigations at Bellingcat, a forensic research website famous for unmasking Russian spies and assassins, told New Lines…

Yuri, too, cites Putin’s back problems and suggests they are linked to blood cancer. The oligarch says Putin underwent back surgery in October 2021 — just a few months shy of his “special military operation” in Ukraine — although New Lines could not find any evidence to substantiate this allegation. Whatever the case, Putin isn’t exactly spry these days.

There’s ample recent circumstantial evidence that something is amiss physically with Putin, starting with that curious video of his meeting with his defense minister in which he gripped the edge of a table for more than 10 minutes and sat with his shoulders hunched, as though he were in pain. He was seen seated with a blanket draped over his legs at last week’s Victory Day celebration despite the fact that the temperature in Moscow approached 50 degrees. Weiss points to hints of a limp as well. And of course there’s the facial puffiness we’re now all used to, possible evidence of steroid use.

As chance would have it, steroids are used to treat certain forms of blood cancer, Weiss notes. One is myeloma, which can “lead to compression fractures of the spine, which make a patient hunched.” That would jibe with the oligarch’s claim that Putin’s back problems and his cancer are somehow connected. It could also explain those bizarre photo ops in which Putin is seated 20 feet or more away from his guest: Steroid use increases the risk from contracting COVID because it destroys immune cells, says Weiss.

And steroids can cause paranoid and irrational behavior. There’s no evidence of Putin engaging in any of that within the last several months, is there?

I remain agnostic about his alleged health woes. Rather than immerse myself in innuendo about how he might be dying, I prefer to focus on stories that probably make him wish he was dead. The Guardian has a nice one today about Russian soldiers refusing to deploy to Ukraine because, well, they don’t want to die in a war that they’re not going to win. Ironically, Putin’s insistence on framing his war as a “special military operation” — surely Russia wouldn’t need to declare all-out war to seize a country as puny as Ukraine — is limiting the government’s options to punish refuseniks.

Under Russian military rules, troops who refuse to fight in Ukraine can face dismissal but cannot be prosecuted, said Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer who has been advising soldiers who choose that option.

Benyash said “hundreds and hundreds” of soldiers had been in touch with his team for advice on how they could avoid being sent to fight. Among them were 12 national guardsmen from Russia’s southern city of Krasnodar who were fired after refusing to go to Ukraine.

“Commanders try to threaten their soldiers with prison time if they dissent, but we tell the soldiers that they can simply say no,” Benyash said, adding that he was not aware of any criminal cases against soldiers who refused to fight. “There are no legal grounds to start a criminal case if a soldier refuses to fight while on Russian territory.”

You’ll be sent to prison if you refuse to fight in a “war” but refusing to take part in a “special military operation” gets you fired, nothing more.

That’s one manpower problem for Putin. Another is what to do about the incompetence of the manpower he actually has in the field in Ukraine. Reports are circulating today that he’s taken jurisdiction for intelligence there away from the underperforming FSB (i.e. the modern KGB) and handed it to Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU. Does that report seem likely to be true based on what we know of Putin’s interactions with the FSB since the start of the war?

Yes, actually. It seems fairly likely.

Anyway, if Putin croaks, here’s a short profile of the guy who’s likely to replace him. Get excited!

Update: For what it’s worth: