Secrecy surrounding Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin has fertilized misinformation surrounding the Russian president, from the state of his health to the claims of body doubles hired to protect him.
His health was said to have taken a particularly sharp turn recently, with claims this week again circulating that Putin was dying and had used doppelgangers in an attempt to disguise his ailing condition.
Headlines appeared in several prominent outlets online that his doctor had predicted “Putin’s imminent death amid a sharp deterioration in his health.”
The claim was from General SVR, a Telegram channel that has had multiple stories about Putin’s health and his grip on power, often attributed to anonymous sources without verifiable information.
“‘There is a general understanding that for some time it has been possible to use a double of the president after the death or removal from power of the real Vladimir Putin,” General SVR said.
“Almost all interested parties are ready to rally around a double who can be controlled; the only problem is who will control the double, and this requires mutual trust, which simply does not exist.”
The Telegram channel claimed Putin’s “inner circle” had tried to create a consensus around the idea of the “continuation of the Putin regime after Putin,” speculating that Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev was being prepared to become leader.
In a later post, General SVR said it was Putin’s wish that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin take over but that Patrushev was the favored candidate by Russia’s other top officials.
Much of the speculation about Putin’s health until now has been based on video footage of him sitting or moving awkwardly, which some have attributed to a range of illnesses from terminal cancer to Parkinson’s.
Some of the rumors have been strengthened, if not proved, by other perhaps more reliable sources. Three intelligence leaders told Newsweek in July last year that a classified U.S. report said Putin had undergone treatment in April 2022 for advanced cancer.
The same year, The Moscow Times cited an investigative report by Proekt Media that said Putin was accompanied by doctors, including a thyroid cancer surgeon, on trips to his residence in Sochi from 2016 to 2019 and that doctors “may have performed surgery” on him in November 2016.
However, the recent report that Putin is at death’s door, with succession plans in motion, has not been corroborated by other sources and was posted without any verifiable evidence.
While it’s unlikely that the Kremlin would volunteer information about Putin’s health if he were struggling, the lack of decent data or proof to support General SVR’s claims, particularly given its track record for these kinds of rumors, strongly suggests this latest story should be treated with skepticism.
Other unevidenced claims that General SVR has shared included how last year Putin fell down a flight of stairs and soiled himself, that he faced an assassination attempt in Moscow, and that he was due to undergo emergency colon surgery in December.
Newsweek has reached out to the Kremlin for comment.