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Russian Whispers
Putin Cancels Meetings amid Health Rumors

Is Vladimir Putin hospitalized with a stroke? Rumors were flying fast and furious on Twitter last night, and the Interpreter has collected most of the circumstantial evidence here. The liberal radio station Echo Moskvy has a story leading its homepage noting that Putin has not been seen in public since March 6. The website Russkiy Monitor has published an article based on an anonymous note it received:

An email arrived in the inbox of Russkiy Monitor signed by an anonymous official of the Central Clinical Hospital of the Department of Presidential Affairs in Moscow, in which he reported that among the patients of this elite Moscow hospital, where the top leadership of the Russian Federation are registered, rumors were circulating that Vladimir Putin was diagnosed several days ago with an ischemic stroke. Even so, the source said that the president was not hospitalized directly at the Central Clinical Hospital.

The editorial board of Russian Monitor cannot confirm or deny the information which might very well be false. However we must note the fact that the president has not been seen in public since last week, his meeting with the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan was unexpectedly cancelled. Observers note that since Putin has been in power, nothing of this sort has occurred.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was briefly interviewed by Echo Moskvy last night, and he denied anything was wrong:

Echo: There are a lot of rumors—and we are worried, and the people are worried, and our listeners as well. About the health of the president.

Peskov: Of course, no need to worry. Everything is fine.

Echo: He is healthy?

Peskov: Absolutely.

Echo: His handshake is strong?

Peskov: He’s breaking hands.

The handshake question from Echo suggests that the rumors are specifically of a stroke having taken place. WSJ‘s Moscow Bureau Chief Greg White recalls a parallel with an earlier time:

These are, of course, the wages of having a highly centralized and incredibly opaque regime. And you don’t have to go as far back as Yeltsin to remember speculation like this getting out of hand. Vladimir Putin was reported to be limping at the APEC summit in November of 2012. Back then, too, several engagements were rescheduled, and rumors swirled as to the great leader’s health.

Is this time different?

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  • Fat_Man

    We don’t deserve that much luck.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Be careful what you wish for. Strongman leaders rarely leave capable successors waiting in the wings (they might get ideas), which often leads to a very messy aftermath.

    • Andrew Allison

      In this case, there’s a former President (and current Prime Minister) waiting in the wings. No doubt there are others in the background sharpening knives, but the immediate succession seems pretty clear.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Indeed the line of succession is clear enough, but the ‘official’ successors are nonentities, creatures of Putin who are unlikely to survive (politically at least) his demise. What might be much more dangerous (both internally for Russia, and externally, for her neighbors) is a fight between the more capable/ambitious survivors…

        • Damir Marusic

          Indeed. The thing to watch for in any case is what happens in Chechnya.

        • gabrielsyme

          Medvedev is hardly a nonentity, and it’s difficult to see Medvedev being unacceptable by any significantly powerful faction.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Medvedev is intensely unpopular with the military (he was involved with the – reasonably intelligent, to be sure – choice to get rid of a large number of military officers in an attempt at military reform), and is essentially a creature of Putin. I am just not seeing him as the sort to survive serious infighting, particularly if the security forces back someone willing to spend serious money on them, rather than on economic reform.

          • Damir Marusic

            @f1b0nacc1:disqus is probably right. Here’s some speculation on the factionalism at play:

        • Andrew Allison

          The fact that the Russian government is posting what are obviously previous photographs suggests that there may indeed be an internal power struggle going on. The re-scheduled meeting with officials from South Odessa next Wednesday is probably the drop dead (as it were) date. If Putin doesn’t appear at or before that meeting, it will be likely that he’s incapacitated and Medvedev was unable to assume the reins.

          • f1b0nacc1

            While I believe your analysis is spot-on here, let me suggest that it is possible that this might just be Putin and his people playing with our heads.

          • Andrew Allison

            I agree. We’ll know which it is in a day or two.

      • Kevin

        Is Medvedev more of an empty suit? If Putin is permanently stricken I imagine his associates will quickly turn on each other – the stakes if losing such a contest are very high – ask Beria.

        • Andrew Allison

          I suggested that there will be internal strife, but think you and f1b may underestimate Medvedov. He’s had many years at the top, albeit in Putin’s shadow, in which to win friends and influence people. Time will tell.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You may indeed be correct, but I rather doubt it. Putin came up through the ranks of the KGB, and that sort of background doesn’t tend to encourage a trusting attitude towards one’s subordinates. I suspect that anyone too smart or too ambitious wouldn’t have lasted long under Putin.

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