(CNN)– CIA Director Bill Burns made an unusually candid assessment this week, telling attendees of the Aspen Institute’s Annual Security Forum that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “too sane.”
Burns was careful to qualify his seemingly tongue-in-cheek comments by saying that they did not constitute “a formal intelligence judgment.”
But when asked directly if Putin was unhealthy or unstable, he said: “There are a lot of rumors about President Putin’s health and, as far as we know, he is completely, too healthy.”
So what are we to make of speculation about Putin’s health? These rumors are nothing new.
His body language, the way he talks, and the way he walks have come under relentless scrutiny. And every time Putin disappears from public view for a few days, or even makes a slight misstep, as he did recently after landing in Tehran, it can trigger a round of intense tabloid-style speculation about his physical well-being.
That is the nature of “Putinism,” a kind of postmodern dictatorship built around one man. The Kremlin has gone to great lengths to create an aura around Putin as the country’s sole problem solver: in fact he is the host of an annual call-in show in which he literally assumes the role of official problem solver.
And over two decades it has consolidated power through a system governed by the whims and fixations of one person (obvious case: the invasion of Ukraine).
So, without a clear successor to Putin, Russia is always a few sneezes away from an all-out political crisis.
The Kremlin routinely ridicules any speculation about Putin’s health; on Thursday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was feeling “fine” and in “good health” before describing speculation to the contrary as “nothing but hoaxes”.
But Burns’s statement, joking as it may have been, perhaps tells us much more about Western politicians than it does about Putin’s state of health.
For starters, it reflects a strong pie-in-the-sky element when it comes to the Kremlin’s leader. It suggests that the most worrying international crises could simply evaporate if one person, Putin, disappears from the world stage.
And that is a possible misreading of Russia. To be sure, the decision to invade Ukraine came down to one person: the president, who appears to be driven by his own warped reading of history and a dose of imperial ambition.
And Russia’s confrontation with the West has been fueled for years by the personal grievances of one person who lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But it is naive to expect that Putinism will not live on without Putin.
Nearly half a year after the invasion, Putin’s heavy losses on the battlefield have not, for example, provoked widespread resistance to the draft.
The Russian population, with the exception of the thousands arrested in anti-war protests, has more or less passively accepted the economic pain of the new sanctions imposed on their country.
Putin’s popularity ratings, if we go by the results of the state pollster WCIOM, have risen since the February 24 invasion.
The CIA director’s statements, in context, reflect how difficult it is to understand Putin, someone whose decision-making processes are opaque to the outside world.
Burns pointed to Putin’s small circle of trusted advisers. But during the pandemic, Putin’s isolation took on a very physical dimension, as seen in his meetings with some world leaders at an absurdly long table.
Putin’s extreme aloofness seems to reflect the lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to protect his physical health and, by extension, any information about his health.
Just before the invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron declined the Kremlin’s request for a Russian covid-19 test, the Elysee said, while refusing to comment on media reports that Macron did not want Russian doctors got their hands on his DNA.
It is fair to speculate that Putin’s entourage would do the same to avoid providing any clues about his health to any prying foreign intelligence service.
The analysis of Russia is often reduced to the study of one person. But, as Burns will remember, the consensual policies of the last Soviet Politburo still blundered in the disastrous war in Afghanistan in 1979.
And, as many Ukrainians are quick to point out, the Russians have yet to come to terms with their Soviet imperial past.
Any hope of change is remote: if Burns is to be believed, and if history is any guide, Putin is likely to be around until he catches up with Brezhnev.
— Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.