Persistent rumor of Putin’s death elicits nonchalant international response

For months, rumors have swirled about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the heart of all the gossip is a key question.

Is he still alive?

(Screenshot courtesy Telegram)

A claim by a mysterious Russian Telegram channel called General SVR, run by a prominent Russian political analyst, triggered a cascade of international news stories and social media posts in October of 2023.

According to the channel, Putin suffered a cardiac arrest and died Thursday, Oct. 26 at 8:42 p.m.

Valery Solovei, widely known for his criticism of the Kremlin, is believed to be “General SVR.” He’s predicted many events that never came true. But he nailed one big one Aug. 1, 2016. He said Sergei Ivanov, Vladimir Putin’s longtime friend and Chief of Staff, was fired and replaced by Anton Vaino.

(Screenshot courtesy Facebook)

Eleven days later it was done. Vaino remains Putin’s chief of staff today.

Considering General SVR’s sketchy track record, Western media have scrambled, with inconclusive results for months trying to determine if this current, incredible tale is true.

Western intelligence sources tell WTOP, the events mentioned in the posts are probably not true. And while there may be a grain of truth to the stories about Putin being ill, there is no way — considering the opaque layers of security around Putin — to determine the truth.

Living the in the era of artificial intelligence and deepfakes, it’s not difficult to imagine the complexity involved in producing proof of Putin’s physical status.

But the most stunning element of this story, which adds to the mystery, is that prominent officials say it really doesn’t matter if he’s alive or not — he’s done what he set out to do.

Optics: ‘It makes no difference’ which Putin it is

“I do not care whether he is dead or alive,” said Eeva Eek-Pajuste, police adviser at Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Stressing that her comments are “my own thoughts and not those of the Ministry,” she said it’s all about optics.

“If Putin’s legacy is alive and he appears to be alive in public, then it makes no difference whether it is this Putin or some other Putin who people see,” said Eek-Pajuste.

Putin’s 24 years in power have been dominated by long jail terms for Kremlin critics, brutal assassinations of political opponents, and a gradually declining global economic profile for Russia. His rhetoric demonizing Western nations, NATO and neighbors that support Western values are viewed as parts of a possible strategy to reconstitute the Soviet Union.

The most flagrant example of his alleged plan has been the two-year war against Ukraine, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and almost a half million Russian troops.

Putin, who on March 18 secured a fifth term as president, is often blamed for everything that happens in Russia because of his iron-fisted grip on power.

Thus, reports of his death might, to some, signal an end to the era of fear he’s presided over.

But Eek-Pajuste, who has a long, distinguished history with the government of Estonia, suggested that is far from the truth. She said Putin may just be the avatar of a much larger Russian entity representing, to the dismay of Western Putin critics, the very complex reality of life inside Russia.

Russian democracy vs. Western democracy

“Democracy for Russians means something totally different than it does for those who live in Western countries,” Eek-Pajuste said.

“For Russians,” she said, “democracy is the awful time in the beginning of the 1990s when there were no rules regarding money, and life in Russia was close to anarchy.”

In 1991, Russia — after the USSR lost the 45-year Cold War with the West, which championed democracy — was catapulted into a period akin to the Gold Rush in the American West in the mid-1800s.

It was a free-for-all.

Russia was swept up by governmental power grabs, surges of theft and murder, industry privatization, the emergence of rejuvenated and powerful spy agencies, and the rise of a new president with deep roots in the KGB.

Putin managed to melt all of the chaos into a machine that ratcheted his wealth up from that of a midlevel government official to a figure estimated to be close to $250 billion.

That machine, according to a key Ukrainian military adviser, is just as much to blame for the Kremlin’s activities as Putin is.

“Putin is not all of Russia, OK,” said Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Strategic Industries.

“It’s not really correct to sort of blame everything that is happening on Putin alone and to think that if Putin goes or stays that it will have any considerable impact.”

Sak pointed to the recent election as an example.

“Russia is a terrorist state, because 87% of their population apparently voted for him, endorsing terrorism, which makes them also complicit in terrorism,” Sak said.

He said regardless of whether the rumors are true or not, Russians who support Putin also bear the blame for the state of the country and its actions abroad.

“If Putin goes tomorrow — if he dies or is abducted by aliens, there will still be millions and millions of Russians who are war criminals in their hearts and minds,” Sak said.

The shadowy claim that Putin is dead and is being replaced by look-alikes has generated such a response inside Russia that the government was forced to address it. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, called the death rumors an “absurd information fake.”

But in Russia, where disinformation flourishes and is even utilized by the Kremlin to achieve its internal and geopolitical goals, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, even the Kremlin’s denial of Putin’s death is suspect.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2024 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up