Burns was careful to qualify apparently tongue-in-cheek remarks, saying they didn’t constitute “a formal intelligence judgment.”
But asked directly if Putin was unhealthy or unstable, he said: “There are lots of rumors about President Putin’s health and as far as we can tell, he’s entirely too healthy.”
And over the course of two decades, he has consolidated power, building a system that is driven by the whims and fixations of one person (obvious case in point: the invasion of Ukraine).
So without a clear successor to Putin, Russia is always a few sneezes away from a full-blown political crisis.
The Kremlin routinely ridicules any speculation about Putin’s health; on Thursday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin felt “fine” and in “good health” before describing speculation to the contrary as “nothing but hoaxes.”
But Burns’ statement, even if made in jest, perhaps tells us a lot more about Western policymakers than it does about Putin’s fitness.
For starters, it reflects a strong element of wishful thinking when it comes to the Kremlin leader. It suggests that the most worrying international crises might simply evaporate if one person — Putin — disappears from the world scene.
But it’s naive to hope that Putinism might not live on without Putin.
Nearly half a year after the invasion, Putin’s heavy battlefield losses have not sparked, say, widespread draft resistance.
The CIA director’s remarks, in context, reflect how challenging it is to understand Putin, someone whose decision-making processes are opaque to the outside world.
Putin’s extreme social distancing appears to reflect the lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to 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 getting their hands on his DNA.
It’s fair to speculate that Putin’s entourage would go to similar lengths to avoid providing any clues about his health to any prying foreign intelligence service.
Analyzing Russia often comes down to the study of one person. But as Burns might recall, the consensus-driven policymaking of the late Soviet Politburo still managed to blunder into the disastrous Afghanistan war in 1979.
And, as many Ukrainians are quick to point out, Russians have yet to have a real reckoning with their Soviet imperial past.
Any hope of change is distant: If Burns is to be believed, and if history is any guide, Putin is likely to be around until he reaches peak Brezhnev.
Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.