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In a sit-down conversation with a similarly less-than-robust defence minister Sergei Shoigou, the Russian leader, 69, was strangely subdued. He slumped in his chair, his left leg and foot twitching constantly, his face betraying a slight palsy. The left arm was still throughout, dead still. The right hand gripped the table for dear life.
The television clip of his attendance at the Easter service in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour over the weekend showed him standing alone, looking less than at ease, constantly chewing his lower lip. He appeared distracted, his face puffy, with heavy makeup.
Of course the media quacks have had a field day, with several claiming they have known for months and years that the Russian leader has been suffering from cancer or Parkinson’s disease — all feeding paranoid delusion.
Ill health and leadership have been hot topics throughout history. Churchill suffered a serious stroke in June 1953 and carried on as prime minister. Hitler was visibly suffering from the tremors caused by Parkinson’s or Huntington’s in his final two years. Would the outcome of the battle of Waterloo have been different had Napoleon not been gripped by an acute bout of haemorrhoids that morning?
Putin has always projected himself as a supreme strongman and athlete. The chat with Shoigou was strangely downbeat — as it was supposed to celebrate the victory in the port of Mariupol.
Durham-born Russia expert Dr Fiona Hill, adviser to three US presidents, thinks Putin’s behaviour pattern is now exaggerated by isolation, paranoia and ill health. From his assumption of power in 1999, he has sought vengeance for himself and his Russia, against the US, Nato, and Britain.
It is beginning to look like the plot theme of the movie Dr Strangelove in which a deluded commander trips the US and the Soviet Union into a nuclear showdown. The brilliant Peter Sellers plays four parts and wrote some of the key lines.
Would that Sellers were here now to interpret the gothic persona and psyche of Vladimir Putin.
Robert Fox is Defence Editor