Is Putin Dying? Would His Death End the War in Ukraine? – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has once again dismissed rumors that he was seriously ill, and even needed to be hospitalized this past weekend.
Reports of a serious illness circulated earlier in May following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Belarusian leader has repeatedly released photos and videos, and even conducted interviews to confirm that he is in good health.
Often dubbed the last dictator of Europe, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, and he remains the only foreign leader to have regularly met with Putin since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last year.
Rumors have also continued to swirl that Putin may also be suffering from an undisclosed illness.
Neck Scar – A Reason For Concern?
It was in late April that an apparent scar on the Russian leader’s neck sparked renewed rumors that his health could be seriously compromised. There have been claims that Putin is suffering from thyroid cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and even both. The Kremlin has repeatedly insisted that the Russian president is in good health.
Putin, who turned 70 last October, has been the subject of rumors regarding his health. Yet, despite the ongoing claims he has been receiving cancer treatment, Putin has soldiered on – at least reasonably well for a senior citizen.
“I’m deeply skeptical that Putin has some health problems likely to lead to his imminent death or incapacitation,” Professor Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a consultancy firm based in London concentrating on Russia, told Newsweek in February. “There is a great deal of rumor, propaganda and wishful thinking in play.”
The most compelling evidence of illness came in December when Putin was forced to scrap his New Year’s Eve plan to play ice hockey in Red Square. However, the failure of the Russian military in Ukraine likely had as much to do with that decision as any that were related to his health.
Life of a Dictator
Though it is likely true that were Putin to die suddenly, the war in Ukraine could possibly end – but that’s hardly a guarantee. Others in the Kremlin continue to support the effort. Moreover, Putin has already had a reasonably good run when compared to other despots and dictators.
Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler was just 56 when he took his own life at the end of World War II, while Italy’s Benito Mussolini was 61 when he and his mistress were killed by Italian partisans.
By contrast, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin died of natural causes at age 74, and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lived to 82. It is still worth noting that Stalin suffered from atherosclerosis as a result of his heavy smoking, while he also suffered a minor stroke in May 1945 followed by a severe heart attack later that year – while Franco struggled with Parkinson’s disease in his final decade. Such illnesses hardly impacted the rule of either man, and both remained fully in power until their cold hearts stopped beating.
Likewise, China’s Mao Zedong, another chain smoker, also suffered multiple lung and heart ailments during his later years, while there were also unconfirmed reports of Parkinson’s disease. He only died in 1976 at age 82.
In both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, the deaths of their respective strongman simply marked a transition to another authoritarian leader; while Franco had already loosened his grip on Spain. Juan Carlos became the King of Spain and continued the country’s subsequent transition to democracy – eventually becoming a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.
It is highly unlikely if Putin was to die like Franco, Mao, or Stalin that Russia would make a transition back to democracy. Rather, it would almost certainly take the same course as the Soviet Union or China with another strongman taking Putin’s place. Several names come to mind as to who would step in and fill Putin’s shoes.
Legacy of Russia
Any new ruler of Russia would need to look to the past to avoid total catastrophe in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
It was nearly 170 years ago that Russia found itself in another seemingly hopeless war – fighting against an Anglo-French force supporting the Turks in Crimea. It was during that conflict that Tsar Nicholas I caught a chill while attending a wedding in the winter of 1855 and after refusing medical treatment, died of pneumonia at age 61. He was succeeded by his son Tsar Alexander II.
The death of Tsar Nicholas I presented Alexander II with quite a diplomatic headache, and the new Russian Tsar was forced to accept the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1856), which were considered quite unfavorable to Russia. That included the loss of the Black Sea Fleet and a provision that the Black Sea was to be demilitarized. However, it gave Alexander II the breathing room to pursue his ambitious plans of domestic reforms.
Tsar Alexander II’s grandson Nicholas II faced setbacks in the First World War, and the February Revolution of 1917 led to his abdication. That ended the three-century-old dynasty, yet Russia remained in the war – only for the provisional government to be subsequently overthrown in the October Revolution later that year.
Only following more than six years of civil war, did the Bolsheviks secure peace with the establishment of the Soviet Union.
If Putin were to die, or otherwise be forced to step down for health reasons, it is likely Russia would be forced to accept similarly unfavorable peace terms as it did in 1856 and again in 1918 when it finally withdrew from the First World War.
Such a move would almost certainly be necessary again to save Russia from the ruin that faced its past rulers.
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Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.