His weight has ballooned, his speech is often slurred and his eyes appear sullen, but Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov says he is feeling just fine.
In a series of videos released this week aimed at dispelling persistent rumours that he is gravely ill, Kadyrov was shown walking through a park, visiting a sick relative and meeting a government official.
“I strongly advise anyone who cannot distinguish truth from lies on the internet to take a walk in the fresh air and put their thoughts in order. The rain is wonderfully invigorating,” he said in one of the videos posted on his Telegram channel.
Despite his cheerful demeanour, Kadyrov’s quickfire publicity blitz appears only to have ignited more speculation about his health.
In the video of his bedside visit to an ill relative in Moscow – intended to explain away reports that he had been flying to the Russian capital for medical treatment – eagle-eyed commentators noticed a plastic device on his finger which they suggested was for measuring oxygen levels in his blood.
Observers also thought it was strange that Kadyrov only briefly appears in the video, and that the doctor in the room decided to awkwardly announce the day’s date.
Then, there was the video of the meeting with the government official, which was overdubbed with an awkward sound that aroused suspicions it had been doctored.
💥🇷🇺 - Alive and healthy: Ramzan #Kadyrov assured that he went to the Moscow Central Hospital to visit his uncle, and not for treatment.
The recording was allegedly made today – September 20th. pic.twitter.com/co4Dg2YVkm
— 🔥🗞The Informant (@theinformantofc) September 20, 2023
Alexei Venediktov, the well-connected former editor of Russia’s Echo Moskvy radio station, is one observer who remains unconvinced by Kadyrov’s claims that he is in fine fettle.
He told his 225,000 followers on Telegram that the Chechen strongman had been flying to Moscow for hospital treatment.
“Kadyrov has severe kidney failure and therefore needs frequent hemodialysis,” he said.
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency agreed and other commentators have speculated that the 46-year-old may have become addicted to opiates.
Nikolaus von Twickel, from the Berlin-based Centre for Liberal Modernity think tank, said he believed Kadyrov’s health scare was real.
“In videos posted over the past 24 months, he is often just lying on a sofa. He sounds like somebody who is high on drugs, he has a monotone-sounding voice. It is very strange,” he said.
Headache for Putin
Kadyrov’s apparent malaise is a major headache for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who built his strongman image by stamping out a rebellion in Chechnya.
As Boris Yeltsin’s tough-talking prime minister in 1999, Putin started a second war in Chechnya, three years after the Kremlin had been forced into signing a humiliating peace deal that effectively ceded the southern region to rebels.
To win this second war, Putin bombed Grozny, ordered his forces to kidnap and kill, and bribed his enemies into alliances. This included Akhmat Kadyrov, Ramzan Kadyrov’s father.
Putin made Akhmat Kadyrov Chechnya’s president and relied on him to suppress rebels and impose a fragile peace.
When a bomb in Grozny’s football stadium during a military parade killed Akhmat Kadyrov in 2004, it was natural for Putin to groom the Chechnyan president’s tearaway son as a replacement.
It has been quite a project – Ramzan Kadyrov turned up for his first meeting at the Kremlin wearing a blue tracksuit.
However, Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst, said that Putin has now become reliant on the stocky former boxer to control Chechnya.
“With 97 per cent of the Russian army involved in Ukraine, if it [Chechnya] kicked off again, who would deal with it? This is the worst of times for questions over his health to arise,” he said
The problem for Putin is who or what comes after Kadyrov, who has been effective at crushing dissent. Human rights activists have accused him of murder and torture.
It is unclear how many children Kadyrov has, but analysts believe he may already be planning his dynasty.
He has promoted his three eldest sons over the past year, sending them to Ukraine to pose for photographs brandishing rifles.
Akhmat Kadyrov, 17, named after his murdered grandfather, was even dispatched to the Kremlin to meet Putin in March.
“Chechnya is a society built on blood relationships and kinship,” said Mr von Twickel. “These are very strong signals that something is up.”