It was my wife Tina who noticed it first, a couple of weeks ago. Her father Charl, a clever, gentle man whom we all loved, was addicted to steroids — a doctor ‘friend’ started him off on whole-body doses for asthma about fifty years ago — and over time his face had puffed up a bit in the usual way. She said she could see the same changes in Vladimir Putin’s face.
Out of curiosity, we went back and looked at earlier pictures of Putin, and we thought we could see the same phenomenon. He’s obviously been a body-builder for much of his life, and many, perhaps most body-builders, take steroids at some point. And some long-term steroid users, including Tina’s father (although he wasn’t a body-builder), get hooked.
To be frank, Charl became a steroid junkie, which we first realised after his suitcase got lost when we took him on a trip to Russia, of all places. It was a classic junkie panic: he couldn’t think of anything else until he had his steroids again. I deserved a medal for finding him steroids without a prescription in Moscow in one day, but I never got one.
I wish I had paid more attention to Tina’s remark about Putin, but instead I went on predicting that Putin would not invade Ukraine until only a few days before he did, on the grounds that no rational leader, however ruthless, would do that. He might bluff about doing it, but actually doing it held nothing but downsides for Putin, and he wasn’t stupid.
I even wrote: ‘The problem for the target audience, the onlookers, and sometimes the leader’s own associates, is that they cannot tell the difference between a ‘madman’ act and the actions of a genuine madman unless the ruler actually does something irrevocable and plainly crazy. We’re not there yet with Vladimir Putin.’ And I really didn’t think he was crazy.
So he invaded. Three days later I heard Lord David Owen, former UK secretary of state for foreign affairs but also an experienced medical doctor trained in neurology and psychology, telling Radio London that he had spotted the same puffiness as Tina in Putin’s face, and had reached the same conclusion. But he then went a bit farther.
“Look at his face, see how that has changed,” Owen said. “He now has an oval face. People said ‘Oh, it’s plastic surgery or Botox’, but I don’t believe that at all. He’s on either anabolic steroids as a bodybuilder — and he’s very proud of his muscles and strips to the waist and everything like that — or he’s on corticosteroids.
“If you’re on these drugs, they give you this face. They reduce your immunity and make you more vulnerable to Covid. This man has been in complete isolation, quite extraordinary, won’t see anybody, stays miles away, tremendous pressures. Which indicates he’s on a steroid and probably, maybe, a combination of both.”
As television diagnoses go, that’s pretty convincing. And it would explain a lot: not just the 15-metre tables with him at one end and his generals at the other, but also the invasion of Ukraine. Anabolic steroids are associated with increased irritability and aggression; corticosteroids are sometimes linked to mania and psychosis.
I wouldn’t make policy solely on this diagnosis, but it needs to go into the mix when thinking about how to deal with Putin. A man who destroyed Grozny and helped raze east Aleppo could also erase Kyiv and its inhabitants while being quite sane, but the sanity of a man who hints at using nuclear weapons if anybody tries to thwart him is questionable.
The usual suspects in the media have run wild with this story, with some explaining that a ‘tactical’ nuke could be used on a Ukrainian town ‘to encourage the others’ to surrender. Others publish maps illustrating a Russian nuclear weapon detonated over the middle of the North Sea as a warning to NATO not to help Ukraine.
There’s not actually much that anybody in Ukraine or its foreign friends can do about this. Nobody is going to suggest that they should surrender just in case Putin really means it (and he hasn’t explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons, just making references to them that imply the subject is on his mind.
One precedent that may be under consideration in Washington is the kind of declaration President John F. Kennedy made during the 1962 Cuban crisis, just changing the names to say that “any nuclear missile launched from Russia against any nation in Europe will be regarded as an attack by Russia on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Russia.”
It might not deter Putin, but it would certainly terrify the generals around him. On the other hand, it would also terrify the generals around Joe Biden. Hold off on this one for now.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.