Burns was careful to qualify the apparently tongue-in-cheek remarks, saying they did not constitute “formal intelligence judgment”.
But when asked directly whether Putin was unwell or unstable, he said: “There are a lot of rumors about the health of President Putin, and as far as we can tell, he is too healthy.”
And for two decades, he consolidated power, building a system governed by the whims and obsessions of one man (an obvious example: the invasion of Ukraine).
Thus, without a clear successor to Putin, Russia is always steps away from a full-blown political crisis.
The Kremlin routinely ridicules any speculation about Putin’s health; On Thursday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin was feeling “well” and “in good health” before characterizing speculation to the contrary as “nothing less than a hoax.”
But Burns’s statement, even if made in jest, may tell us much more about Western politicians than it does about Putin’s fitness.
First, it reflects a strong element of wishful thinking when it comes to the Kremlin leader. This suggests that the most troubling international crises may simply evaporate if one man – Putin – disappears from the world stage.
But it is naive to hope that Putinism will not survive without Putin.
Nearly half a year after the invasion, Putin’s heavy casualties on the battlefield have not caused, say, massive resistance to conscription.
The CIA director’s remarks in context reflect how difficult it is to understand Putin, a man whose decision-making processes are opaque to the outside world.
Putin’s extreme social distancing seems to reflect the lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to protect his physical health – and by extension, any information about his health.
Shortly before the invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron turned down the Kremlin’s request for a Russian test for Covid-19, the Élysée reported, while declining to comment on media reports that Macron did not want Russian doctors to get their hands on his DNA.
It is fair to assume that Putin’s entourage would have gone to the same lengths to not give any information about his health to any curious foreign intelligence service.
The analysis of Russia often comes down to the study of one person. But as Burns can recall, the consensus politics of the late Soviet Politburo still managed to stumble upon the disastrous war in Afghanistan in 1979.
And, as many Ukrainians are quick to point out, the Russians have yet to truly reckon with their Soviet imperial past.
Any hope of change is far off: if Burns is to be believed, and if history is a guide, Putin is likely to be around until he reaches Brezhnev’s peak.
Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report.