The leaked Pentagon documents contain a rumor that Russia’s top general is conspiring to “throw” the war in Ukraine while Putin is getting chemotherapy.
Last week, classified documents from a Pentagon intelligence report made their way onto Telegram and Twitter after leaking on Discord. The leaks appear to have been printed out and photographed before being removed from a secure location. Along with information about troop movements and casualties in Ukraine, the documents also contain daily intelligence briefings, a collection of short bits of information from various sources around the world.
One of those slides suggested that Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov have a plan to sabotage Putin while he’s getting treatment for cancer.
A document like this illuminates what intelligence can look like when it’s put on the page, and the types of information that U.S. leaders are using in part to help them make their decisions. Every document contains a string of letters that serves as a shorthand explaining how the document was collected and who it’s for. The string at the top of the note about Russia “throwing the war” is (TS//SI//REL TO USA, FVEY/FISA). This means this document is top secret (its security classification), collected by monitoring communications (SI), is releasable to people with a top secret security clearance in the USA or other “Five Eyes” countries, and was collected under the guidance of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which sets the legal parameters for spying.
Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance between the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This information was available to people in those countries with Top Secret clearance, but this specific memo was tailored for high level Pentagon officials. The documents attribute the origin of the rumor to a Ukrainian official who, according to the documents, has a source with access to Kremlin officials. There is no indication in the documents that U.S. intelligence confirmed the rumor is true, but at some point, a spy agency monitoring communications heard the rumor and decided it was worth passing on to officials at the Pentagon.
“According to the [source], who received the information from an unidentified Russian source with access to Kremlin officials, Russia planned to divert resources from the Taganrog, Russia to Mariupol, Ukraine and focus its attention on the southern front,” the memo said. “According to [the source], the plan for ‘the offensive’…was suspected to be a strategy devised by Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov to sabotage Putin.”
After more than a year of war in Ukraine, Kyiv has successfully defended most of the country. Russia has been stalled in the east and is stuck attempting to seize the city of Bakhmut. Moscow’s casualties are mounting and it’s running out of ammunition. Before the leak of these Pentagon documents, Ukraine had planned to go on a counter-offensive against Russia to attempt to push it out of the country. The leaked documents contained some of Kyiv’s plans and it’s said that it’s now altered them.
The memo then referenced a long-standing rumor about Putin having cancer. “[The source] on 22 February indicated that Gerasimov reportedly planned to continue his efforts to sabotage the offensive, noting that he promised to ‘throw’ the so-called special military operation by 5 March, when Putin was allegedly scheduled to start a round of chemotherapy and would thus be unable to influence the war effort.”
The Kremlin is tight-lipped about Putin’s health, but the rumor that he’s got cancer is an old one. A constant presence in state media, Putin sometimes vanishes for long periods of time and outsiders have long speculated he’s receiving treatment for cancer. He is 70 years old, and Kyiv’s intelligence services have repeatedly said he’s ill, but there’s no concrete evidence to support the theory.
The idea that Putin is sick and that there’s fighting at the top levels of the Kremlin is a popular one in western intelligence circles. But to outside eyes, it’s all rumors and speculation. Without concrete evidence and the context of a dozen other intelligence documents, it’s impossible to know how reliable one little paragraph in a leaked document is.