Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to occupied areas of Ukraine this weekend.
The trip to the besieged region renewed claims that Putin uses body doubles for public appearances.
Skeptics believe his doubles have had surgery to look like him — and point to his ears as proof.
Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to occupied areas of Ukraine this weekend, renewing conspiratorial claims that the Russian leader may use a team of body doubles for public appearances, with critics pointing to one body part in particular, his ears.
Petro Andryushchenko, an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, a besieged Ukrainian city that Putin visited, wrote on Telegram that "Putin or one of his doubles" had paid an overnight visit to the occupied region, according to the Local Today, which republished an article originally written by The Washington Post.
The original article has been updated to remove references to Putin using a body double. The Washington Post did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment about why the article was updated. However, The Post isn't the first publication to reference the possibility of a Putin body double.
While the conspiracy may sound wild, there are elements of truth to it; political decoys are sometimes used on the international stage — and people can be identified by certain measurements of their ears.
The Putin body-double theory
Major General Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine's head of military intelligence, told the Daily Mail in an interview that the Russian leader uses a team of doubles to cover up Putin's loss of control in the Kremlin. The doubles, Budanov said, used to be detected standing in for Putin only on "special occasions" but since the invasion of Ukraine have been observed as a "usual practice."
"We know specifically about three people that keep appearing, but how many there are, we don't know," Budanov told the outlet in October. "They all had plastic surgery to look alike."
He added: "The one thing that gives them away is their height. It's visible in videos and pictures. Also gesturing, body language, and earlobes, since they are unique for every person."
The British news site The Week reports that Putin is an estimated 5 feet 7 inches tall.
Newsweek reported Budanov repeated the claim during an August appearance on the Ukrainian television channel Groshi, saying that "each person's ear picture is unique. It cannot be repeated" — though he has not offered concrete evidence to back up the claim that Putin uses a body double.
Ears as evidence
While Budanov's claims about Putin's health or use of body doubles cannot be verified, the use of ears as forensic evidence has been documented for decades. Since the 1950s, the measurements of ears have been used by forensic scientists to identify suspects of crime and, in the era of the algorithm, Wired reported ears identified by software could be a more unique identifier than fingerprints.
The International Business Times in 2018 called the idea of Putin using body doubles "one of the more unusual conspiracy theories," after online posters shared a viral series of photos on social media, once again focused on Putin's ears and analyzing them for possible clues — though skeptics remain unconvinced.
Users on Twitter speculated that a Putin body double went to Ukraine, focusing on the specific curves of his ear, comparing the sagging of his earlobes to photos from 2006 and 2018.
"As you grow older your ear doesn't change – it just grows larger but the proportions remain the same," Mark Nixon, a computer vision expert at the University of Southampton and a leading researcher in ear recognition, told the BBC.
Advances in 3D-scanning technology make it possible to identify someone, even from a fuzzy picture, by the measurements of the distance from the lobe to two points on the upper edge of their ear, with 99.6% accuracy in just 0.02 milliseconds, BBC reported in 2017.
Use of political decoys
Though claims that Putin uses a body double have increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began last February, they're not new, nor are they limited to the Russian leader.
Last month, Newsweek reported on rumors that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used a double himself while meeting with President Joe Biden during Biden's visit to Ukraine. Biden has also been accused by conspiracy theorists of using a body double when he received the COVID-19 vaccination, according to PolitiFact. However, there is no proven evidence that body doubles were used in either case.
International political figures — including Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, and Melania Trump — have also been said to have used decoys during their time in leadership, the Indian news outlet WION reported.
Footage filmed in 2017 of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un appeared to show the dictator talking with two identically-dressed doppelgangers, The New York Post reported, which escalated existing rumors that he was dying or already dead.
Budanov said that he believes Putin is seriously ill — another theory that has long circulated among critics of the Russian leader, who think he may suffer from ailments ranging from cancer to a nebulous, unnamed, "very bad psychological and physical condition," as Budanov told Sky News last May.
Theories of political figures using body doubles often appear to correlate with rumors of their illness or other weakness which would prevent them from otherwise fulfilling their leadership duties.
While some instances of political decoys have been confirmed — a political aide to Henry Kissinger said he used an impersonator during a secret trip to China in 1971, according to CNN — it remains unclear whether Putin has ever used one.
Speculation on the matter, however, is apparently irresistible.
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