Moscow, March 16: Vladimir Putin isn’t one to shy away from the limelight – posing with a (tranquilized) tiger, riding a horse while shirtless, earning a karate black belt.
But the Russian President hasn’t made a public appearance in over a week, fueling speculations about his health, grip on power and even his love life.
Although the Kremlin and the Russian state media have released photos and video footage of Putin, it has not quelled the rumors about his whereabouts, because it’s unclear when they were taken.
So, all eyes will fall on St. Petersburg on Monday, when Putin is slated to meet with the President of Kyrgyzstan.
Will he show?
Here’s what has given some doubters more grist for the rumor mill: On Friday — three days before the scheduled meeting — a Russian state media broadcaster prematurely aired a report that Putin had a meeting with the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev — although the event had not yet occurred.
Although the station acknowledged the error, it only heightened the speculations over Putin and his whereabouts.
What is going on?
Social media has been swirling with questions, with hashtags such as #Putindead and #putinmissing. Is he ill? Is he holed away somewhere with his girlfriend and a new baby, as some in the European media have speculated.
The Kremlin has vigorously denied that anything is amiss, with his spokesman saying the president is healthy and his handshake “can break a hand.”
But his absence comes at an uneasy time as the country deals with economic turmoil and strained international relations over the war in Ukraine.
“Does Putin ever catch a cold? Does he ever get sick? The Kremlin doesn’t want to allow Putin’s image of virility and strength to become tarnished by the weaknesses of mere humans,” wrote CNN analyst Frida Ghitis.
“Putin rules in the old-fashioned style of a personality cult.. The system requires propaganda and image control. It needs Putin to be larger than life.”
Everything is awesome
Last week, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to allay questions, telling Russian radio station Echo of Moscow that people should not worry and that Putin was “absolutely” healthy.
“No need to worry, everything is all right. He has working meetings all the time, only not all of these meetings are public,” Peskov said Thursday.
He also dismissed European media reports that Putin had a love child.
“I am going to ask people who have money to organize a contest on the best media rumor,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
Rumblings about Putin began last week after a meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, between the Russian leader and the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus was postponed at short notice. A Kazakh official told Reuters that Putin had fallen ill.
On Thursday, he missed his meeting with the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s counter intelligence agency.
Putin’s last public appearance was supposedly on March 8, which is International Women’s Day. But some keeping track say he hasn’t been seen since even earlier — March 5.
In the course of his many years in power, Putin has cultivated the image of a strong and vigorous leader. His exploits, captured on film and released to the media, have been many.
And he enjoys a whopping 86% approval rating.
“Moscow always has been a center for rumors and speculation,” said Jill Dougherty, an expert on Russia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “As soon as the president does not show up, which is really kind of rare for him, people begin to question.
“You have to look at this in terms of why all of this insanity? And one of the problems is, people are very nervous, legitimately. Where is Putin? Is he in charge?”