It may not be quite what his admirers wanted to hear, but Russia was last night abuzz with a new explanation for Vladimir Putin’s mysterious 10-day disappearance from public view: Russia’s strongman leader had ‘flu.
A report to that effect by the independent Dozhd TV was widely repeated on social media as the world continued to speculate on the reason for the Russian president’s low profile. He was said to be lying low at his official Valdai residence outside Moscow, an explanation backed by Russian journalists who noted that there were flight restrictions surrounding the area, making it Mr Putin’s likeliest location.
If true, it would provide a more prosaic reason for the president’s absence than other suggestions, which include a palace coup against him after an internal power struggle, a graver illness and a trip to Lugano, Switzerland to support his alleged girlfriend, gymnast-turned-lawmaker Albina Kabaeva, while she gave birth to their child.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly denied there is anything amiss with the president, rolling his eyes at each conspiracy theory that has come his way since Mr Putin’s last public appearance on 5 March. He said the childbirth story “does not correspond with reality”. On Sunday he did not directly deny the new rumour, instead telling Dozhd TV that the “subject [of Mr Putin’s health] is closed”.
Despite official insistence of nothing untoward, Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, warned on Twitter today: “It is NOT normal for heads of state to disappear for several days, especially those with nuclear weapons.”
Russian media continued to churn out headlines about the president’s activities, citing pre-recorded comments by Mr Putin in a documentary on the annexation of Crimea as if they were fresh. They included: “Putin has declared that sanctions are needed against organisers of coups” and “Putin: we were prepared to use nuclear weapons” on the news portal Gazeta.ru.
Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, called the growing speculation that the president had fallen ill “wishful thinking” more indicative of Western fears than a state of doom in Russia.
Other commentators offered a darker explanation, drawing parallels with a stunt in 1564. “Recall how Ivan the Terrible unexpectedly vanished from Moscow to make his subjects realise how ‘bad’ it was to live without him… in what looked like a ploy to strengthen support for his rule as he contemplated new drastic measures,” noted Simon Saradzhyan, assistant director of the US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism at Harvard’s Belfer Centre.
Mr Putin is due to meet the President of Kyrgyzstan in St Petersburg on Monday.
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