BY REID STANDISH
Image credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been seen in public since March 5, and depending on whom you ask, he’s either dead, has had a stroke, has cancer, is being overthrown in a palace coup, or, contrary to his spokesperson’s denials Friday, has been out of the public eye because he has fathered a lovechild.
“Information that a child has been born to Vladimir Putin is not true,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Forbes Russia. “I am planning to appeal to people who have money to organize a competition for the best journalistic hoax,” he added.
Speculation on Putin’s whereabouts began when he canceled a high-level trip to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and then several other meetings this week, including the signing of a treaty with South Ossetia and an appearance at a meeting of top brass at the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service. Putin’s absence has sent the Russian Twitterverse and media into overdrive, sparking the trending hashtag #ПутинУмер (Putin Died), as well as a cottage industry of theories — some absurd and others more believable — to explain what is keeping the usually omnipresent Russian president from the public eye.
Peskov, meanwhile, has been on the offensive, steadfastly denying the Russian rumor mill — often with colorful details. After shooting down rumors about Putin’s ill health earlier this week on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Peskov added that “his handshake is so strong he breaks hands with it.”
Yet despite Peskov’s best efforts, the theories about what could be behind Putin’s mysterious absence have continued to swirl. The Kremlin’s website has been posting photos of the Russian president attending meetings during his physical absence, but the Russian news outlet RBC investigated Putin’s schedule and found discrepancies. According to RBC, the meeting with the governor of the northwestern region of Karelia, reported on the official site as having taken place on March 11, had actually occurred a week earlier, and a Karelian website had actually already written about it on March 4. On Thursday, the Kremlin claimed that Putin spoke on the phone with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Sargsyan’s website issued the call with an identical transcript.
On Friday, the Kremlin issued three images showing Putin in a meeting with the head of the Supreme Court in Moscow. The state television channel, Rossiya 24, also aired video footage of the meeting. However, the dates of those photos have not been confirmed, and the footage has not been authenticated.
In all likelihood, Putin is alive, relatively healthy, and in Moscow. But the global hysteria points to how little is currently known about how the Kremlin actually functions. It’s also representative of the political fallout from the Feb. 27 assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.
In the weeks since Nemtsov’s death, cracks have begun to appear in the Kremlin’s typically ironclad foundations, exposing rivalries among Russia’s elite. The battle played out in media reports about the Nemtsov investigation and the supposed killers, Zaur Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev. After his arrest, Dadayev retracted his confession and claimed it was issued under torture. In an interview with the Russian news site Gordon on Tuesday, prominent Russian journalist and Kremlin-watcher Oleg Kashin said it was noteworthy that Dadayev and the other suspects in the Nemtsov case were arrested by the FSB and made public by Aleksandr Bortnikov himself, the chief of the Russian intelligence service. Kashin said that pointed to a possible showdown between Kremlin elites, specifically Bortnikov and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, under whom Dadayev served as deputy commander of a paramilitary battalion.
Putin is set to meet with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev on March 16 in St. Petersburg to discuss further details on the Moscow-led Eurasian Union. But until then, the palace intrigue will continue to boil as the world wonders just what is going on with Russia’s president.