RUSSIAN president Vladimir Putin yesterday scotched rumours of his death and palace coups by holding his first public meeting ten days after disappearing mysteriously from sight.
Mr Putin appeared before cameras looking fit and well in St Petersburg during a meeting with Almazbek Atambeyev, his counterpart in Kyrgyzstan.
His prolonged absence from the media and any official engagement had prompted a whirlwind of speculation over his health and whereabouts.
The opaque and secretive world of the Kremlin added further grist to the rumour mill, with officials only attributing, belatedly, his disappearance to a bout of the flu.
Stories abounded that he had been deposed in a secret coup or that he had suffered a stroke and was either dead or incapacitated.
Meanwhile, the Swiss press ran stories saying the Russian leader had flown to Switzerland to be present at the birth of his child to Alina Kabayeva, the former Olympic gymnast who is reportedly his girlfriend.
Others speculated his disappearance may have been linked to a political war in the Kremlin triggered by the assassination of leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on 27 February.
But looking relaxed yesterday, Mr Putin said “life would be boring without rumours”.
Mr Atambeyev also testified to the Russian president’s good health, saying Mr Putin had taken him for a drive.
“The president of Russia is not only on his feet but is at the wheel too, taking his guests for a drive, and so, as the saying goes, the rumour-mongers shouldn’t get their hopes up,” he said.
Earlier Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, had mocked the stories about his boss, saying “everyone has now seen the paralysed president captured by a general who has just returned from Switzerland where he was delivering a baby?”
As if to underline he was still at the helm and in control, Mr Putin ordered Russia’s Northern Fleet to combat readiness ahead of massive military manoeuvres in the Arctic. The exercises will involve some 38,000 troops, 50 vessels and 110 aircraft, and comes as the latest in a series of Russian war games that have startled neighbours already on edge owing to the Ukraine crisis.
Mr Putin’s reappearance yesterday also came a day after the airing on Russian television of a documentary about the Ukraine crisis to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In a frank interview, Mr Putin said he had been ready to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert after Ukraine’s then president Viktor Yanukovich fled following days of violent demonstrations.
“We were ready to do it. I talked with colleagues and told them that this [Crimea] is our historic territory, Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot leave them,” he said. “It wasn’t us who committed a coup, it was the nationalists and people with extreme beliefs.”
But he added “I don’t think this was actually anyone’s wish – to turn it into a world conflict.”
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