What ails Russian President Vladimir Putin? The leader, whose image of physical vigor is key to his success, has canceled several foreign trips in recent weeks, postponed his annual live televised question-and-answer session with average Russians and has rarely left his suburban residence outside Moscow.
A respected Russian newspaper claimed on Thursday that a publicity stunt during which Putin tried to lead cranes on their migratory paths in a motorized hang-glider aggravated an old injury.
Putin’s office denies it was the flight with cranes and insists it is just a pulled muscle saying that athletes often get banged up. Besides, it says, Putin is avoiding the Kremlin office so he does not tie up Moscow traffic with his motorcade — something that has not seemed to trouble him during his previous 12 years in power.
So what’s really wrong? Combine the old Russian custom of keeping a leader’s health problems secret with a massive PR apparatus that micromanages information about Putin to the nth degree and what do you get? A lot of speculation.
After celebrating his 60th birthday early last month, Putin has rarely left his official residence, sparking claims that illness or injury had laid him low.
On Thursday, the Vedomosti daily cited unidentified Kremlin-connected sources as saying Putin’s September flight with the cranes had aggravated an old injury.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a state news agency that the leader had pulled a muscle during a workout, but it was not connected to the highly publicized flight.
“Indeed, he pulled a muscle,” Peskov was quoted by the state-owned Russian news agency RIA Novosti as saying. “Actually, we have never tried to conceal it because any athlete has lots of injuries, which, however, do not mean any restrictions of his activities.”
By writing off the injury as a sport-related trauma, Peskov apparently aimed to reinforce Putin’s image of vigor and daring — a persona he has assiduously cultivated since coming to power in 2000. State television has shown him swimming in a Siberian river, petting a tranquilized polar bear in the Arctic and piloting a fighter jet, as well as skiing and practicing judo.
The hang-glider flight with the cranes, which took place just before a summit in Vladivostok, was one of Putin’s trademark adventurous media events. Yet on the first day of the summit, Putin did seem to be in discomfort as he greeted leaders and avoided standing for long periods of time.
Peskov was quoted as saying that Putin was making only infrequent trips to the Kremlin lately because he did not want his motorcade to disrupt Moscow’s notoriously bad traffic. Putin’s motorcade does force the shutdown of large stretches of highway, an inconvenience that many irritated drivers mark by blaring their horns angrily as the presidential car races past.
Earlier this week the Kremlin said that Putin’s annual question-and-answer broadcast will be postponed until a “warmer time of the year.” The sessions have been his presidency’s trademark since 2001. They usually last for hours and have been dismissed by many critics as staged.