Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been forced to cancel several public appearances recently, prompting speculation over the state of his health. The Kremlin insists the all-action leader had simply pulled a muscle.
Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is continuing to maintain an unusually low profile and speculation is mounting over the state of the president’s health.
Despite denials from the Kremlin, the rumours are growing that the all-action president has been laid low by injury, with some suggesting his notorious backbone had become his Achilles heel.
The Russian leader, whose image of physical vigour has been key to his success, has cancelled several foreign trips in recent weeks and has rarely left his suburban residence outside Moscow.
A respected Russian newspaper, Vedomosti, reported Thursday that a publicity stunt in which Putin tried to lead cranes on their migratory paths in a motorised hang-glider had aggravated an old back injury.
Putin’s office denies it was the flight with cranes, insisting it is just a pulled muscle and that the injury was par for the course for supreme athletes like him.
By writing off Putin’s injury as a sport-related trauma, his spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, was apparently aiming to reinforce Putin’s action-man image.
“He has pulled a muscle,” Peskov was quoted by 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 restriction of his activities.”
The Kremlin has also tried to play the down the seriousness of the muscle pull. The Kremlin explained Putin's lack of recent public appearances as a wish to avoid blocking Moscow traffic with his motorcade something that hasn’t seemed to trouble the president during his previous 12 years in power.
Since coming to office, Putin has worked hard to fashion an image of himself as an uncompromising politician and action-man hunk.
The former KGB man, who celebrated his 60th birthday in October, is thought to be the only world leader to have been depicted bare-chested on horseback, while on a camping trip.
State television has also shown him swimming in a Siberian river, petting a tranquilised polar bear in the Arctic and piloting a fighter jet, as well as skiing and practising judo.
Despite the cancelled appearances and foreign trips, Putin is still shown on state television almost daily mostly sitting at meetings with officials.
A Moscow-based political analyst said the health problems of Russian leaders in the past have often led to political crises.
“First of all, it slows everything down. Even the most immediate problems or solutions cannot be taken up and they have to be delayed,” said Viktor Kremenyuk of the US-Canada Institute.
“There is no mechanism to replace the president in the absence of the president. This simply means a standstill everything stops.”
Putin’s macho image is especially important in Russia, which has often been ruled by aged autocrats whose health was routinely kept a top secret.
Russians often attributed Boris Yeltsin’s disjointed speech and bizarre behavior to heavy drinking, although his press service insisted he was taking strong drugs to alleviate a heart condition.
Soviet dissidents once ridiculed the mumbling and senility of Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Union until his death in 1982 at age 76. Two more aged Soviet helmsmen died after Brezhnev in just three years before Mikhail Gorbachev took over in 1985 prompting Russians to joke about having “season tickets” to their funerals.
Dictator Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 came as a surprise to average Soviet citizens although his health had been deteriorating for years.