Putin reemerges after lengthy public absence

Mar 16, 2015, 8:18 AM EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (unseen) in the Konstantin Palace in Strelna on March 16, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared in public for the first time since March 5, quelling intense speculation about his health, reports the BBC. He was meeting Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev in St Petersburg.

Commenting on the rumours about his health, Putin said "things would be boring without gossip", RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Earlier, Mr Putin ordered Russia's navy on to a state of full combat readiness in the Arctic. Russia says the navy drills involve 56 warships, planes and 38,000 personnel.

According to a tweet from the meeting in St Petersburg, Atambayev said that Putin "just took me for a little drive - he was at the wheel - nearby here, and I can confirm that he's in excellent form".

The Russian TV news channel Rossiya 24 also showed some brief footage of Mr Putin at the meeting, without sound.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov - quoted in a Russian journalist's tweet - said St Petersburg was chosen as a convenient venue for Atambayev, whose daughter is studying there.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Moscow was ready to put its nuclear forces on alert to ensure Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year, President Vladimir Putin said in a pre-recorded documentary aired on Sunday.

According to Reuters, Putin also said that Russia had saved the life of Ukraine's former pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovich, who he said had been in danger after 'revolutionaries' seized power following weeks of violent street protests in Kiev last year.

"For us it became clear and we received information that there were plans not only for his capture, but, preferably for those who carried out the coup, but also for his physical elimination. As one famous historical figure said: 'No person, no problem'," Putin said.

Protests over Yanukovich's decision to back away from a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow forced him from power in February last year. Yanukovich's overthrow ultimately prompted Russia to seize and annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

"Of course it wasn't immediately understandable (what the reaction would be to Crimea's annexation). Therefore, in the first stages, I had to orient our armed forces. Not just orient, but give direct orders," he said.

When asked if he had been ready to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert, he said: "We were ready to do it."

Meanwhile, a planned meeting between the Russian and Kyrgyz presidents, in which they will discuss trade, investment, cultural and humanitarian co-operation, is eagerly anticipated because there's been no verifiable sighting of the omnipotent and normally omnipresent Vladimir Putin in nearly two weeks, writes the BBC.

Such a long, unexplained absence from public view has fuelled rumours among the chattering classes here and across the internet, that something is wrong - that the president might be sick or even dead or he could be the victim of a palace coup.

With persistent denials from the Kremlin doing little to dampen the speculation, Monday's meeting could be a key moment. Something untoward If he makes an appearance with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Almazbek Atambayev, in front of plenty of journalists and television cameras, it would at least quash the rumours that he is either dead or seriously ill, especially if the broadcast is live.

But if not the rumour mill is likely to crank up into an even higher gear. The suspicions that there is something untoward happening behind the Kremlin's thick, red walls have been heightened by the way government officials themselves have responded.

On the lighter side of things, the BBC has presented a "best of 'Where's Putin' memes."