NEW: Official: Vladimir Putin has put Russia's Northern Fleet on alert to check its capacity
Putin makes light of his absence, saying, "It would be boring without gossip"
The Russian President meets with President of Kyrgyzstan in St. Petersburg, Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared in public Monday for the first time in about 10 days as he met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.
Putin isn’t generally one to shy away from the limelight – posing with a (tranquilized) tiger, riding a horse while shirtless, earning a karate black belt.
So his unexplained absence fueled speculation about his health, grip on power and even his love life.
Although the Kremlin and the Russian state media released photos and video footage of Putin last week, they did not quell the rumors about his whereabouts, because it was unclear when they were taken.
So all eyes were turned to St. Petersburg on Monday for Putin’s scheduled meeting with Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan.
His appearance before the press, looking healthy and relaxed, should help put some of the rumors at least to rest.
And he made light of his absence, saying: “It would be boring without gossip.”
In another sign Putin has a firm hand on the tiller, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the President had ordered Russia’s Northern Fleet to be placed on full combat alert from Monday morning for snap checks, Russia’s state-run Tass news agency reported.
The checks are intended to test the fleet’s capacity to ensure Russia’s military security in the Arctic, Tass said. Also on alert are Russia’s Western Military District and certain airborne units, with some 38,000 military personnel involved in total.
What is going on?
Here’s what gave some doubters grist for the rumor mill: On Friday – three days before the scheduled meeting – a Russian state media broadcaster prematurely aired a report that Putin had a meeting with Atambayev – although the event had not yet occurred.
The station acknowledged the error, but it only heightened the speculation over Putin and his whereabouts.
Social media has been swirling with questions, with hashtags such as #Putindead and #putinmissing. Was he ill? Was he holed away somewhere with his girlfriend and a new baby, as some in the European media speculated? There were even dark rumors of a palace coup in which various Kremlin factions vying for power might have ousted him.
The Kremlin vigorously denied that anything was amiss, with Putin’s spokesman saying the President was healthy and that his handshake “can break a hand.”
But his absence came at an uneasy time as the country deals with economic turmoil and strained international relations over the war in Ukraine.
“Does Putin ever catch a cold? Does he ever get sick? The Kremlin doesn’t want to allow Putin’s image of virility and strength to become tarnished by the weaknesses of mere humans,” CNN analyst Frida Ghitis wrote.
“Putin rules in the old-fashioned style of a personality cult. The system requires propaganda and image control. It needs Putin to be larger than life.”
‘Moscow always has been a center for rumors’
Last week, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to allay questions, telling Russian radio station Echo of Moscow that people should not worry and that Putin was “absolutely” healthy.
“No need to worry, everything is all right. He has working meetings all the time, only not all of these meetings are public,” Peskov said Thursday.
He also dismissed European media reports that Putin had a love child.
“I am going to ask people who have money to organize a contest on the best media rumor,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
Rumblings about Putin began last week after a meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, between the Russian leader and the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus was postponed at short notice. A Kazakh official told Reuters that Putin had fallen ill.
On Thursday, he missed his meeting with the Federal Security Service, Russia’s counterintelligence agency.
Putin’s last public appearance was supposedly on March 8, International Women’s Day. But some keeping track say he hadn’t been seen since even earlier – March 5.
In the course of his many years in power, Putin has cultivated the image of a strong and vigorous leader.
And he enjoys a whopping 86% approval rating, although some critics question the validity of polling they say is carried out in a climate where people are afraid to voice opposition to Putin’s government.
“Moscow always has been a center for rumors and speculation,” said Jill Dougherty, an expert on Russia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former CNN correspondent. “As soon as the President does not show up, which is really kind of rare for him, people begin to question.
“You have to look at this in terms of, why all of this insanity? And one of the problems is, people are very nervous, legitimately. Where is Putin? Is he in charge?”
CNN’s Matthew Chance contributed to this report.