Story highlights

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

Moscow CNN  — 

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.