KYIV, Ukraine — He’s sick. He’s dead. He’s caught in a political crisis. But no, wait, he just had a child. Didn’t he?
As the shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has slipped out of the news cycle, speculation over the fate and whereabouts of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — not seen in public since last week — has taken its place.
Since rarely a day goes by that the TV-friendly autocrat isn’t featured prominently on the evening news, his absence from the airwaves has sparked a maelstrom of rumors.
Suspicions first surfaced when a Kazakh official claimed to Reuters on Wednesday that a planned visit by Putin to Kazakhstan was postponed because the Russian president was sick. Then came the cancellation of several other meetings Putin was reportedly set to attend.
It didn’t help that some Russian media simultaneously reported that recent meetings Putin was said to be attending — such as with regional governors and a group of mothers in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 — either did not take place, or occurred earlier than the Kremlin’s press service let on.
In no time, hashtags like #WhereIsPutin and #ПутинУмер (“Putin died”) were trending on Twitter, where most of Russia’s chattering classes take their political discussion.
That’s why Putin’s spokesman has been busier than ever batting down rumors of illness, insisting all is just dandy.
On Friday, the Kremlin finally released pictures of Putin meeting with Russia’s top judge, said to have been photographed the same day. State television ran footage of the event, but many remained skeptical it was new..
And as if to hammer home the point, the Kremlin also announced that Putin would travel to St. Petersburg on Monday to meet with the president of Kyrgyzstan.
But then, confusingly, state television network Rossiya 24 reported that the meeting had already taken place. (The head of the channel later told BBC’s Russian service the report, which aired twice in the afternoon, was a mistake.)
Whatever the case, in some circles Putin’s atypical absence has set off another intense round of Kremlinology — the time-tested practice by which Western observers have struggled to decipher the opaque world of Russian politics using any hints they can get.
Some analysts believe Putin may be preoccupied with a power struggle taking place behind the scenes.
That theory became popular even before the rumors of Putin’s failing health. It was fueled by the recent murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, allegedly by a Chechen ex-cop praised by his country’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov as a “true patriot.”
Kremlin-watchers saw the assassination as a sign of a possible fallout between Kadyrov, a staunch Putin ally, and the Federal Security Service (FSB), a key Putin power base responsible for the suspect’s arrest.
“Even if Putin the man is in top form,” wrote Brian Whitmore, a senior editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “the ‘collective Putin,’ Russia's informal ruling circle, is showing signs of deep distress.”
It’s also possible that Putin has simply been in Switzerland visiting his long-suspected lover — a 31-year-old rhythmic gymnast whom Swiss media reported had given birth to the president’s child.
As ever, though, Putin’s trusty spokesman quickly dispelled that theory as nonsense.
“Information about the birth of Vladimir Putin’s child does not correspond with reality,” Dmitry Peskov told the Russian edition of Forbes.
For good measure, Reuters also reached Peskov on Friday to make sure his boss was in tip-top shape. But by then, the joke had clearly gotten old.
“Yes,” he said. “We've already said this a hundred times. This isn't funny anymore.”