Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been seen in public since March 5, prompting speculation that he is in poor health, or, in more unhinged territory, that he’s been overthrown in a coup. The online rumor-mill kicked into overdrive on Wednesday, when the Kremlin announced that the president was canceling a planned trip to Kazakhstan as well as a regular meeting with the FSB on Thursday. The government didn’t help matters by releasing photos on March 11 of a meeting between Putin and the regional governor of Karelia that turned out to have been taken on March 4.
Clearly something’s up. Normally omnipresent in the Russian media, Putin rarely disappears from public view for even a couple of days, and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s assurances that the leader is “absolutely” healthy with a handshake so strong it could “break your hand” aren’t that convincing.
That being said, it’s too soon to assume that anything drastic has occurred. Authoritarian leaders from Fidel Castro to Robert Mugabe to the King of Saudi Arabia have frequently concealed illnesses by staying out of view for a while. Kim Jong-Un’s still unexplained six-week absence last year was the most recent case that provoked widespread speculation. (He reappeared walking with a cane in October.)
The whale-harpooning, shirtless horseback-riding, judo black-belt Putin, whose health and physical strength are important to his public image, is no exception. In 2012, he canceled a number of events, cut back his travel schedule, and spent several weeks working from home amid widespread speculation, denied by Peskov, that he was having serious back problems. (One press report suggested this could have been caused by a hard landing during a hang-glider flight he had taken with migrating cranes in Siberia.)
Even when he doesn’t hide from view, his health is often a mystery. In 2010, Putin showed up to a summit in Ukraine with a prominent bruise on his face and heavy pancake makeup. Again, his spokesmen denied that there was anything wrong to incredulous reporters. In general, Putin is not exactly forthcoming about anything that could be perceived as a personal weakness. Before they divorced in 2013, Putin’s ex-wife Lyudmila had been seen in public so rarely there were tabloid rumors he had sent her away to a monastery.
Whether his back is out again, he’s battling the flu, or facing some other minor health issue, it makes sense that Putin would want to avoid projecting weakness right now. The recent killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov just blocks away from the Kremlin has reportedly exacerbated tensions between factions of Putin’s inner circle that were already running high due to the worsening state of the economy and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Anything is possible, but my guess is that Putin will emerge in a few days, macho as ever, and we’ll never get a full explanation of what kept him out of sight for the past week. If I’m wrong, and he’s actually incapacitated, things could get very chaotic, very quickly.