STRELNA, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin reappeared on Monday after 10 unexplained days out of public view, laughing off the “gossip” over his health that had erupted during his absence.
The 62-year-old leader met the president of Kyrgyzstan at a lavish Tsarist-era palace outside St Petersburg in his first appearance since Feb. 5. His absence had fueled rumors he was ill, had been overthrown by the army or had even flown abroad to attend the birth of a love child.
“It would be boring without gossip,” Putin said, smiling easily before television cameras. He looked relaxed, if pale.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, mocked the press for its interest, referring sarcastically to the various rumors: “So you’ve seen the broken, paralyzed president, who has been captured by generals? He’s only just flown in from Switzerland, where he attended a birth as you know.”
In a choreographed double-act, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev vouched for the Russian leader’s health, saying that Putin “just now drove me around the grounds; he himself sat at the wheel.”
Putin’s return to public view coincided with Russia’s biggest military exercises since ties with the West sank to a post-Cold War low over the Ukraine crisis.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Putin had ordered nearly 40,000 troops to be at combat readiness for exercises in Russia’s Arctic North and elsewhere, which appeared meant to dwarf war games in neighboring NATO-member Norway.
The Russian leader prides himself on his macho image. In 2008 he said he worked like a “galley slave” to run Russia. Typically, he is shown most days on state-controlled television, meeting officials in Moscow or traveling to Russia’s far-flung regions.
During his absence, the Kremlin unexpectedly canceled a trip to Kazakhstan and a high profile meeting with officers of the main successor agency to the KGB. Pictures were posted on the Kremlin website of meetings Putin had with public figures, which, it later emerged, had been taken several days earlier.
The absence began a week after an opposition leader was shot dead near the Kremlin walls, adding to an ominous atmosphere in a country suffering from an economic crisis worsened by international sanctions imposed over Putin’s decision to intervene in neighboring Ukraine.
Throughout his absence Russian officials had said that Putin had been working. Peskov said he had answered “10 times over” what Putin was doing during his absence. “It is impossible to say anymore,” he said.
Putin remains hugely popular in Russia, which has experienced a surge of nationalist and anti-American sentiment fueled by state-run media since Putin sent troops to seize Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula a year ago.
The military exercises are due to last for much of the week, during which Russia will celebrate the anniversary of its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, carried out with the help of special forces in the weeks after a pro-Moscow leader was toppled in Kiev.
Since then, a swathe of eastern Ukraine that Putin calls “New Russia” has also tried to secede, leading to war in which 6,000 people have been killed. NATO says thousands of Russian troops are fighting there on behalf of pro-Russian rebels, which Moscow denies.
Russia has repeatedly staged high-profile war games at pivotal moments during the Ukraine conflict.
Despite the economic crisis brought on by low prices for its energy exports as well as Western sanctions, Putin has promised to spend more than 21 trillion rubles ($335 billion) to revamp the military by the end of the decade.
(Story corrects date of previous appearance to March 5 from Feb 5 in paragraph 2)
Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly, Writing by Elizabeth Piper and Thomas Grove, Editing by Peter Graff