MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin on Thursday dismissed talk that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a back problem that prompted him to postpone foreign visits and might require surgery.
Putin, who began a six-year presidential term in May and turned 60 on October 7, was seen to be limping at an Asia-Pacific summit in the Pacific port of Vladivostok in early September.
Putin, a former KGB officer who enjoys vast authority at the head of Russia’s so-called ‘vertical’ power structure, has long cultivated a tough-guy image that wouldn’t sit well with a lengthy period on sick leave.
Three government sources have told Reuters in recent days that Putin was suffering from back trouble. One said it would require surgery in the near future.
Sources said the Russian leader’s schedule was being cleared for early November, including through postponement until late December of a trip to India that had been expected soon.
“This does not correspond to reality,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters. He said Putin did not have a back problem and did not plan to take time off.
“You can see that he is having daily meetings,” Peskov said. He said the earlier limp had been a “sports injury”.
Putin did not travel to Pakistan for a planned four-nation summit on Afghanistan earlier this month and did not make an expected trip to Turkey. One source said Medvedev was expected to travel to Turkmenistan in Putin’s stead next week.
“The chief is not well,” said one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another said Putin had been seen recently wearing a back brace.
“No one has announced this formally, but everyone knows that foreign visits are being canceled because of his illness,” one said.
Peskov denied the visits had been canceled. He said the visit to India would take place on the set date in late December and “no other dates have been officially announced”.
A judo black belt, Putin has in recent years been filmed riding bare-chested on a horse, diving in the Black Sea, skiing in the Caucasus and fighting wildfires from an airplane.
His apparent fitness helped bring him early popularity because of the stark contrast with predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who was sometimes drunk in public and had heart surgery when president in 1996.
Putin’s formal role as head of state and his position at the pinnacle of power in Russia, where his blessing is seen as indispensable for everything from legislation to oil deals, makes any illness or medical treatment highly sensitive.
At a meeting with foreign analysts and journalists at his residence outside Moscow on Thursday, he did not appear to be in pain but, as in other recent public appearances, leant forward in his seat, putting weight on his right forearm.
At the Asia-Pacific summit in Vladivostok in September, he was also caught by TV cameras complaining to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that he was on restricted diet.
The summit followed an episode in which Putin flew in a delta-winged light aircraft with a flock of cranes that had been bred in captivity, in an attempt to train them to migrate.
At the time, Peskov said that Putin had pulled a leg muscle but that he had not sustained the injury in the crane flight.
In power as Russia’s president or prime minister since 1999, Putin could remain in the Kremlin until May of 2024, when he would be 71 years old, if he seeks and wins re-election in 2018.
His election to a new term in March after four years as prime minister followed the biggest opposition protests of his rule, prompted by suspicions of fraud in a December 2011 parliamentary election won by his ruling United Party.
Writing by Gleb Bryanski and Douglas Busvine; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Will Waterman