Russian President Vladimir Putin resurfaced Monday, smiling and looking healthy after a 10-day absence from public view that has fueled a wave of rumors.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atanbayev, who met with Putin Monday in St. Petersburg's ornate Konstantin Palace, referred to the swirling speculation about Putin's health at the start of their conversation, saying that the Russian leader is in good shape. Atanbayev said that Putin drove him around the palace's park before the talks, adding that "the president of Russia not only walks, but speeds around."
"It would be dull without gossip," Putin retorted with a smile.
The 62-year-old Russian leader was last seen in public on March 5, when he hosted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The Kremlin insisted that he continued holding official meetings, and released photos and video of Putin at meetings on national television, but Russian media suggested the images had actually been shot much earlier.
Putin's decision to abruptly postpone a trip to Kazakhstan planned for last week fueled speculation that he was unwell or isolated by a palace coup. A Swiss newspaper claimed that Putin had traveled to Switzerland, where it said Putin's reported girlfriend — former Olympic gold-winning gymnast Alina Kabayeva — had given birth to their baby. The Kremlin has denied all those allegations.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov greeted reporters Monday with sarcastic remarks: "So, have you seen the president paralyzed and seized by the generals? He has just come back from Switzerland where he attended the delivery."
Asked if Putin's condition required treatment by an osteopath, the spokesman retorted: "Yes, the osteopath was with the generals."
The sarcastic remarks appeared to reflect the Kremlin's dismay with rumors and its inability to stop them from spreading.
On a more serious note, Peskov added that the Kremlin has grown tired of refuting speculation about Putin's condition. "The more we talk about it, the more intense (the speculation) becomes," he said.
On more serious note, Russia was ready to bring its nuclear weapons into a state of alert during last year's tensions over the Crimean Peninsula and the overthrow of Ukraine's president, President Vladimir Putin said in remarks aired on Sunday.
Putin also expanded on a previous admission that the well-armed forces in unmarked uniforms who took control of Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea were Russian soldiers.
Putin's comments, in a documentary being shown on state TV, highlight the extent to which alarm spread in Russia in the weeks following Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster in February 2014 after months of street protests that turned increasingly violent.
(Reporting by Jim Heintz)