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16 March 2015

Vladimir Putin is not dead

While his statements on Crimea are alarming, rumours of the Russian president's death have been – oh, you know how it goes.

By Stephanie Boland

Good news for those who have spent the last eleven days in the “Putin’s probably not dead” camp: the Russian president has appeared in public for the first time since 5 March, and by all appearances is still breathing.

Putin was pictured this morning meeting Kyrgyz head of state Almazbek Atambayev in a palace outside St Petersburg, ending rumours of a stroke or political coup. Asked about the week’s speculation, Putin was quoted in the Guardian as responding “life would be boring without gossip”.

The reality, however, is likely to be fairly mundane, with various sources reporting the premier had come down with “flu or back problems”.

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Unglamorous as it may turn out to be, Putin’s disappearance nevertheless gestures to the essential conflict of his presidency, in which a relentless personality cult sits awkwardly against rising political discontentment both inside and outside the Kremlin. Putin’s image of brawny strength might border on parody – see shirtless horse riding – but it must be rigidly upheld in order to anchor his increasingly fragile hold on the country. Whatever the failings of the UK government, it is reassuring to know that David Cameron coming down with a cold would be unlikely to throw the media into such speculative disarray.

More troubling still are the president’s statements from a state TV documentary this week, in which he revealed that Russia’s nuclear weapons were put on alert last year during the annexation of Crimea. Reporting on the one-year anniversary of the crisis, the Financial Times quotes Crimea: Return to the Motherland, in which Putin affirms his commitment to the Russian nationals living in the region: “We couldn’t abandon them and leave them in danger.”

He also admitted that the gunmen who stormed the parliament building in Simferopol in February last year were Russian soldiers – something long suspected, but only now confirmed. The president was prepared to deploy his  military as necessary to, as the FT writes, “defend Crimea against ‘the nationalists’ in Kiev and their ‘puppet masters’: the US government.”

For veteran reporter John Sweeney, who doorstepped Putin last year for the BBC Panorama program Putin’s Gamble, this constitutes a potentially significant shift in tone:

Mrs Thatcher never posed half-naked on a horse, nor was Neil Kinnock shot outside Downing St. But the two leaders have something in common: in their pomp, they were extraordinarily supple politicians.

Thatcher backed off from a fight with the miners first time round; Putin used to poke the West, then mollify. Putin’s use of nuclear rhetoric in relation to the West’s red line on Crimea – you can’t steal other people’s land in the twenty first century – suggests his political muscles are calcifying; and that’s next door to terminal.