Speculation runs wild over Putin's physical well-being

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MOSCOW -- What ails Vladimir Putin?

The Russian leader whose image of physical vigor is key to his success has canceled several foreign trips in recent weeks, postponed his annual live televised question-and-answer session with average Russians, and has rarely left his suburban residence outside Moscow.

A respected Russian newspaper claimed Thursday that a recent publicity stunt, during which Mr. Putin tried to lead cranes on their migratory paths in a motorized hang-glider, aggravated an old injury.

Mr. Putin's office denies that his absence stems from the flight with cranes, insists that it is just a pulled muscle and spins the situation, saying athletes often get banged up. Besides, it says, Mr. Putin is avoiding the Kremlin office so he doesn't tie up Moscow traffic with his motorcade -- a factor that hasn't seemed to trouble him during his previous 12 years in power.

So what's really wrong? Combine the old Russian custom of keeping a leader's health problems secret with a massive PR apparatus that micromanages information about Mr. Putin to the nth degree and what do you get? A lot of speculation.

After celebrating his 60th birthday in early October, Mr. Putin has rarely left his official residence, sparking claims that illness or injury had laid him low.

On Thursday, the Vedomosti daily cited unidentified Kremlin-connected sources as saying Mr. Putin's September crane flight had aggravated an old injury.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a state news agency that the leader had pulled a muscle during a workout, but that it was not connected to the highly publicized flight. "Indeed, he pulled a muscle," RIA Novosti quoted Mr. Peskov as saying. "Actually, we have never tried to conceal it, because any athlete has lots of injuries, which, however, do not mean any restrictions on his activities."

By writing off the injury as a sport-related trauma, Mr. Peskov apparently aimed to reinforce Mr. Putin's image of vigor and daring -- a persona he has assiduously cultivated since coming to power in 2000. State television has shown him swimming in a Siberian river, petting a tranquilized polar bear in the Arctic and piloting a fighter jet, as well as skiing and practicing judo.

The hang-glider flight with the cranes, which occurred just before a summit in Vladivostok, was one of Mr. Putin's trademark adventurous media events. Yet on the summit's first day, Mr. Putin did seem to be in discomfort as he greeted leaders and avoided standing for long periods of time.

Despite the canceled trips, Mr. Putin is still shown on state television almost daily -- mostly sitting at meetings with officials, scholars and public school teachers.

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