MOSCOW (AP) — 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 and has rarely left his suburban residence outside Moscow.
A respected Russian newspaper claimed Thursday that a publicity stunt in which Putin tried to lead cranes on their migratory paths in a motorized hang-glider aggravated an old injury.
Putin's office denies it was the flight with cranes, insists it is just a pulled muscle and spins the situation, saying that athletes often get banged up. Besides, it says, Putin's avoiding the Kremlin office so he doesn't tie up Moscow traffic with his motorcade — something that hasn't seem 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 Putin to the nth degree and what do you get? A lot of speculation.
After celebrating his 60th birthday in early October, Putin has rarely left his official residence, sparking claims that illness or injury had laid him low.
On Thursday, the Vedomosti daily cited unnamed Kremlin-connected sources as saying Putin's September flight with the migrating cranes had aggravated an old injury.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a state news agency that Putin had pulled a muscle during a workout but it was not connected to the highly publicized flight.
"Indeed, he pulled a muscle," Peskov was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. "Actually, we have never tried to conceal it because any athlete has lots of injuries, which, however, do not mean any restrictions of his activities."
By writing off the injury as a sport-related trauma, Peskov apparently aimed to reinforce 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.