It took six steps for Vladimir Putin to walk across the floor of the reception room in St Petersburg's Konstantinovsky Palace yesterday. On none of those steps was a limp in evidence.
Immediately dismissed, then, were rumours he was at death's door. The 12 pumps of his companion's hand were viewed as evidence the legendary Putin handshake was still functioning.
So far so good for Mr Putin's show of strength after vanishing for an unprecedented 10 days. His face glowing and healthy, or waxen and pale, depending on the proximity of the observer to the Kremlin, Mr Putin had made his long-awaited return. "He's alive," whispered some of those gathered to watch the president's every move. Few paid such close attention to his companion, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev. Slouching slightly, his legs far apart, Mr Putin's defiant posture was again in evidence. Hands clasped in front of his paunch, Mr Putin wasn't giving anything away. "It's boring without gossip," he muttered darkly.
In a choreographed double-act, Mr Atambayev seemed to do most of the talking, being the first to respond to rumours of death or terminal illness circulating in the Russian press about Mr Putin since he cancelled official meetings last week.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, ever loyal, mocked the press for its interest, referring sarcastically to the various rumours. "So you've seen the broken, paralysed president, who has been captured by generals? He's only just flown in from Switzerland, where he attended a birth as you know," he said.
In a veiled threat, Mr Atambayev said much of the speculation - Mr Putin was ill, had watched his girlfriend give birth in Switzerland, had been toppled in a coup - was "wrong" and that anyone who gossiped about the President "wouldn't get away with it".
The meeting came just hours after Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Mr Putin called nearly 40,000 troops across the country to full combat readiness, RIA Novosti reported. "New challenges and threats to military security require the armed forces to further boost their military capabilities," Mr Shoigu said.
Other drills were ordered in the Eastern Military District. They will last for much of the week, as the country celebrates the one-year anniversary of its annexation of Crimea - a move that brought about political tensions not seen since the Cold War.