- - Thursday, December 6, 2012

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent years building his reputation as a macho, athletic leader able to tackle any crisis, but continued rumors about his health have threatened to shatter his carefully constructed image.

Speculation began in late October after unidentified Kremlin sources told reporters that Mr. Putin, 60, had back problems that might require surgery.

A week later, the rumors gained credence when Mr. Putin canceled scheduled foreign visits and his annual televised question-and-answer session with the public.

The government insists he is fit.

“He has no injury. There is nothing to heal,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “He is doing sports, every day, like always.”

Mr. Putin’s predecessor in office, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, also denied the reports.

He told journalists in mid-November that there was “nothing serious” in regard to the president’s health.

Speculation grew in late November after reporters in Tokyo cited officials as saying that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda postponed a trip to Moscow to meet with Mr. Putin because of the president’s “health issue.”

Rumors reached fever point this week when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to help Mr. Putin into his chair during a visit to Turkey, the Russian leader’s first trip in more than a month.

The speculation rose at a bad time for Mr. Putin. An opinion poll by the Moscow-based independent Levada Center indicated that his credibility rating has fallen to 34 percent from 41 percent since the start of the year and his approval rating, in the same 11-month period, has slipped to 63 percent from 69 percent.

All of the negative press forced an exasperated Kremlin into a second and third round of denials.

“I’m fed up of explaining this, and I don’t see any point in doing it any further,” Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Tuesday.

“Those who refuse to admit the evident would seem to be doing this in order to continue engaging in various forms of speculation.”

Mr. Peskov also dismissed reports that Mr. Putin injured himself in a much-mocked stunt in September when he rode a motorized hang glider in a failed attempt to coax endangered Siberian cranes to fly south for the winter.

New image?

Story Continues →