Is Russia’s Putin starting to get creaky?

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Mr. Putin’s action-man image was forged in March 2000 when he flew into the war-torn republic of Chechnya in a fighter jet, bolstering his reputation just ahead of presidential elections that established him as the successor to the ailing President Boris Yeltsin.

Secure in the Kremlin, Mr. Putin set about consolidating his status as Russia’s “Alpha Male,” as a leaked U.S. Embassy cable described him. Whether swimming through Siberian rivers or shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer dart, Mr. Putin’s adventures were staples on state-run television throughout his first two terms in office, from 2000 to 2008.

Aside from the unsuccessful Siberian cranes stunt, Mr. Putin has largely steered clear of such photo ops since his return to the Kremlin in May for a third term as president.

Putin and his advisers continue to stress his fitness because it served the president quite well for a long time,” Konstantin von Eggert wrote in a column for the RIA Novosti state news agency.

“But they never found themselves in a situation in which they had to deal with Putin’s health as an issue. It increasingly seems that they may have to look for a new approach.”

Russian journalists this week cited a leaked report that said Mr. Putin’s advisers are planning a gradual image makeover for the president, transforming him from a man of action into the “wise patriarch of Russian politics.”

Mr. Peskov, the president’s long-suffering spokesman, again denied the reports.

“This is from the realms of unsubstantiated fabrication. It’s not clear where this comes from,” he said.

Soviet style

Mr. Putin’s hold over political life in Russia is so complete that his well-being is a matter of utmost state importance.

“In a system that revolves around one man, his health is much more than just a private issue or a matter of public interest,” Mr. von Eggert said.

Russians have good reason to be suspicious of Kremlin assurances about the president’s health.

In the Soviet Union, Kremlin spokesmen insisted that all three Soviet leaders to die of illnesses in the 1980s – Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko – were in fine health up until their demises.

Putin is getting older, of course, and it’s normal that he isn’t perhaps as healthy as a decade ago,” said Oleg Pavlyuchenko, a Moscow businessman. “But if there was anything seriously wrong with him, they wouldn’t tell us anyway.”

Analysts suggest, however, that comparisons with geriatric Soviet leaders are unfair.

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