Putin patrol: President appears after 11 days' absence

For the past decade and a half, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rarely been absent from newsreels. Small wonder, then, that 11 days without a verified sighting of him has sparked conspiracy theories to rival those about the moon landings.

Putin met Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in St Petersburg on Monday, and appeared before media just before 1300 local time (0600 ET). What would normally be a straightforward, regular meeting, accompanied by a handshake photocall, gained huge significance as the world's media attempted to get a look at the President.

It's not as if Putin hasn't been busy. He was the star of a documentary aired on Russian television on Sunday night, to mark the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea last year. In it he said for the first time that Russia was prepared to put nuclear weapons on standby over the conflict -- an extremely worrying thought for the West.


Russian President Vladimir Putin faces the press during a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (unseen) in the Konstantin Palace in Strelna, Saint Petersburg.
Sasha Mordovets | Contributor | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin faces the press during a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (unseen) in the Konstantin Palace in Strelna, Saint Petersburg.

On Monday, Putin ordered the country's Northern Fleet, some of its air forces and the Western Military District on full combat alert, according to the RIA news agency, citing Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.

Rumors surrounding his absence included the possibility that Putin has taken a long holiday, has the flu or has even become a father again.

Yet there are many who invested his absence with more meaning – and their theories increasingly sound like the plot of a spy novel.


Vladimir Putin
Maxim Shipenkov | Pool | Reuters
Vladimir Putin

One such is idea is from well-known Washington-based economist Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute and expert on Russia and Ukraine, who tweeted that there is currently a "major power battle in Kremlin."

Aslund believes there is ongoing conflict between two opposing groupings in Russia. The first is made up of Putin, Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, boss of oil giant Rosneft, Igor Sechin, and the Russian Ministry of the Interior; the other includes the FSB, Russia's secret service, Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin's chief of staff, Nikolai Patrushev, former head of the FSB, its current head Alexander Bortnikov, Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin and the Orthodox Church.

The murder of prominent Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has gained significance, particularly because Kadyrov's associate, Zaur Dadayev, is one of five Chechens arrested in connection with the killing.

"His (Putin's) reputation for stability rests on having 'won' in Chechnya, so he cannot afford to cross Kadyrov," Edward Lucas, senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, argued in a blog.

Yet Putin's alliance with Kadyrov appears to be causing friction with the old guard in the Kremlin, some of whom believe that the President should have been more aggressive in Ukraine.


Despite this, Putin's personal approval ratings are close to their record high, and he looks like a shoo-in for the next presidential elections.

However, the number of Russians who believe the country is heading in the right direction is falling – a poll from February suggests that just 54 percent of people now believe this, down from 66 percent last August. Putin may have become too personally popular to be allowed to stay by the Kremlin apparatchiks, one theory goes.

So what would the market reaction be if Putin is under threat? Markets generally prefer the devil they know. If Putin were to leave because of ill health or because he had been forced out, a sell off of Russian bonds and a further plunge in the ruble would likely result, as markets struggled to cope with uncertainty.

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle