Moscow mystery: Questions persist about Putin's whereabouts

The more his people seek to assure the public that Vladimir Putin is just fine, the more speculation swirls that something - a love child, terminal illness or some exotic Kremlin intrigue - is up with the Russian president

Rumors about Putin range from speculation he is sick or even dead to whispers he is about to become a father. Normally in the public eye on a daily basis, Putin has not been seen since March 5, and has canceled several engagements. Three photos released by the Kremlin, of a meeting purportedly held on Friday, only added to the mystery. The pictures showed the Russian strongman meeting and shaking hands with the head of the Russian Supreme Court, but western media darkly noted that the date the photos were taken could not be confirmed. Some noted that a calendar normally seen on his desk, and which would have effectively dated the photos, was missing.

"The information on a baby born to Vladimir Putin is false. I am going to ask people who have money to organize a contest on the best media rumor."

— Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman

"When the sun comes up in spring, and as soon as spring is in the air, then the fever begins," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Thursday, according to official news agency Tass.

A Swiss newspaper claimed that Putin was recently in Lugano for the birth of his lovechild with his longtime alleged lover, Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva. But Preskov insisted that Putin is not a recent papa.

"The information on a baby born to Vladimir Putin is false," Peskov said, adding, "I am going to ask people who have money to organize a contest on the best media rumor."

Fueling the speculation was a report Thursday from a Kazakhstan government official who said Putin canceled a visit after he had “fallen ill.” Putin also missed a Thursday meeting of Russia’s annual Federal Security Service, an event he has never skipped.

The website noted that "Putin umer" or "Putin has died," is now trending on the Russian Internet and that a new website that allows users to ask, "has Putin died?"

Peskov told the radio station Echo of Moscow his boss, a Karate black belt known for swimming in icy waters and riding horses bare-chested, is very much alive and as healthy as ever - even claiming his handshake could break bones.

But without an appearance from Putin, there was no shutting down the rumor machine that went into high gear after a recent planned meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, with the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus was postponed on short notice. On Wednesday, the government issued a photo of a meeting between Putin and the regional governor of Karelia, which may in fact have actually taken place as early as March 5.

Peskov told The Associated Press that Putin has a busy agenda in the coming days, including some international meetings. He said that next week the president is set to make a trip to Kazakhstan, which had been planned for this week but abruptly postponed.

Putin, 62, was last seen in public on March 5, when he hosted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

"There is absolutely no reason for any doubts about the state of his health," Peskov told the AP. "His health is really perfect, everything is OK with him, and he's working in accordance with his traditionally overloaded working schedule."

Intrigue has been swirling in the Russian capital since an outspoken critic of Putin, Boris Nemtsov, was killed Feb. 27 by gunmen near the Kremlin. Last week, Russian police arrested five suspects, including an alleged triggerman with close ties to Chechnya's Moscow-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov. A day after the arrests were announced, Putin awarded Kadyrov with one of Russia's highest medals, a move seen as an effort to placate the Chechen strongman.

Peskov said Putin will meet Monday with the president of Kyrgyzstan, an even that, if it happens, will cool down the rumor mill. Until then, Peskov seemed resigned to the fact that the talk  will continue.

"Actually it's very hard to explain this wave of interest toward the state of his health," Peskov said. "We do appreciate the care, the global care."