Vladimir Putin has been consolidating support in Russia following last week’s failed Wagner rebellion with a rare meet-and-greet that saw him cheered by a crowd as he posed for selfies with young girls.
Footage from last night’s event – a presidential appearance during a trip to the city of Derbent in the Dagestan region of southern Russia – showed how he dived into a nighttime crowd like a Hollywood actor at a red carpet show.
Seemingly imbued with fresh energy after averting a small scale civil war last week, the normally stoic and isolated Putin was uncharacteristically personable, shaking hands and planting kisses on the head of a young teenage girl who gushed over him and pleaded with her mother to snap a photo of her with the president.
In another bizarre moment he shakes hands with – and appears to adjust something on the uniform of – an officer carrying what may be his nuclear briefcase.
He has not greeted his security apparatchiks in such a way previously.
The scene was markedly different to the extreme measures of the last few years which have enforced strict quarantines for anyone outside of Putin’s close circle before meeting with him.
His transformative behaviour – described as ‘astounding’ by the Kremlin on Thursday – has led many, including senior Russian figures, to fuel speculation that the Putin greeting adoring fans in Dagestan was in fact a body double.
Vladimir Putin took part in a rare meet-and-greet that saw him mobbed by a crowd as he posed for selfies with young girls
Russian president Vladimir Putin is seen snapping a selfie with an adoring teen from Dagestan
The normally stoic and isolated Putin was uncharacteristically personable, shaking hands and planting kisses on the head of a young teenage girl
Putin meets with people in a street in Derbent in the southern region of Dagestan, Russia, June 28, 2023
Putin has not been seen greeting crowds in such a way since before the pandemic
In another bizarre moment he shook hands with – and appeared to adjust something on the uniform of – an officer carrying what may be his nuclear briefcase
Putin visits the Naryn-Kala fortress in Derbent in Russia’s Republic of Dagestan on June 28, 2023
Moscow has insisted that Putin’s long rule has not been weakened after Wagner mercenaries marched hundreds of miles – almost reaching Moscow – and captured military facilities in southern Russia, appearing to gain some support.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of Putin’s visit: ‘In Derbent, there was an astounding demonstration of support and happiness of the local population.’
He said Putin ‘could not refuse’ greeting the crowd.
It comes as a recent picture of Putin with Chechen republic head Ramzan Kadyrov showed the president appearing bloated with mottled skin.
Putin is rarely seen meeting ordinary Russians, especially since the Covid pandemic, which saw him observe strict isolation rules, some of which are still in place.
For this reason, many eyebrows were raised about the public appearances.
A longtime Moscow diplomat said today: ‘It is getting impossible to believe that there is only one Putin.
‘There are several – very good lookalikes, yet they behave somewhat differently.
‘This one diving into the crowd in Dagestan behaves differently to the traditional Putin.’
Commentator Viktor Alksnis, a Soviet military tactician and politician who is now a Western-based analyst known as the Black Colonel, said: ‘Why is Putin meeting with visitors in the Kremlin after their two-week quarantine and at a great distance, while in Derbent is calmly into the crowd and even hugs and kisses some citizens?
‘How can the physical security of the president be ensured under such conditions?
‘Something is not right here. It looks like a theatrical production in which Putin is not really Putin.’
And pro-war Russian nationalist and former FSB colonel Igor ‘Strelkov’ Girkin declared for certain that it was a Putin double in Dagestan some 1,250 miles south of Moscow.
‘A person vaguely resembling the president – and not at all requiring compliance with the two-week quarantine necessary to get an appointment with [Putin] – was walking around Derbent,’ he said.
Another explanation may be that Putin flew to the remote region in the Caucasus to visit a city where a presidential tour is a major occasion and the crowd would be highly enthusiastic.
His former speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov said: ‘Putin needs a picture surrounded by people so much now that for this he even forgot about Covid, quarantine and social distance….
‘Apparently, it was impossible to provide an enthusiastic reception in Moscow or any other Russian region, so he had to fly to [Dagestan].
‘Here….it is easier to organise an enthusiastic crowd.’
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) watches a show during a working trip to Dagestan, in Derbent, Russia’s Republic of Dagestan, June 28 2023. The growth of domestic tourism in Russia is provided, among other things, by sanctions from a number of states, said Russian President Vladimir Putin
Fans clamour to meet and greet Vladimir Putin as he tours the city of Derbent in Dagestan
Putin parts members of his security team to greet adoring fans
A recent picture of Putin with Chechen republic head Ramzan Kadyrov showed the Russian president appearing bloated with mottled skin
Putin on his way to Russia’s Republic of Dagestan on June 28, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C-R) visits the Naryn-Kala fortress in Derbent
Independent news outlet Agentstvo said it was the first time since before the pandemic that Putin had been seen in such a crowd.
‘For the first time since March 2020, the president did not keep his distance and even kissed the child,’ said the outlet’s Telegram channel.
‘At the same time, two weeks ago, all the guests who met with him continued to strictly observe quarantine.’
Kirill Martynov, editor of independent Novaya Gazeta Europe, said: ‘This is all very strange.
‘The place of meeting is strange, as is Putin hugging people all of a sudden. He normally doesn’t do that. Where is the [long] table? It’s a riddle.
‘I really don’t like stupid conspiracy theories but the feeling that there are two Putins is growing.
‘It might be the same person, but different behaviour models. One sits in quarantine, one can be hugged in Derbent.’
Malyuta Skuratov Telegram channel reported: ‘It is much easier to believe that this is a double than that Putin dared to approach a crowd of people who apparently were not in quarantine.’
Yet it was also possible that the entire rent-a-crowd had been quarantined ahead of his visit.
Telegram channel General SVR – which claims almost all recent Putin appearances have been by body doubles due to him suffering from cancer and other health problems – said: ‘The doppelgänger hugged and kissed with absolutely unfamiliar old women and young ladies, including, apparently, minors, and the number of handshakes of the president’s double with strangers exceeded all reasonable limits…
‘In general, the show was a success, ”Putin” in Derbent was greeted more emotionally than Kim Jong-un.’
The channel claims that actors have undergone plastic surgery to resemble Putin and are being deployed when to meet crowds of people or when the president is incapacitated.
While Putin – or his double – makes the rounds in Russia, across the border in Ukraine his forces are suffering from counterattacks.
Kyiv said on Thursday that its forces were making slow gains around Bakhmut and were engaging in ‘fierce’ fighting with Russian forces around the embattled east Ukraine town.
Ukrainian soldiers on a Swedish CV90 infantry fighting vehicle at their positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, June 25, 2023
Ukrainian forces are pushing back into Bakhmut city
Destruction is seen on an apartment building in a civilian district of Lyman City as the Russia – Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast on June 25, 2023
An aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Thursday, June 22
‘We have advances near Bakhmut and are continuing. We are moving,’ the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in a post on social media.
Russian forces, aided by fighters from the Wagner mercenary group, announced their capture of Bakhmut in May after months of gruelling warfare for the now-destroyed town that once was home to some 80,000 people.
Ukrainian forces have since been posting painstaking grains around the flanks of the city after announcing a highly-anticipated counter-offensive earlier this month.
Deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar separately said on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had seized the ‘operational advantage’ around Bakhmut and were on the offensive.
‘Our troops are gnawing away at every meter of the enemy’s land in this fierce battle,’ she said in a statement, adding: ‘They are making progress’.
‘The enemy is trying to hold their positions, conducting counter-attacks but is gradually retreating after suffering losses’.
The Russian defence ministry has not recently conceded any lost ground around Bakhmut and said in its latest military briefing that it was repelling Ukrainian attacks in the eastern Donetsk region.
The complete capture of the industrial territory is now Moscow’s main military goal in the invasion launched last February. The Kremlin has claimed Donetsk and three other Ukrainian regions are part of Russia.
Moscow said last week that Ukrainian forces were taking advantage of an aborted uprising by Wagner forces inside Russia to prepare attacks around Bakhmut.