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In a rare public appearance in the Dagestan region, the Russian president broke from convention to enthusiastically interact with fans in a large crowd, shaking their hands and posing for selfies.
At one point, he was even seen kissing a girl on the cheek, as she pleaded with her mother to snap a picture of him by her side.
In another moment caught on camera, he can be seen shaking hands and adjusting the uniform of an officer, despite never greeting his security team over the course of his two decades in power.
While a Kremlin spokesperson said that Putin “could not refuse” a greeting with his fans, his recent conduct has raised eyebrows considering his usual reserved and isolated approach.
More importantly, it has fuelled wild speculation that the ageing tyrant is increasingly relying on body doubles for his public appearances.
Infamous for his paranoid stance since the Covid-19 pandemic, anyone outside of Putin’s close circle of “yes men” have been forced to abide by strict two-week quarantines in armed state hotels, while Putin has rarely been a leader to physically engage with ordinary Russians.
Bizarre pictures have even surfaced of the 71-year-old sitting isolated at a large marble table, metres away from his guests. Recent rumours suggest the dictator resides in underground bunkers, requires visitors to pass through a special tunnel of ultraviolet light and is so paranoid of assassination attempts that his security detail follow him everywhere.
And social media is awash with memes and jokes about his apparent ‘double’.
Putin's double showed what he looked like before plastic surgery.
— Eva K.🇨🇿🏼🇺🇦🏼🇪🇺 (@EvaTrmx86qc7r) June 29, 2023
But what is the truth about the rumours?
Speaking to The Independent, Kyiv-based political strategist Jason Jay Smart said: “It would seem quite possible that Putin is using body doubles. Putin has been notoriously cautious about interacting with people since Covid broke-out.
“Moreover, there are reports that following the betrayal by Prigozhin, that Putin does not even meet his Security Council without his guards nearby. Given this context, it would seem more likely than not that Putin is using body-doubles to protect himself from sickness as well as from his own citizens.”
A recent picture of the dictator with Chechen republic head Ramzan Kadyrov also fuelled rumours as he appeared bloated with mottled skin, with social media users pointing out the differences in height and ear shape.
Kadyrov posted a photo with Putin. Peskov confirmed that the meeting took place yesterday.
In the photo, Kadyrov is very large and overwhelms Putin, who looks very small and old.
By the way, how many days did Kadyrov spend in quarantine before the meeting? Or is it not… pic.twitter.com/cfREXOK6qb
— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) June 28, 2023
This painted a stark contrast to the Putin seen in previous pictures, where he stripped topless to ride horseback or plunge himself into an icy lake.
Claims that the tyrant is suffering with poor health first began appearing in 2014, with the Kremlin previously denying that Putin was ill, after reports surfaced that he might be suffering from a form of cancer.
In March last year, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters: “Some people say he has cancer and some people say he has brain-fog from Covid. Other people just think he’s a complete raging bully.”
Experts believe that his recent appearance, body double or not, in Dagestan was to demonstrate his popularity in the wake of Prigozhin’s coup attempt, which saw the Wagner group march to just 200km outside Moscow.
“Putin has been significantly weakened by the Prigozhin coup attempt; Thus, his alleged trip to Dagestan, where he shook hands with cheering citizens on the street, is the Kremlin’s attempt to demonstrate that Putin has strong public support,” Mr Smarth said.
“The reality is that Putin may have well used a body double in Dagestan and the cheering is more analogous to that when North Koreans encounter their dictator, not to when Americans run into a rockstar. The Kremlin is now desperate to make Putin appear strong and in control - however, it is clear that he is losing control of Russia.”
If Putin is using a body double, he’s not the first Russian or national leader to do so. Stalin reportedly deployed a double for security reasons, while Hitler, Saddam Hussein and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have also featured on the list.