MOSCOW — The Kremlin sought to brush aside reports that President Vladimir Putin is suffering serious back problems, forcing him to cut back public events and shelve his normally active travel schedule.
Mr. Putin's spokesman said the problem was just a muscle pulled during workout in early September and denied the president has curtailed his activities. But Kremlin watchers note that Mr. Putin, whose vigor is a key part of his image even as he just turned 60, has appeared to be limping and in pain during public appearances even before the putative muscle pull.
Mr. Putin's public schedule in November, meanwhile, involves dramatically less travel, and for the past two weeks he has seldom left his residence outside Moscow. A string of international trips has been delayed until December, raising uncertainties about the health of the man with sweeping control over Russia and its nuclear arsenal.
Any protracted illness would be a jolt for Mr. Putin, a judo black belt who has reveled in the state-controlled media that has covered his manly pursuits such as swimming a river, diving for treasure and tranquilizing a bear. It would also send deep tremors through the autocratic bureaucracy he assembled since coming to power 13 years ago, and draw unpleasant parallels to his unpopular predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who was ailing and absent for much of his last term in office, when aides often said he was at his home "working with documents."
The Kremlin's secretiveness about its leaders' health has long fed fear and speculation both at home and abroad. During the Cold War, French security agents collected stray strands of hair that fell from Leonid Brezhnev's head when he visited Paris, in hopes of getting a true picture of his health, a popular Russian commentator noted Thursday.
The Kremlin often denied reports Mr. Yeltsin had serious heart trouble until he had to undergo quintuple bypass surgery.
The Kremlin confirmed that Mr. Putin also has been working from his suburban residence in Novo-Ogaryova in the past few weeks, but that he is in no way absentee. "It's a working schedule," said his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, in an interview. "He is working with people, with processes, with the country."
He lately decided to forgo the daily commute to the Kremlin, Mr. Peskov said, because he didn't want his motorcade to add to Moscow's notorious traffic jams, which by most accounts hasn't recently worsened. Mr. Putin has been meeting officials at his office at his home, and foreign journalists and academics who met him there for two hours last month said he appeared alert and comfortable.
Mr. Peskov said the president did pull a muscle during a workout shortly before a September summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok, where television cameras caught footage of him limping. That pulled muscle healed within a couple of days, and speculation that the injury is more serious is "incorrect reasoning," Mr. Peskov said.
Rumors of Mr. Putin's back troubles have percolated since the forum, but this week the Reuters news agency quoted anonymous sources in government saying Mr. Putin had to cancel trips abroad, and that he may need surgery. The Kremlin quickly denied both claims in the report.
On Thursday, Russia's Vedomosti daily newspaper reported that Mr. Putin's back problems were worsened by a hard landing at the end of an ill-fated publicity stunt in September, when he flew in a motorized hang glider in the Russian far east to provoke some cranes to migrating. The paper noted that foreign trips to India, Bulgaria, Turkmenistan and Turkey that had been planned in October and November were all pushed back into December.
Mr. Peskov denied the Kremlin canceled the events, saying the hiatus is a coincidence and that none of the other trips abroad had been planned with any finality. Mr. Putin hasn't been out of Russia since Oct. 5, when he paid a brief visit to the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of the Echo Moscow radio station, said he first noticed Mr. Putin's back problems during an awards ceremony in August, where Mr. Putin was apparently uncomfortable on his feet, and was holding on to a podium. "I realized then that the problem was serious because Putin is a man who is very patient, and accustomed to bearing all sorts of injuries in sports," he said on air.
He noted that Russian journalists had not tried to broach the subject of a president's health since Mr. Yeltsin was in the Kremlin. But now there may be more scrutiny of "a man who has his hand on the nuclear button, and who makes decisions under the influence of discomfort, pain, steroids, or medicine."
Foreign officials indicated that the Kremlin canceled with little advanced notice Mr. Putin's trips. Organizers on Tuesday pushed back a summit for leaders of former Soviet states that was set to start Thursday in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat to early December after the Kremlin said Mr. Putin wasn't coming, one official close to the situation said. That caused other leaders to back out, the official said.
In Bulgaria, the government had until Thursday posted an interview with that country's president saying he expected Mr. Putin to visit Bulgaria on Nov. 9 to mark the opening of the South Stream pipeline that will carry Russian natural gas to Europe. That visit will now be pushed back to early December, Russian and Bulgarian news reports say.