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Russian President Putin Is In Self-Isolation After COVID Outbreak Among Inner Circle

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Russia's leader won't be in public for a while. Vladimir Putin says he'll work in self-isolation after an outbreak of COVID-19 in his inner circle. From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes has more.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: The Kremlin unveiled its news in a statement summarizing a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan early Tuesday. Putin, it said, told the Tajik leader he would join an upcoming regional summit by teleconference. The reason - he was in self-isolation after an outbreak of COVID-19 was discovered among members of his closest staff. Later that afternoon, a healthy-looking Putin, who turns 69 next month, took part in a virtual cabinet meeting by video to fill in the details.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Several members of my close entourage had gotten sick," said Putin, "and I spent the entire previous day in close contact with one."

In hindsight, the news shouldn't have been such a surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD MURMURING)

MAYNES: On Monday, Kremlin pool cameras caught Putin in what appeared to be a hot-mic moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Signing autographs for returning Russian Paralympians from the Tokyo Games - athletes who'd all quarantined for a week to meet with the Russian leader - an unmasked Putin noted he might be headed to quarantine himself because of problems with COVID among his staff. Putin's spokesman shortly after insisted the Russian leader was speaking generally about the virus, even if some observers weren't convinced.

ANTON OREKH: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "It felt like after a year and a half since lockdown, it was the first time Putin understood the virus was serious," says political commentator Anton Orekh of Echo of Moscow Radio in an interview with NPR. Orekh says early on during the pandemic, Putin limited his role to combating COVID-19, seeing no political dividend.

OREKH: (Through interpreter) Putin is used to putting himself in situations where there are victories to be had, and he understood that you can't beat this thing.

MAYNES: Indeed, the Russian leader has often delegated unpopular COVID restrictions to underlings while ignoring them at politically expedient moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Such as this celebration in a packed Moscow stadium last February to mark the seventh anniversary of the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Meanwhile, it was only this past June that the Russian leader said he'd been injected with Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, albeit out of the public eye. Critics say that lack of transparency has contributed to Russia's anemic public vaccination rate. To date, less than a third of Russians have bothered to get vaccinated. Yet if the Russian leader has been accused of failing to take the virus seriously in the past, Putin seemed to relish his new status as Russia's most high-profile contact trace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "This is a real experiment," he said. "We'll see how Sputnik V works in practice."

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BETA BAND'S "B + A") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.