Alternate headline: Putin hits reset button on rumors. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin put an end to days of speculation about his status at the Kremlin — and his status among the living — when he showed up to a meeting with Kyrgyzstan president Almazbek Atambayev in Moscow. Putin tweaked the press at the meeting, saying that gossip kept life from getting too boring:

Just to prove he’s back in control (if he ever left it), he went out of his way to provoke the US and Canada:

His appearance before the press, looking healthy and relaxed, should help put some of the rumors at least to rest.

And he made light of his absence, saying: “It would be boring without gossip.”

In another sign Putin has a firm hand on the tiller, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the President had ordered Russia’s Northern Fleet to be placed on full combat alert from Monday morning for snap checks, Russia’s state-run Tass news agency reported.

The checks are intended to test the fleet’s capacity to ensure Russia’s military security in the Arctic, Tass said. Also on alert are Russia’s Western Military District and certain airborne units, with some 38,000 military personnel involved in total.

Russia cited “new challenges and military threats,” which comes as news to the CBC:

The five-day Arctic drills involving 38,000 servicemen, more than 50 surface ships and submarines and 110 aircraft are intended to check the readiness of Russia’s Northern Fleet and the military’s ability to deploy additional forces from central Russia.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said “the new challenges and military threats require further increase of the armed forces’ capabilities.”

As part of the exercise the military will check its ability to beef up its forces on the Arctic Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelagos and protect the state borders on land, in the air and at sea, Shoigu said in televised remarks.

So where in the world was Czar Vladimir I? No one really knows, and it’s doubtful that the Kremlin will ever explain it. Garry Kasparov, one of the most outspoken of Putin’s opponents, believes that today’s appearance looks managed. Putin seems much more passive than normal, for instance. The real test will be the one-year anniversary of the Crimean annexation, when Putin will be expected to deliver a speech celebrating it. This crisis shows the “fragility” of one-man dictatorships based on cults of personality, Kasparov warns:

Kasparov thinks Putin may be more inclined than ever to provoke a military conflict with the West. The Arctic exercises might be one way to do it, but Kasparov also warns that the Baltic countries might be next.