VLADIMIR Putin has broken down in a coughing fit during a televised Covid conference.
The Kremlin was later forced to deny the 68-year-old Russian president has any health problems.
Putin was warning of “acute financial problems” in Russia's regions due to the virus when he suddenly struggled to keep speaking.
He was addressing his finance minister Anton Siluanov and other senior officials when the coughing fit started.
Putin uttered “excuse me” and repeatedly raised his right hand to his mouth as he struggled to go on.
In a version posted by his office his coughing fit was later edited to not seem so acute.
The episode comes amid reports the Russian strongman is planning to quit next year amid growing fears for his health.
Kremlin watchers said recent tell-tale showed Putin has possible symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
Asked the coughing fit, the state news agency TASS said Putin’s health was “absolutely normal”.
“The president apologised and continued the meeting almost without pausing,” reported TASS.
Radio Mayak, which had broadcast an original stream, reported: “Putin’s vocal cords gave in as he was setting his government to fight Covid-19.”
The coughing scare came as Russia announced a record daily coronavirus death toll of 456.
Unlike other world leaders and many Russian officials, Putin is believed so far to have avoided Covid-19.
Despite Russia having two vaccines available – one tested by his daughter Katerina, 34 – he had not been injected, it is understood.
He has remained largely isolated in recent months after a scare in April when he came into contact with infected doctors at a Moscow clinic.
Putin told the one and a half hour meeting that the situation with coronavirus remains “critical” in many regions and he called on his finance minister to provide help.
Earlier he said: “the number of new cases is rising…and what's most alarming — the death rate is increasing”.
There are fears that Russia has downplayed the true toll, and that the real infection and death figures are significantly higher.
Observers who studied recent footage of Putin noted his legs appeared to be in constant motion and he looked to be in pain while clutching the armrest of a chair.
His fingers are also seen to be twitching as he held a pen and gripped a cup believed to contain a cocktail of painkillers.
Speculation that his 20-year-reign – second only to that of Stalin – could be nearing an end grew earlier this week when laws were drafted to make him a senator-for-life when he resigns.
Informed analysts claimed that the Russian president’s glamorous ex-gymnast lover Alina Kabaeva, 37 – once dubbed 'Russia's most flexible woman' – is begging him to release his grip on power.
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