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Report: Putin has been secretly working from identical office in Sochi at times

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A report from a Russian news outlet claims that the Kremlin has built an office for President Vladimir Putin in Sochi that is identical to his office outside Moscow, and that Putin has frequently — and secretly — worked in the Black Sea resort city in recent months.

There was no independent confirmation of the December 8 report by the online publication Proyekt Media, which said that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had declined to answer questions it posed.

Another Russian online publication, Daily Storm, quoted Peskov as dismissing the Proyekt report as “stupidity,” saying that Putin “is working in Moscow” and sometimes goes on work-related trips. He did not mention any specific dates.*

If true, however, the report would add further evidence to the lengths that the Kremlin has gone to isolate Putin amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and also to hide those efforts in order to present the image that Putin continues his work uninterrupted.

In its report, Proyekt cited two unnamed sources it said were “familiar with the schedule for the head of state and a top manager at a state-run company.” The publication also analyzed flight-tracking records for the official presidential aircraft used by Putin to travel in and out of the country, as well as a comparison of photographs of Putin’s office in the Moscow suburb of Novo-Ogaryovo.

Like many countries, Russia has imposed lockdowns aimed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, restricting movement and requiring many to work remotely as much as possible.

Reducing In-Person Meetings

Putin has appeared to largely sequester himself at Novo-Ogaryovo, holding video conferences with governors and cabinet ministers and giving televised speeches. He’s also had only a few publicized in-person meetings with a select group of individuals, for example with top security officials and the head of the state-run oil company Rosneft.

As part of its evidence, Proyekt cited a video conference that Putin held on November 2 with a group of Russian schoolchildren. A photograph released by the Kremlin said Putin was in the Moscow region when he held the conference.

But, the publication said, members of the presidential staff were in Sochi that day, according to one person familiar with the situation. And on November 3, the presidential jet was shown departing from Sochi en route to St. Petersburg, where Putin attended the unveiling of a new icebreaker.

Proyekt also said that many journalists in the Kremlin press pool have had more limited access to Putin in recent months.

Other efforts that the Kremlin has devised to reduce the risk of Putin being infected include the installation of disinfectant tunnels at the Kremlin and at Novo-Ogaryovo: devices that resemble airport security screeners and appear to spray visitors with an antiseptic mist as they walk through.

Russian media have investigated similar reports of the Kremlin efforts to hide or deceive Russians of Putin’s whereabouts in the past.

In February, Putin told the state news agency TASS that in the early 2000s, during the Second Chechen War, he declined an offer by security agencies to use a “body double” — a lookalike actor to help protect Putin against attack.

In 2015, Putin was not seen publicly for more than a week, prompting a host of conspiracy mongering and humorous Russian-language memes.

Proyekt, a new Russian news outlet that bills itself as an independent, crowd-funded publication, has had several major news scoops recently. Last month, the site reported that Putin, who has two daughters from his earlier marriage, might be the father of a 17-year-old whose mother is a secretive St. Petersburg millionaire.