LONDON: Russian President Vladimir Putin was shown in an awkward encounter with his military chief of staff on Tuesday as he inspected war games in Russia’s Far East, thousands of miles from the war in Ukraine.
The Zvezda military news service published video of Putin and chief of staff General Valery Gerasimov entering an observation booth, sitting down with a wide space between them and maintaining an uncomfortable silence while waiting for Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to arrive.
Gerasimov stroked his hair and shuffled papers and Putin picked up and peered through a pair of binoculars, at one point acknowledging a comment from the general by nodding tersely.
The awkward body language drew scrutiny from political and military analysts on social media.
“Putin obviously doesn’t even want to talk with the commander of the Russian armed forces,” wrote former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt on Twitter.
In a separate clip, the mood appeared lighter as Putin and Shoigu were shown exchanging a joke while Gerasimov spoke on the phone.
Gerasimov has been almost absent from public view during the 195 days of Russia’s war in Ukraine, prompting speculation about his standing with Putin and even at times about his health.
Having captured about a fifth of the country, Russia has been fought to a virtual standstill while suffering heavy losses in troops and equipment.
By proceeding with the four-yearly Vostok (East) war games, Putin appeared to be sending a signal that Russia’s military is able to conduct business as usual despite the demands of the war.
But the defence ministry says the exercises that began on Sept 1 involve only 50,000 troops, a fraction of the 300,000 they said took part in 2018. Western military analysts say they believe both figures are exaggerated.
The manoeuvres have included forces from both India and China, though it was not clear if Putin had seen troops from those countries in action.
On Tuesday the defence ministry released video of the naval part of the exercise, showing Russia’s Pacific fleet practising launching Kalibr cruise missiles which it said had successfully struck a target more than 300 kilometres away.
On Monday, Russian and Chinese combat ships practised repelling an enemy air attack using air defence artillery systems. Last week warships from the two countries carried out anti-ship, anti-air and anti-submarine defence tasks in the Sea of Japan, the ministry said.
Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared a “no limits” partnership in February, promising to collaborate more closely against the West.
Russia is the biggest supplier of military hardware to India, which went ahead with the exercise days after the United States said it had concerns about any country holding such manoeuvres with Russia now.
Moscow says the war games also involve military contingents and observers from Algeria, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria and six former Soviet republics.