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The Kremlin says President Vladimir Putin is in isolation after four members of his district tested positive for COVID-19.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Russian leader will not be in public for a while. Vladimir Putin says he will work in isolation after the COVID-19 explosion in his inner circle. From Moscow, Charles Maynes of NPR has more.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: The Kremlin revealed 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, she said, told Tajik leaders he would join an upcoming regional teleconference meeting. The reason — he was in isolation after a COVID-19 blast was discovered among members of his closest staff. Later that afternoon, a healthy-looking Putin, who turns 69 next month, attended a virtual video cabinet meeting to fill in the details.

(TCH RECORDING SOUNDBITE)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (English is not spoken).

MAYNES: “Some members of my close friends were sick,” Putin said, “and I spent the whole previous day in close contact with one.”

In the past, the news should not have been such a surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURMURING TURF)

MAYNES: On Monday, cameras in the Kremlin pool captured Putin in what appeared to be a hot microphone moment.

(TCH RECORDING SOUNDBITE)

PUTIN: (Non-English spoken).

UNDIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Not spoken in English).

MAYNES: Signing of autographs for the return of Russian Paralympians from the Tokyo Games – athletes who were quarantined for a week to meet with the Russian leader – a masked Putin noted that he could go to quarantine himself because of problems with COVID among its staff. Putin’s spokesman later insisted that the Russian leader was generally talking about the virus, even if some observers were not convinced.

ANTON OREKH: (Not spoken in English).

MAYNES: “It felt like after a year and a half since the blockade, it was the first time Putin realized the virus was serious,” Radio Moscow Echo political commentator Anton Orekh said in an interview with NPR. Orekh says early in the pandemic, Putin limited his role in fighting COVID-19, seeing no political dividends.

OREKH: (Through translator) Putin is used to putting himself in situations where there is victory to be achieved, and he realized that you can not overcome this.

MAYNES: Indeed, the Russian leader has often delegated unpopular COVID restrictions to denigrators, ignoring them at appropriate political moments.

(TCH RECORDING SOUNDBITE)

PUTIN: (Non-English spoken).

MAYNES: Like this celebration at a packed stadium in Moscow last February to mark the seventh anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin.

(TCH RECORDING SOUNDBITE)

PUTIN: (Non-English spoken).

MAYNES: Meanwhile, just last June the Russian leader said he had been injected with the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, albeit out of the public eye. Critics say the lack of transparency has contributed to Russia’s rate of anemic public vaccination. To date, less than a third of Russians are concerned about getting vaccinated. However, if the Russian leader has been blamed for failing to take the virus seriously in the past, Putin seemed to be enjoying his new status as a trace of Russia’s most high-profile contact.

(TCH RECORDING SOUNDBITE)

PUTIN: (Non-English spoken).

MAYNES: “This is a real experiment,” he said. “We will see how Sputnik V works in practice.”

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF BETA BAND’S “B + A”)

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