Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has denied that Vladimir Putin is ill, and lashed out at persistent western comments about the health of the country’s president.
In a rare interview with French television, Mr Lavrov said “no sane person” would regard the Russian leader as suffering from ill health.
In recent weeks it has been reported that Mr Putin has had cancer, lost his eyesight and has been given three years to live.
“I don’t think that sane people can see in this person signs of some kind of illness or ailment,” Mr Lavrov told the TF1 channel. “You can watch him on screens, read and listen to his speeches.
“I leave it to the conscience of those who spread such rumours despite daily opportunities to assess how anyone is looking.”
British intelligence sources were among those quoted last week as claiming Mr Putin was seriously ill.
Mr Lavrov also claimed Ukraine’s Donbas region was an “unconditional priority” for Moscow and reiterated the Kremlin’s claim that Russia’s invasion is a “special military operation” to “de-nazify” the country. The baseless assertion has been refuted by both Kyiv and western countries.
“The liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, recognised by the Russian Federation as independent states, is an unconditional priority,” Mr Lavrov said.
Following a humiliating retreat from the Ukrainian capital and its second city Kharkiv, Mr Putin turned his attention to Donbas in April, a predominantly Russian-speaking region that was partly occupied in 2014 by Russian-backed proxies.
At least 4,000 civilians are estimated by the United Nations to have been killed since the start of the war on 24 February, including almost 200 children. The real number is likely to be much higher.
“Yes, people are being killed,” Mr Lavrov said in the interview. “But the operation is taking so much time primarily because Russian soldiers taking part are under strict orders categorically to avoid attacks and strikes on civilian infrastructure.”
Mr Lavrov also accused France of “playing an active role in Ukraine” and fuelling “Ukrainian nationalism and neo-Nazism”.
“France is actively arming Ukraine, including with offensive weapons, and it is calling for a war to the end to defeat Russia,” he added.