Vladimir Putin was “playing hockey” over the weekend, the Kremlin said, dismissing rumors that the Russian president may be suffering from a secret illness.

Barely a day has passed without further speculation about the Russian leader’s health and well-being since his country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine news live: first Russian ship destroyed by West’s harpoon missile

His spokesman Dmitry Peskov told NBC News on Monday: “I can tell you one thing that yesterday, I know, in the afternoon, in fact, he played hockey. It was about yesterday. , he was playing hockey, then think about his health for yourself.”

Vladimir Putin during a friendly ice hockey match in Strelna, Russia, in December 2021

Observers have speculated about the Russian leader’s appearance at meetings – including whether he limps, sometimes shakes, clutches the table in pain – or has a swollen face that could show signs of steroid use, or even botox due to be notoriously vain.

Mr. Peskov called the rumors about the president’s health ridiculous and has repeatedly denied that he is terminally ill, as has been suggested in some reports.

Urged by NBC News senior international correspondent Keir Simmons to address the rumors once and for all, Mr Putin’s spokesman also pointed to the president’s lengthy speech at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum last week to dispel widespread speculation about his health.

He said Mr Putin spoke for three and a half hours, before taking part in a panel discussion.

“Just think, if a man in bad health can play like that,” he said.

Vladimir Putin delivering a speech at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Friday
The Russian president delivering a speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday

As the war enters its 17th week, Russian attacks have largely focused on eastern Ukraine with the stated aim of “liberating” the Lugansk and Donetsk regions that together form Donbass.

Russian-backed separatists control part of the regions and the Russian president wants them entirely in pro-Russian hands.

If his forces captured Severodonetsk, it would give Moscow control of all of Luhansk – and be his greatest victory in the invasion to date.

Map of Ukraine

Giving an update on a pocket of resistance that has held back the wider Russian offensive in Donbass, Serhiy Hayday, the governor of Lugansk, said Russian forces controlled most of Severodonetsk, except for the Azot chemical plant, where more than 500 civilians, including 38 children, have been housed for weeks.

The road connecting Severodonetsk and Lysychansk to the town of Bakhmut was constantly under shellfire, he added.

Rodion Miroshnik, an official in the self-proclaimed separatist Luhansk People’s Republic administration, said on Telegram: “The coming hours should bring considerable changes to the balance of power in the region.”

But according to British intelligence, Ukrainian forces fired back at Russia in the Black Sea.

President Putin’s navy has been “largely neutralized” by Ukraine’s coastal defenses in its ability to control part of the Black Sea, Britain’s Ministry of Defense has said.

“Ukrainian forces claimed their first successful use of Harpoon anti-ship missiles donated by the West to engage Russian maritime forces,” he said in his latest Twitter update.

“The target of the attack was almost certainly the Russian naval tug Spasatel Vasily Bekh, which was delivering weapons and personnel to Snake Island in the northwest Black Sea.

Russian naval tug Vasiliy Bekh pictured in the Bosphorus, en route to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 7, 2022
Russian naval tug Vasiliy Bekh pictured in the Bosphorus, en route to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 7, 2022

“The destruction of the Russian ship during a resupply mission demonstrates the difficulty Russia faces when trying to support its forces occupying Snake Island.

“This is the latest in a series of Russian ships, including the cruiser Moskva, to be damaged or destroyed by Ukraine during the conflict.”

The United States and its European allies provided arms and financial aid to Ukraine, but avoided any direct involvement in the conflict.