Vladimir Putin, leader of birds

Russian President Vladimir Putin led a herd of endangered cranes via hang glider. While such Putin escapades are PR-driven, they do draw attention to needy causes.

Alexei Druzhinin/Presidential Press Service/AP Photo/RIA-Novosti
Russian President Vladimir Putin waits in a motorized hang glider next to a Siberian white crane, on the Yamal Peninsula, in Russia Wednesday. Putin took part in a flight as part of a program devised by environmentalists to lead the endangered cranes, which were raised in captivity, on their migration to Asia.

Vladimir Putin is preparing to give a landmark speech to this weekend's summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Vladivostok, to outline Russia's planned economic and geopolitical pivot to Asia.

But that can wait. Some endangered Siberian cranes urgently needed a leader to show the way from their ancestral Arctic nesting grounds to their winter habitat in central Asia. The intrepid Mr. Putin detoured hundreds of miles northward to the remote Yamal Peninsula, suited up in a baggy crane-like costume, took the controls of a motorized deltaplane hang glider, and – at least according to this report on the state-run RT network – safely led a gaggle of the rare young birds who'd been raised in captivity onto their correct migratory path.

If Putin's itinerary sounds a bit like Batman's, it's because the Kremlin works hard to make it so. And the third-term Russian president, who's been doing this sort of thing since he first came to power more than twelve years ago obviously enjoys it.

The latest exploit looks fairly typical for a guy who's piloted a Mir-2 submersible to the bottom of Lake Baikal, allegedly saved a TV crew from attack by a deadly Siberian tiger, shot a huge grey whale with a crossbow (in the name of science), personally took the controls of a water bomber to douse wildfires that were sweeping Russia two years ago, discovered an ancient Greek urn during a brief dive in the Black Sea, and many more.

"Usually about this time, late summer or early autumn, Putin tends to have some recreational entertainments, and he generously shares them with the people," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, an independent public opinion agency in Moscow.

"Putin doesn't let anybody into his private life so such things substitute for private details, that the public would normally be interested in," he says. "No doubt this is pure PR action, even if it triggers criticism or makes people smile."

Russia's blogosphere erupted in derision Thursday, and photoshop artists had a field day creating images of a bare-chested Putin made up as a bird man, while cartoonist Sergei Elkin depicted him in bird gear scolding the cranes: "Let's be clear, I am the Alpha-Crane here!"

But Russian animal welfare activists are more charitable. They say that Putin's stunts, whatever you may think of them, have brought much-needed publicity and state support for projects – like the effort to save the Siberian cranes – that had long relied almost totally on outside backing.

"The participation of top leaders, like our president, is good and useful," says Vladimir Krever, head of biodiversity projects at WWF-Russia.

"He has focused attention on tigers, whales, snow leopards, bears, and others, which helps us move forward more rapidly. We hope this will develop into reliable assistance from the Russian federal government," he says.

Putin has strongly supported the cause of endangered Siberian tigers, and his ongoing interest in animal rights has led to several changes in Russian legislation, notably a law last year banning the infamous winter "den hunt" of brown bears which often left orphaned bear cubs to die.

Some analysts argue that it's a sad comment on the Russian system if a PR visit by Putin is the only way to help a good cause.

"This was a planned PR action, not just his personal amusement, otherwise we wouldn't have seen blanket TV coverage," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow-based political consultancy.

"Yes, he has brought everything under his personal control, but doesn't seem to have any constructive ideas about what to do with that," he says. "It's not funny anymore. It's in bad taste, even from a PR point of view, and the result is anti-productive."

Mr. Grazhdankin says that Putin's action-hero antics don't seem to influence his public approval rating – which stood at 63 percent in August – one way or the other.

"Yes, people are growing tired of him, and he is aging, but he can still last yet another 15 years," he says. "What matters for the majority of Russians is Putin's image as a tough person at the top who controls everything and protects the people from disorder. That's why they constantly show him on TV scolding members of the government."

"This is the main thing that goes into making rating, but the fact that he also has weaknesses – such as behaving like a teenager sometimes – makes him seem more alive and softens this tough appearance."

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