Vladimir Putin enjoys rubbing shoulders with celebrities, and his associations with movie stars like Gerard Depardieu, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Steven Seagal have helped to burnish his image as an easy-going kind of guy who mingles easily with global high society.
Except when it's a political pain-in-the-neck for him.
That happened today when former Beatle superstar Paul McCartney – whom Mr. Putin personally squired around the Kremlin before attending a packed, still fondly remembered Red Square concert ten years ago – publicly called upon the Kremlin leader to intervene in the case of 30 international Greenpeace activists who were arrested in September for protesting against Russian oil drilling in the Arctic and now face up to 7 years in prison on charges of "hooliganism."
Mr. McCartney posted an open letter on his official website Thursday urging Putin to step in and end the prisoners' ordeal. "It would be great if this misunderstanding could be resolved and the protesters can be home with their families in time for Christmas. We live in hope," McCartney wrote.
"I hear from my Russian friends that the protesters are being portrayed in some quarters as being anti-Russian, that they were doing the bidding of western governments, and that they threatened the safety of the people working on that Arctic oil platform. I am writing to assure you that the Greenpeace I know is most certainly not an anti-Russian organisation. In my experience they tend to annoy every government! And they never take money from any government or corporation anywhere in the world," he added.
"And above all else they are peaceful. In my experience, non-violence is an essential part of who they are."
There has been no response from the Kremlin so far.
The 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists were arrested on Sept. 19, and their Dutch-flagged ship Arctic Sunrise impounded, after protesters in rubber rafts tried to hang an environmental banner on the giant Prirazlomnaya platform, a Barents Sea deep-sea drilling platform owned by the Russian state firm Gazprom-Neft.
They were first charged with "piracy," which carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence, but that was reduced to "hooliganism" last month.
The entire group is presently being held in a St. Petersburg prison awaiting the next court hearing, which is slated for Nov. 24.
Over 1.5 million people have responded to a Greenpeace campaign encouraging people to send protest emails to Russian authorities, and several of the 18 world governments whose citizens are among the Greenpeace prisoners have urged Russia to free them.
Experts say Putin is unlikely to respond favorably to McCartney's appeal.
"Putin takes a favorable attitude toward celebrities who do not try to give him political advice, who do not vex him with political requests but rather express admiration for Russia, its vast territory, and its president," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
Mr. Depardieu, for example, was granted Russian citizenship by Putin personally after he requested it as a means to dodge taxes in his native France. Depardieu subsequently toured Russia, praising Putin and all things Russian, and receiving many local honors and at least two free apartments along the way.
"On the other hand, there are some celebrities who take part in political campaigns, who are not competent in politics or are just ill-intentioned. Putin doesn't like such celebrities," Mr. Makarkin adds, tongue-in-cheek.