Vladimir Putin, Leader of Birds (+Video)

Article excerpt

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. …