- Associated Press - Thursday, September 6, 2012

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Vladimir Putin flew a motorized hang glider to lead a flock of young Siberian white cranes in flight, a characteristic stunt for Russia’s action-man, animal-loving authoritarian president.

Dressed in a white costume meant to imitate an adult crane, Mr. Putin was taking part in a project to teach the endangered birds, raised in captivity, to follow the aircraft on their southern migration to Central Asia. It follows a series of adventures for which the Russian leader has become alternately notorious and beloved, from flying a fighter jet to riding a horse bare-chested.

The flight proved to be a test of Mr. Putin’s leadership skills. Only one crane followed him on his first flight, which he attributed to high winds that caused the hang glider to travel faster than usual, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. On the second flight, five birds followed Mr. Putin, but after a few circles, just two had stuck with him for the full 15-minute flight.

Mr. Putin stopped off at the Kushavet ornithological research station on Wednesday en route to an international summit in Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast. Once at the Arctic station, he paired up with a pilot to take the birds for a spin.

Mr. Putin’s flight, given many minutes of airtime on Russian television, provoked an array of contemptuous jokes on the Internet, one of the most popular being: “So Putin is off to wintering with cranes. Does this mean he’s not going to be back before spring?”

Some of his adventures have purported scientific connections, such as putting a tracking collar on a polar bear tranquilized in the wild and shooting a crossbow from a boat to get a tissue sample from a whale.

Last year, Mr. Putin was caught short when one of his scientific events was revealed to be a setup. He was shown scuba diving and bringing up fragments of ancient Greek amphorae, but his spokesman Dmitry Peskov later admitted the artifacts had been planted on the seafloor for Mr. Putin to grab.

The stunts irritate Mr. Putin’s opponents, who regard them not as benign political entertainment but as part of an establishment of a cult of personality lionizing an authoritarian leader.

Marat Guelman, one of Russia’s best-known art gallery operators, wrote in a blog on the Echo Mosky radio station website that the flight shows Putin “has lost faith in us.

“He sees our treachery, greed, cowardice and cruelty. There’s nothing to love in us anymore. Dolphins, cranes, horses – that’s a different thing.”

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