Russian President Vladimir Putin is legendary for his shows of strength and bravado — riding shirtless through Siberia on a horse, shooting tigers and polar bears with tranquilizer darts, tagging whales with a crossbow, swimming laps in an arctic river. But his latest stunt has Russians scratching their heads, or even laughing out loud: On Wednesday evening, on the way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit he's hosting in Vladivostok, Putin donned a puffy white jumpsuit, swung into a motorized hang glider, and led a flock of endangered Siberian cranes on their winter migration path. "They are beautiful boys, adorable, they are just three-months-old but big already," Putin told the newspaper Izvestia. The cranes were raised in captivity, and the idea was to teach them how to migrate. "It is difficult to convey in words," said the Russian statesman. "Just a good feeling." Is this Putin showing off his softer side, or descending into self-parody?
Putin jumped the shark: Never has "a Putin stunt produced such widespread, hysterical laughter," says Julia Ioffe at The New Republic. Flying with cranes is not "Putin's standard macho fare," it's something "informationally isolated, slightly off-kilter Central Asian dictators" might do. Russia's premier strongman is no longer "feared and reviled"; he's a joke. And this stunt will have consequences. Even as he's cracking down on dissidents, Putin will learn that, while it might be "better to be feared than loved, it is definitely better to be feared than laughed at."
"Putin flies with birds, jumps the shark"
He was already a punch line: I can see why the Kremlin thought this might work, says Benjamin Bidder at Germany's Der Spiegel. After all, Putin was leading a flock of birds that Siberia's "original inhabitants revere as gods." And it might have been well-received, too, if not for Putin's disastrous scuba-diving trip a year ago, when he "found" sixth-century urns in mint condition in the shallow waters of the Black Sea. "That was a little too staged even for Russia, birthplace of Prince Potemkin," and it has all been downhill for Putin since.
"Russian President Putin plays papa crane"
Oh, c'mon. This just adds to Putin's star quality: This isn't the first time Putin has shown his "vulnerable side," says the AP's Jim Heintz. In fact, he "appears to have a genuine affection for animals," and trying to save an endangered species fits with his trademark combination of "sweetness and toughness." Flying with the birds in a hang-glider may not be as macho as stunning a mighty polar bear, but it's undoubtedly telegenic. Face it: In Russian politics, Putin is still "both the star of the show and the stuntman."
"Birds, bears, bikers all play into Putin's stunts"
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