Russian President Vladimir Putin has piloted a motorized hang glider to lead a flock of young Siberian white cranes in flight.
Dressed in a white costume meant to imitate an adult crane, Putin took part in a project to teach the endangered birds who were raised in captivity to follow the correct migration route south after their release.
Putin’s task in his hang glider was to pose as a giant bird to guide them.
RIA-Novosti news agency reported on Wednesday that only one crane followed Putin on his first flight, which he attributed to high winds that caused the hang glider to travel faster than usual. On the second flight, five birds followed Putin, but after a few circles only two had stuck with him for the full 15-minute flight.
Putin stopped off at the Kushevat ornithological research station on the Yamal Peninsula on Wednesday on his way to an international summit in Vladivostok.
State television broadcast the spectacular images of Putin flying high above Siberia as its top news story, but the stunt also risks being mercilessly mocked by increasingly confident opposition bloggers.
“Let’s quickly make our roles clear — I am the alpha-crane!” a popular cartoon already doing the rounds on the Russian Internet showed a caricature Putin telling a group of puzzled-looking cranes.
Putin has become alternately notorious and beloved for an array of adventurous stunts, including posing with a tiger cub and riding a horse bare-chested.
Some of the stunts, such as petting a polar bear tranquilized in the wild, have purported scientific connections.
However, Putin last year was caught short when one of the events was revealed to be a set-up.
In that case, Putin was shown scuba diving and bringing up fragments of ancient Greek amphorae. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov later admitted the artifacts had been planted on the sea floor for Putin to grab.
The stunts irritate 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.
Masha Gessen, author of a book critical of Putin, left her post as editor of the travel and science magazine Vokrug Sveta (“Around the World”) this week, claiming she was fired for refusing to send a reporter 3,500km northwest of Moscow to Yamal Peninsula to cover Putin’s flight with the cranes.