09/07/2012 11:55 EDT | Updated 11/07/2012 05:12 EST

Canada geese flyer inspired Putin's crane flight prior to APEC summit

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - When Canadian inventor Bill Lishman piloted an ultralight plane that successfully led a flock of wayward Canada geese south for the winter, he couldn't have imagined a Russian president would attempt the same feat for political gain.

That's essentially what happened this week when Vladimir Putin flew a motorized hang glider to help guide a flock of lost birds — in this case, Siberian cranes — from northern Russia to their southern migratory ground in Central Asia.

Putin's aerial stunt came a day before Prime Minister Stephen Harper and fellow Asia Pacific Co-operation leaders began arriving Friday for their summit in Russia's historic Asian port city of Vladivostok. And it was almost 20 years after Lishman's own historic flight from Ontario to Virginia with 16 geese on his tail.

Lishman's flight was borne out of concern for the fate of migratory birds. Putin's appeared rooted in his desire to cement his credentials as a heroic ironman leader after a several particularly tough months in which he has faced unprecedented popular dissatisfaction with his presidency.

Like Putin, Harper is eager to use the summit to deepen his country's economic and trade links with the fast-growing Asian region.

But as host to the disparate 21-country APEC bloc, which includes Canada and the United States, Putin has an added challenge: showcasing Russia's Asian ambitions on the heels of what many consider a major clampdown on dissent.

Putin faced a large protests this past spring after his controversial re-election to the presidency, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister. By the summer, Russia's parliament passed a series of laws that many critics say curbed Internet freedom, clamped down on foreign non-governmental agencies and recriminalized libel.

Then, there was Pussy Riot.

Last month's two-year prison sentence to members of the subversive punk band for their anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral sparked global criticism and came to symbolize what many view as Russia's recent backslide on democracy.

As the summit approached, it appeared Harper wasn't interested in publicly pressing concerns with any perceived shortcomings of Russian democracy.

Harper's officials have made no mention of rights issues and instead stressed the economic focus of his whirlwind trip — to have face time with many of the leaders of the Asian countries that Canada wants to do business with.

In recent weeks, the Harper government has taken pains to avoid overtly piling on any Pussy Riot condemnation, unlike other allies in Europe and the United States.

Analysts suggest Harper has little to gain by pressing Putin on such issues.

Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he has no doubt that Harper and his fellow APEC leaders care about human rights.

"But you've got to think about whether you're willing to sacrifice productive relations with a country like Russia to prove how tough you are," he said in an interview from his Washington office.

"I would want to see them include it in a broader agenda, which is what APEC is all about — trade, travel links between all of the countries in the region, including the United States and Canada."

Piotr Dutkiewicz, a Russia expert at Carleton University in Ottawa, said if Harper feels compelled to talk about rights issues, he should use the same respectful tone he employs with China.

"We have our voice to highlight the areas of human rights between Canada and China and at the same time we are super charging economic relations. Why not see Russia the same way?"

As Saturday's summit approached, Putin — the former KGB agent revered for his analytical mind — moved to consign any criticism to the margins of the summit.

In a televised interview in Russia, he dismissed Pussy Riot's behaviour as "unholy mayhem" that had a "devastating effect" on Russian religions.

As for the charge he has instituted a clampdown, Putin said he has simply been trying to maintain order.

"We should clarify what we're talking about. If we understand it as a simple requirement that everyone, including the opposition, complies with Russian law, then this requirement will be consistently enforced."

And then Putin took to the skies — clad in white to blend in with adult cranes — for Thursday's 15-minute flight to help save a flock of young Siberian cranes that were raised in captivity.

Russian televised flight immediately sparked derisive jokes and commentary in the blogosphere.

Lishman's story inspired the 1996 film "Fly Away Home."

In all, 13 of the 16 birds that he led to the U.S. on his first flight found their way home, leading to another decade of work on migratory birds.

Putin flight with the cranes was the latest in a series of photo-ops over the years that seek to craft him as a heroic, masculine leader. At his first APEC summit 12 year ago, he took off his suit jacket for an impromptu martial arts demonstration. Over the years, he's been photographed shirtless while on horseback, scuba diving for ancient artifacts and hunting wild game.

As for the events of the last few months, Rojansky said Russia is definitely going in the wrong democratic direction, but it's not all bad.

"Let's look at the grander scheme of things: Relative to where they were 20 years ago? Heck of a lot better off. And average Russian citizens still feel that, and they're doing better economically; they've got good opportunities to travel and work," he said.

"What they don't have is political freedom. They had relatively more of that, five years ago than they do today."