It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane….










Russia has pulled out all the stops to maximize the impact of its role as host of this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

The world’s largest nation, which spans two continents, has invested nearly $20 billion to upgrade Vladivostok as the Pacific port prepares to host the APEC meeting, which opens on Friday. The makeover is intended to send the message that Russia is looking eastward for economic growth as its trading partners in Europe slide back into recession.

The improvements in Vladivostok included a new international airport, the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge, 90 miles of new highways and the city’s first sewage treatment system. A U.S.-style university campus also has risen on nearby Russky Island.

More than half of Russia’s foreign trade traditionally has been with the 17 countries that make up the European Union; less than a quarter of Russia’s trade has come from APEC’s 21 members, including China, Japan and the U.S.

“We will have a future of accelerated growth when we have two strong legs: not just one in Europe, but one in Europe and the other in Asia,” said Igor Shuvalov, the first deputy prime minister responsible for economic issues, in an interview with the Washington Post.

Russia is rich in oil and natural gas, but until recently all of its export pipelines flowed west to Europe. Russia now believes the Asian market is the key to modernizing the Russian economy, with the energy sector leading the way. The first Russian pipeline to send oil east to China began operation in early 2011. An extension of the pipeline to a port near Vladivostok is scheduled for completion by the end of this year; Russia expects to build plants there to produce petro-chemicals and fertilizers, the Post reports.

Russia aims to turn Vladivostok into a transportation hub to link Asia to Europe by sea and rail. The main line of the 4,000-mile Trans-Siberian Railroad runs between Vladivostok and Moscow.

As the home port of Russia’s aging Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok was a closed city until after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The lack of sewage treatment facilities is emblematic of Vladivostok’s decline in the decade that followed the disintegration of the USSR. Until the new treatment plant opened, the city of 600,000 had been dumping its raw sewage into the sea.

Perhaps to underscore his commitment to improving the environment as well as the economy of Russia’s eastern outpost, Vladimir Putin chose a rather unique way to make his entrance at the APEC summit.

Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat. The New York Times reports that Putin donned a white robe and hood with a special white helmet — with a beak on it  — to convince the wayward birds he was their leader.

Putin reportedly conducted three test flights in an ultralight aircraft at the Kushavet ornithological research station on the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic before taking off on his self-proclaimed “Flight of Hope” crane rescue mission.

Throughout his on-again, off-again tenure as Russia’s supreme leader, Putin has staged a series of exhibitions showcasing his prowess as a macho outdoorsman. On past expeditions, he’s tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. He also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and last summer dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and surfaced with what were said to be remnants of two ancient Greek urns.

Like everything else involving the Russian strongman, even his outdoor adventures are colored by Putin’s tendency to rule by diktat. The Times reports the editor of the Russian magazine Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) was fired this week after she refused to send a photographer to cover Vlad’s flight with the cranes.

Any minute now, we expect word from the Pentagon that radars for the U.S. missile defense system are being adjusted to recognize the profile of a guy in a white suit attached to a hang glider. If the Russians can pack a nuclear weapon into a suitcase, they probably can squeeze a megaton or two into a beak.