Vladimir Putin, rugged outdoorsman and tough-guy Russian president, promoted a cuddly image Tuesday as his Olympics drew near.
Putin checked in at a preserve for endangered Persian leopards and visited a group of cubs born last summer in the mountains above the growing torrent of activity in Sochi for the Winter Games.
"We've decided to restore the population of the Persian leopard because of the Olympic Games," Putin said. "Let's say that because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of the destroyed nature."
Putin entered the cage and petted the leopard on the head. "We liked each other," he said.
Not so the accompanying journalists. They apparently upset the big cat, which scratched one of them on the hand and bit another on the knee, Russian news agencies reported.
Putin's first step on the Olympic stage was designed as a show of environmental consciousness during the Sochi Games, which open Friday. The leopard preserve was established five years ago as an Olympics-related project.
The leopards are living in Sochi National Park in between seaside Sochi and the Alpine venues in the towering Caucasus Mountains. Some of the new leopard population is to be released next year in hopes of repopulating southern Russia, where they became extinct in the 1970.
The former KGB operative has thrown open the Kremlin treasury to finance the Olympics, lavishing a record $51 billion on sports facilities and transportation infrastructure in the resort city on the Black Sea coast.
He has gambled big on the games, determined to host an event in a fashion befitting his image of a newly powerful Russia that is a global economic and political power.
Putin drove to the reserve in an SUV, with two International Olympic Committee officials riding in the back seat. Later Tuesday, the Russian leader was due in Sochi to address the IOC.
With the vast sum Putin invested in the games, he has turned the once-sleepy resort into a kind of Disneyland of phantasmagorical structures — new highways, sweeping overpasses and top-notch sports venues. Winding roads and rail lines were cut upward into the mountains to newly built Alpine facilities.
While the massive project doesn't represent a do-or-die moment for Russia, the most expensive Olympics in history — with billions of dollars reportedly lost to graft — will still reverberate through the economy and Kremlin politics. Putin's third term as president will end in 2018.