Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, has shown off his action-man credentials to Russia's newest citizens by plunging deep beneath the surface of Crimea's Black Sea coast in a miniature submarine. Sitting in the passenger seat of a Dutch-made vessel, the Russian president descended to 272 feet (83 meters) below sea level to view a Byzantine-era wreckage that included a treasure trove of 10th century pottery.
The Kremlin strongman, who is a black belt in judo, said the underwater voyage had been "interesting," but it that the "galley was quite hard to see as it was covered with 40 centimetres of ooze."
During the dive Putin spoke via an onboard radio system with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was manning the communications room on shore.
Putin is well-known for carefully choreographed PR stunts aimed at bolstering his macho-man public persona. Previously he has been snapped swimming with dolphins, riding a Harley Davidson with the "Night Wolves" biker gang, and fitting a polar bear with an electric collar. Siberia has also provided the president with a host of opportunities to pose topless while doing a number of masculine outdoor activities, including fishing, horseback riding, and swimming butterfly stroke in a lake.
Putin has also dropped an advancing Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer gun, put out wildfires with a water bomber, and shot a grey whale with a crossbow to collect a skin sample for scientific research.
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The stunts have not all passed without mishap, however. In 2011 it emerged that two ancient Greek vases Putin "discovered" during his third-ever scuba dive were placed there for him to find. Critics pointed out almost immediately that the urns were "suspiciously un-mossy" and an aide later admitted the valuable artefacts were a plant job.
Nonetheless the Russian leader's hard man performances have become a popular part of the Putin personality cult, with calendars, photoshopped montages, and online quizzes paying homage to his bizarre escapades.
Putin's latest PR shoot — james abraham (@_jamesabraham)March 3, 2015
Monday's submarine stunt in Crimea, however, has been widely interpreted as a bid by Putin to flex his political as well as actual muscles in the wake of Russia's annexation of the southern peninsula last year.
During the dive Putin congratulated the Russian Geographical Society on its 170th anniversary and said the expedition was essential "to understand how Russia's national identity was established."
"[The trip was] a good reason to make sure once again how deep our historical roots lie [and] how deep our history of relations with the whole world is," he added.
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So-called "little green men" arrived overnight in Crimea in February 2014, effectively seizing the Black Sea territory from Ukraine. Putin at first denied that they were Russian soldiers, but later admitted that they were in fact Russian special force troops. A hastily organized referendum held the next month showed widespread support amongst the peninsula's residents for joining Russia, but the vote, which was supervised by local self-defence brigades rather than international observers, has been recognized by few countries as legitimate.
Upon returning to dry land from his latest submarine trip Putin, told the BBC that the Crimean people had "voted to be united with Russia, that's it, full stop."
Russia's annexation of Crimea and subsequent support for a rebel-insurgency in Ukraine's east has plunged relations between Moscow and the west to their lowest ebb since the Cold War, leading the United States and European Union to impose far-reaching sanctions on the Russian Federation territories, including Crimea.
In addition to the impact of the sanctions, the Crimean Peninsula, which is not connected to Russia by land, has also lost out on one of its main sources of revenue: Ukrainian tourism. Crimea was once a holiday hotspot for Ukrainian tourists, but its former countrymen largely abandoned the destination after residents voted in favor of secession.
In a bid to drive up the number of visitors to Crimea, Moscow has called on Russian "patriots" to abandon package tours in Egypt and Turkey in favor of the peninsula's dilapidated Soviet-era resorts. While the number of holidaymakers is reportedly increasing again, Crimea's marooned position alongside high-prices for food and hotels remain obstacles for many would-be visitors.
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During his three-day trip to Crimea, Putin outlined plans to help further revive tourism in the peninsula.
"Naturally we need to develop archaeological tourism and everything which is linked to the establishment of the Russian nation… after the adoption of Christianity by Prince Vladimir who then baptised the rest of Russia," he said at a meeting with industry representatives.
In response to the Kremlin strongman's deep-sea dive Ukraine's President, Petro Poroshenko, said that he feared it would further "escalate" the 16-month conflict in the country's Donbas region where fighting has already claimed more than 6,800 lives.
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