Putin, Persian leopard in pitch-perfect photo-op

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Putin, Persian leopard in pitch-perfect photo-op
In this Oct. 9, 2008 file photo a two and a half month female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks at, at the Novo Ogaryovo residence of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, outside Moscow. Putin said on TV Thursday Dec. 16, 2010 he loves Buffy, his new puppy, even though the Belgian shepherd leaves puddles and piles around the house. Putin, who was referred to as "Alpha Dog" by U.S. diplomats in a leaked diplomatic cable published recently by WikiLeaks, is in his element around animals. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool, File)
FILE - In this file photo taken on Monday, Aug. 3, 2009, the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ia seen riding a horse while traveling in the mountains of the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia, during his short vacation. 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. As the campaign for Austrian general elections enters its grueling final phase, two leading contenders have gone beyond rolling up their shirt sleeves: They’ve taken off their shirts. Giving new meaning to a chest-to-chest race, the topless duel between populist candidate Frank Stronach and Heinz-Christian Strache who heads of the anti-immigrant and EU-skeptic Freedom Party reflects the intensity of the battle between the two for the protest vote in the Sept. 29 elections. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008 file pool photo then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a tranquilizer gun in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. 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. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, file)
FILE In this Sept. 2010 photo released on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin carries a hunting rifle during his trip in Ubsunur Hollow in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), on the border with Mongolia, Russia. 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. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Government Press Service, file)
File - In this file photo taken on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin locks a collar with a satellite tracker on the tranquilized five-year-old Ussuri tiger in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East as he took a part in the national program for preserving the population of the Ussuri tiger conducted by researchers of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Animal-loving Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been accused of staging his famous encounter with a tigress three years ago. St. Petersburg-based environmentalists Dmitry Molodtsov says that photos of the animal that Putin tagged with a GPS collar in 2008 and subsequent images of what preservationists claimed was the same tigress in fact showed two different animals, indicating that Putin's tigress never was let out into the wild. Molodtsov claimed Friday that Putin's tigress was borrowed from a local zoo for the occasion. A coordinator at the government-funded Amur tiger conservation project dismissed his claim as untrue.(AP Photo / RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool)
In this Sunday, Aug. 31, 2008 file photo Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, looks at the tranquilized five-year-old Ussuri tiger as researchers put a collar with a satellite tracker on the animal in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. Russia's animal-loving leader Vladimir Putin has been accused of staging his famous encounter with a tigress three years ago. St. Petersburg-based environmentalist Dmitry Molodtsov says that photos of the animal that Putin tagged with a GPS collar in 2008 and subsequent images of what preservationists claimed was the same tigress in fact showed two different animals, indicating that Putin's tigress never was let out into the wild. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool, file)
In this Aug. 31, 2008 file photo Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds a head of the tranquilized five-year-old Ussuri tiger as a researcher puts a collar with a satellite tracker on the animal in a Russian Academy of Sciences reserve in Russia's Far East. Putin said on TV Thursday Dec. 16, 2010 he loves Buffy, his new puppy, even though the Belgian shepherd leaves puddles and piles around the house. Putin, who was referred to as "Alpha Dog" by U.S. diplomats in a leaked diplomatic cable published recently by WikiLeaks, is in his element around animals. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Pool, File)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poses with a two and a half month female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks at, at the Novo Ogaryovo residence of outside Moscow, on Thursday night, Oct. 9, 2008. The cub was presented to Putin on Oct. 7, when he was celebrating his 56 birthday.(AP Photo. RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, pool)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poses with a two and a half month female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks at, at the Novo Ogaryovo residence of outside Moscow, on Thursday night, Oct. 9, 2008. The cub was presented to Putin on Oct. 7, when he was celebrating his 56 birthday.(AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, pool)
A two and a half-month-old female tiger cub, no name yet given, looks on at the Novo Ogaryovo, residence of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, unseen, outside Moscow, on Thursday night, Oct. 9, 2008. The cub was presented to Putin on Oct. 7, when he was celebrating his 56 birthday. (AP Photo. RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool)
In this Sept. 1, 2013 file photo, a Siberian tiger prowls at the Federal Center for rehabilitation of rare species of animals in the village of Alexeyevka in the Russian Far East during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit. A rare Siberian tiger released into the wild by Russian President Vladimir Putin is keeping farmers in northeastern China on edge. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, that the animal, named Ustin, bit and killed 15 goats and left another three missing on Sunday and Monday on a farm in Heilongjiang province's Fuyuan county. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service, File)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the National Park in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on February 4, 2014. A leopard was announced in 2011 to be one of the official mascots of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Perhaps the most important vote in Russia's public selection of a new Olympic mascot was cast when Vladimir Putin said he wanted a funky leopard to represent the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the National Park in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on February 4, 2014. A leopard was announced in 2011 to be one of the official mascots of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Perhaps the most important vote in Russia's public selection of a new Olympic mascot was cast when Vladimir Putin said he wanted a funky leopard to represent the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the National Park in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on February 4, 2014. A leopard was announced in 2011 to be one of the official mascots of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Perhaps the most important vote in Russia's public selection of a new Olympic mascot was cast when Vladimir Putin said he wanted a funky leopard to represent the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin pets a snow leopard cub at the snow leopard sanctuary in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. Putin checked in Tuesday at a preserve for endangered snow 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. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a big pike he caught while fishing during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia. Putin said it's his first pike of such a big size. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a big pike he caught while fishing during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region, Russia. Putin said it's his first pike of such a big size. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with a huntsman holding a big pike Putin caught while fishing during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia. Putin said it's his first pike of such a big size. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin fishes during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
** FILE ** In this Aug. 15, 2007 file photo Vladimir Putin, then Russian President, fishes in the headwaters of the Khemchik River in the Tuva region of Siberia, Russia. In its September "Sexy Rating" list, Russia's Sex & the City magazine ranked now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the second sexiest politician. Ahead of the pack is Boris Nemtsov, a former leader of opposition party Union of the Right Forces now viewed by many as a spent force. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Presidential Press Service, File)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, fishes during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region, Russia. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
In this photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2013, Russian President Vladimir fishes during a mini-break in the Siberian Tyva region, Russia. A sign in the spoon-bait reads ?zar Fish. Using this soon-bait Putin managed to catch a 21-kilogram pike. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
FILE - In this Sept. 2010 photo released on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin carries a hunting rifle during his trip in Ubsunur Hollow in the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), on the border with Mongolia, Russia. 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. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, file)
FILE - In this file photo taken on Monday, Aug. 3, 2009, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swims while traveling in the mountains of the Siberian Tyva region (also referred to as Tuva), Russia, during his short vacation. 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. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, POOL, file)
FILE In this Wednesday Sept. 5, 2012 file photo Russian President Vladimir Putin flies in a motorized hang glider alongside two Siberian white cranes, on the Yamal Peninsula, in Russia. 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. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- Stroking a Persian leopard sprawled on his lap, tough-guy President Vladimir Putin showed his softer side Thursday as he prepared to welcome the world to his budget-busting Winter Olympics that open later this week.

In a pitch-perfect photo opportunity, Putin began his stay at the Sochi Games - a jamboree of sport deeply tied to his ambitions for Russia - by promoting a cuddly image. He checked in at a preserve for endangered Persian leopards and visited a group of cubs born last summer in the mountains above the swelling torrent of activity in Sochi.

"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.

Some journalists accompanying him weren't so lucky. They apparently upset the big cat, which scratched one of them on the hand and bit another on the knee, Russian news agencies reported.

At a gathering of the International Olympic Committee later Tuesday, Putin said nothing about the hard issues confronting the Sochi Games - horrendous cost overruns, unfinished accommodations and an uproar among some countries over gay rights.

But he boasted that Russia had undertaken the monumental effort of starting from scratch in Sochi and completing the needed construction in a short time, something he said it took other countries decades to prepare.

"We realize what a difficult decision this was to hold the games in a city that barely had 10 to 15 percent of the necessary infrastructure," Putin said. "You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character which can overcome all difficulties."

And he closed his remarks in English, saying: "Let me declare the 126th session of the International Olympic Committee open."

The Russian leader spoke after IOC President Thomas Bach criticized politicians for attacking the Sochi Olympics "on the backs of the athletes."

Bach also has slammed world leaders who snubbed the games despite not even being invited.

He said sports should not be "used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests."

Putin's first step on the Olympic stage at the leopard preserve was designed as a show of environmental concern during the Sochi Games, which open Friday. The sanctuary was established five years ago as an Olympics-related project.

The leopards are living in Sochi National Park in between the seaside city and the Alpine venues in the towering Caucasus Mountains. Some of the new leopard population is to be released in coming years in hopes of repopulating southern Russia, where they no longer roamed in the 1970s.

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 IOC officials riding in the back seat.

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 reverberate through the economy and Kremlin politics. Putin's third term as president will end in 2018.

What's more, the games are being shunned by President Barack Obama and key European leaders. The American, in an open protest of new Russian anti-gay laws, dispatched an official U.S. delegation made up of three openly gay athletic greats - former tennis star Billie Jean King, 2006 Olympic hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and figure skating wizard Brian Boitano. Former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano leads the delegation.

Top officials from Olympic heavyweights like France and Germany also won't be in Sochi. Same for Britain. The paucity of national leaders of major world powers leaves Putin with a schedule of meetings that will begin Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the following days he will sit down with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Japanese leader Shinzo Abe. No Western-aimed diplomacy is scheduled.

While Putin stepped in in Syria to convince leader Bashar Assad to turn over his chemical weapons, thus saving Obama from having to initiate airstrikes, the White House remains angry that Russia have given asylum to Edward Snowden, the contract worker who has leaked volumes of secrets about U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts.

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