Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has spent much of the summer cultivating his image as a rugged leader, one day out in the wild tracking bears, the next chasing a gray whale in choppy seas off the country's Far East coast.
This week, Putin delivered his latest macho stunt -- a 2,000-kilometer drive across Siberia in a canary-yellow Lada Kalina, intended to boost Russia's flailing car industry and his own ratings ahead of a possible presidential comeback.
Putin was full of praise for the little Kalina, calling it "comfortable" and "reliable." He recommended that all Russians -- especially those currently driving Japanese cars -- buy one.
"You won't regret it," Putin promised.
Three In One
But it wasn't an altogether smooth ride.
An amateur video of Putin's ride featuring not one but three identical Lada Kalinas, one of them on a tow truck, is making the rounds on the Internet.
The clip, in which onlookers burst into raucous laughter, has received almost 300,000 hits since it was posted on August 30.
"A third one is coming!" an onlooker is heard saying. "It broke down. He wore it out! Ah, Kalina..."
Semyon Shifrin, one of the car buffs who shot the clip, tells RFE/RL he had "nothing against the prime minister." But he dismissed Putin's Lada stunt as laughable.
"We didn't expect to see as many as three of these much-advertised Lada Kalinas. It made us laugh," he says. "If they want to promote this car, why take three of them on the trip? Putin is a grown man. He can make repairs himself if something breaks. He could even turn this into a PR stunt."
The footage stands in sharp contrast with official Russian television reports, which showed a lone Putin riding his Lada across the vast Siberian expanses.
In addition to the three yellow Lada Kalinas, the clip also features huge numbers of official vehicles accompanying Putin. Shifrin says he stopped counting after 100.
The Russian government has already spent huge amounts in state aid to keep the Lada's manufacturer, Avtovaz, afloat. Many of the clip's viewers now denounce yet another expensive campaign to improve the poor image of Lada vehicles, which remain the butt of numerous jokes.
Tit For Tat
While Russian television has kept the embarrassing video under wraps, Belarus has not missed the chance to take revenge for a series of recent Russian television films discrediting Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Belarusian national television channel ONT on August 31 aired a biting report mocking Putin's road trip, marking a new low in already tense relations between Moscow and Minsk:
"The Internet is just swamped with criticism of Russian-made cars," the report says. "Even the Kalina made for Putin could not cope with the 350-kilometer stretch. It had to be replaced after breaking down."
This is not the first time Putin has personally stepped in to defend the maligned Lada brand, with arguable success.
The prime minister last year publicly heaped praise on his newly purchased Lada Niva jeep. The move could have given the Niva a much-needed publicity boost had Putin not admitted in January that his jeep had a customized German-made engine.
written by Claire Bigg, with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service