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Putin takes a flight in nuclear-capable bomber in a tough message to the West ahead of election

| February 22, 2024 12:15 PM

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Thursday took a co-pilot's seat in a nuclear-capable strategic bomber on a flight that appeared aimed at bolstering his image ahead of next month's election he's all but certain to win.

Putin's 30-minute flight in a Tu-160M supersonic strategic bomber also seemed intended to send a reminder of Russia's nuclear might amid soaring tensions with the West over the fighting in Ukraine.

Putin, 71, who is running as an independent candidate, relies on a tight control over Russia’s political system that he has established during 24 years in power. Friday's death of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sent a chilling reminder of the Kremlin’s ruthless crackdown on dissent and dealt a heavy blow to the beleaguered Russian opposition.

On Thursday, Putin, clad in a flight suit, boarded the warplane at a snow-covered airfield of an aircraft-making plant in the Volga River city of Kazan that has built the heavy bombers since the Soviet times.

The plant has received state orders to produce a modernized version of the Tu-160 bomber that first flew in the 1980s and was code-named Blackjack by NATO.

The aircraft Putin flew was one of the first such revamped bombers built, equipped with new engines and avionics and designated Tu-160M.

Speaking to reporters after the flight, Putin praised the new aircraft as “excellent,” noting that it has big improvements compared to the initial version.

Thursday's flight marked at least the third time he got in a cockpit of a warplane. In 2000, he took a co-pilot's seat in a Su-27 fighter to fly to Chechnya during separatist fighting there and in 2005 he co-piloted a Tu-160 during military drills.

As part of the Kremlin efforts to project an image of an action-loving and physically strong leader, Putin also took a co-pilot's seat in an amphibious plane, flew a paraglider and drove a racing car and heavy trucks.

He also drove a heavy truck to a meeting in Kazan on Thursday, one of a series of campaign trips ahead of the March 15-17 presidential election.

With prominent critics who could challenge him either jailed or living abroad and most independent media banned, Putin’s reelection is all but assured. He faces a token opposition from three other candidates nominated by Kremlin-friendly parties represented in parliament.