Kremlin sells Putin's muscles and tough love to Russians

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If Russian women are searching for a new sex symbol, they need look no further than the Kremlin's website. There they can find the full set of pictures of Vladimir "The Body" Putin strutting his stuff, bare-chested, along the banks of a Siberian river during a fishing expedition.

Since the pictures were released to the world last week, the mainly Kremlin-controlled Russian media have finally got in on the act, and the 54-year-old President's macho but raunchy poses are the talk of the country.

On Wednesday, the mass-circulation daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, published on its front page the now infamous photo of the bare-chested President dressed in military fatigues and offered its readers an exercise regime so they could "get a torso like Putin". Women readers wrote to the paper's website to comment on his muscular chest and were reported to be "screaming with delight and showering him with compliments".

The blogs are also alive with comment, including a saucy one comparing Mr Putin, and his guest, Prince Albert II of Monaco, to the gay cowboys in the film Brokeback Mountain.

The message of the he-man President was lost on no one in the West. The images can only serve the purposes of the Kremlin bent on demonstrating that Russia is flexing its muscles, literally and figuratively.

In recent days, Russia has reignited talk of a new Cold War after President Putin ordered his nuclear-capable strategic bombers back into the skies for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, prompting Nato jets to scramble on at least two occasions. And relations with west-leaning Georgia have sharply deteriorated after Russia was accused last week of having one of its warplanes fire a missile at a Georgian village. It did not explode, but on Tuesday, the Georgians accused the Russians of again violating the former Soviet republic's airspace. Tensions between the two countries tightened yesterday, with the Georgian Defence Ministry ratcheting up the dispute by announcing that it was stepping up the integration of Georgia's radar system into Nato because of concerns about Russia.

"Recent incidents prompted discussions in Brussels, at Nato headquarters, to speed these procedures, so Georgia is incorporated into that system as soon as possible," the Georgian Deputy Defence Minister Batu Kuteliya told Reuters yesterday. "They should probably be finished late this autumn." The Russians deny that any of their fighter aircraft was in the area of the village when the missile was fired, and yesterday the armed forces chief of staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, accused the Georgians of suffering from "hallucinations".

This week, Mr Putin, fully clothed, opened an air show east of Moscow, promising to revive the country's lagging aviation industry by building more passenger aircraft. The production of Russia's strategic bombers is also expected to resume now that the long-range aircraft have resumed their round-the-clock flights.

But not everything is going the Kremlin's way. Russia yesterday ordered its entire fleet of Su-24 bombers to be grounded after one of the planes crashed during a training run in the Russian far east. Technical problems were blamed.