By: Geoffrey Somers

Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned back the clock to the 1930s by using an updated form of “gunboat diplomacy” to ridicule and humiliate Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in a major international diplomatic insult.

Abbott threatened to “shirtfront” Putin, or use physical violence, over what Abbott perceived as Russia’s role over the rocket destruction in July of Malaysian Airlines’ MH17, which took the lives of all 283 passengers including 38 Australians and 15 crew. 

But in response to Abbott’s threat, Putin has riposted with eyebrow-raising speed and despatched into close proximity of Australia’s eastern coast at least four and possibly seven warships and auxiliary vessels, led by the flagship of the Russian Eastern Fleet based in Vladivostok, the guided-missile cruiser Varyag.  The three vessels accompanying her are the destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, a submarine-killer, the supply tanker Boris Butoma and the salvage tug Fotiy Krylov, leading the Herald Sun to announce, in large type, that “The Reds are Coming.” 

When the ships left Vladivostok on Oct. 23 they were accompanied by a fifth warship, the Admiral Panteleyev, which seems to have gone missing somewhere on the voyage south.  Additionally, a Russian frigate, the Yaruslov Mudry, and a supply ship left Jakarta on Monday and are presumably heading through the waters north of Australia to link up with the main Russian force. 

While many see this as an excessive reaction by Putin to Abbott’s ill-considered threat of physical violence, it has also served to make the Australian an international laughing-stock. He has been savaged in the local newspapers as well, which have described his attempts at serious diplomacy to high farce.

Putin and Abbott had a frosty 15-minute meeting earlier this week at the APEC CEO Summit in Beijing, when, it can be assumed, Abbott would have tried to somehow excuse himself over his threat.  He reportedly told Putin that he had “evidence” that the missile that blew the Malaysian jetliner into pieces over Ukraine came from Russia, and was returned to Russia by the rebels soon after the atrocity occurred.  

Under the circumstances he reportedly asked that Russia pay compensation for all the victims and issue an apology to their families. In reply the Russian leader is said to have unconditionally denied the allegation and rejected the claim for compensation and an apology.

The two are scheduled to meet again this coming weekend at the G20 meeting in Brisbane, capital of the State of Queensland, but this time it will be with Putin holding all the aces thanks to the Russian fleet presumably being less than a day’s steaming from the port of Brisbane.

There can be no doubt that Australia was caught completely unaware by the Russian ships’ presence so comparatively close to its coastline.  At last report the main contingent of four ships was sailing through the Coral Sea south of Bougainville and heading in the direction of the waters off the Great Barrier Reef, which is off the coast of Queensland.  

An Australian Air Force P3 Orion surveillance aircraft is tracking the Russian ships’ movements but at present the strength of the Air Force in domestic skies is stretched relatively thin.  Eight of its latest Super Hornet jetfighters plus aerial tankers and Hercules and Globemaster supply planes are now serving in the Iraq conflict against ISIS, along with a contingent of 400 RAAF officers. Additionally, constant aerial reconnaissance of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia is required to guard against boatloads of refugees attempting to sail from Indonesia to Australia’s shores.   

Meanwhile, various face-saving exercises have been launched by Australia to play down the humiliation Russia is inflicting on its Prime Minister.  Defense sources suggested that they were well aware of the approach of the Russian ships but that it was kept confidential  for security reasons.   A Defense Ministry statement said the four ships were “currently transiting international waters to the north of Australia.  The movement of these vessels is entirely consistent with provisions under International Law for military vessels to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters.”

Russia’s Pacific Fleet spokesman Captain Roman Martov, said more pointedly that “the objectives of this exercise are to ensure naval presence and show the flag in the region.”

But informed sources say that when word trickled through that “the Russians are coming!” the panic button was pressed at Australian Security Headquarters and two warships, HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Stuart, were ordered to “crash sail” to the Coral Sea and shadow the interloping vessels. The Stuart had just returned from ceremonial duties in the West Australian port of Albany, and the crew were dismayed when their leave was abruptly cancelled and the ship quickly refuelled and headed north, where it was expected to meet up with the Parramatta late Nov. 13 

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop  — the only woman in Abbott’s coalition government in Canberra  — joined the chorus downplaying the shock Russian moves, saying, “Russia is entitled to traverse international waters.  We’ve been aware of it; we’ve been tracking it.   The Australian Navy traverses international waters.  The Russian Navy is doing what navies do.”

But observers believe that this is “posturing on a grand scale” by Russia to teach Australia’s Prime Minister a painful lesson.