In the 19th century, it was fashionable for European powers to strengthen their hand in diplomatic talks with a projection of naval might. This week, "gunboat diplomacy" proved its resilience as a fleet of Russian warships powered towards Australia, where President Vladimir Putin is due to arrive for a tense encounter with G20 leaders.
On Thursday, Australia confirmed that it is monitoring a flotilla of Russian naval vessels that is sailing through international waters towards Brisbane, where the G20 Summit will open on Saturday amid growing recriminations over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis. The Australian Defense Force (ADF) has sent three warships to intercept the fleet, in addition to a surveillance aircraft. A fourth vessel is on stand-by, and News Corp Australia reported that the government had inquired about the use of an Australian submarine to join the effort.
The Russian convoy includes a destroyer, a cruiser, a refueller and a tugboat.
Military analysts have argued that the exercise is a flamboyant display of Russian military prowess, leading up to the G20 meeting. Putin is due to arrive in Brisbane on Friday, where he will no doubt receive a less-than-enthusiastic welcome.
Thus far, the incident has been downplayed by the Australian government — which has previously displayed deep anger towards Russia over the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, with dozens of Australian citizens onboard. "The movement of these vessels is entirely consistent with provisions under international law," read an ADF statement. But a government source reportedly told News Corp Australia that officials in Canberra are anxious to establish Russia's intention.
This is not the first time that Russia has flexed naval muscle around major international summits. Russian fleets were previously deployed to the 2009 Apec Summit in Singapore — and to San Francisco in 2010, to accompany a visit by President Dmitry Medvedev.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called the Russian exercise "not entirely unprecedented, but unusual… Let's not forget that Russia has been much more militarily assertive in recent times." Abbott promised to carefully monitor the fleet.
Pressed to explain the movement of the Russian vessels, spokesman Maxim Raku from the Russian embassy in Canberra told Fairfax Media: "We really don't break any rules, we stick to international law, so why should we be seen as a danger?"
In recent months, demonstrations of Russian military bravado have increased. Russia has recently flown bombers over the Arctic and committed submarine incursions in Sweden and the Baltics. NATO said this week that 100 interceptions of Russian bombers and intelligence gathering planes entering European and American airspace, a figure three times higher than in 2013 and approaching the 150 annual interceptions at the height of the Cold War
On Monday, a European thinktank reported that Russian incursions into Western airspace had reached Cold War levels. Dangerous Brinkmanship, a policy report released by the European Leadership Network, cited 40 recent instances of "close military encounters between Russia and the West." It detailed repeated "violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs… harassment of reconnaissance places, close overflights over warships and Russian 'mock bombing raid' missions."
Russian troops also continue to cross the border into Ukraine, according to NATO, which on Wednesday said its officials had sighted multiple columns of soldiers and equipment entering the conflict-torn east of the country.
Relations between Australia and Russia are already on shaky grounds. On Wednesday, Abbott and Putin had an awkward meeting at the Apec summit in Bejing, where they spoke about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July. 38 of the 298 passengers on the Malaysia Airlines aircraft were Australian citizens. Putin has denied Russian involvement — but Abbott has argued that those killed were "murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian-supplied equipment."
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