BRISBANE: Australia on Thursday (Nov 13) said it was tracking four Russian naval vessels off its north coast, with relations between the two nations strained after the downing of Flight MH17 in Ukraine.
The appearance of the fleet coincides with Vladimir Putin’s arrival at the G20 summit in Brisbane and follows a highly-anticipated exchange between the Russian president and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at APEC in Beijing this week.
Putin’s presence in Brisbane was questioned given Australia’s anger at the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July, in which 298 people died in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.
But the consensus was that he should attend despite Kiev and the West claiming the plane was blown out of the sky with a missile supplied by Russia, an allegation Moscow denies. “Defence is monitoring Russian naval vessels that are currently transiting through international waters to the north of Australia,” the Australian Defence Force said in a statement.
The Russian navy has previously been deployed in conjunction with major international summits, such as the APEC meeting in Singapore in 2009. A warship from Russia’s Pacific Fleet also accompanied former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to San Francisco in 2010.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Russia was entitled to have ships in international waters, but said they were being closely tracked. “I understand that these ships are part of an expedition in international waters. It’s not unexpected. Russia is entitled, as any other country is entitled, to traverse international waters,” she told reporters. “So we have been aware of it for some time. We’ve been tracking it and as far as I know, they remain in international waters.”
She declined to comment when asked if it was a show of force, only saying that Russia is “a significant country with a significant navy”. “It’s like saying when the United States is in the Pacific – is it a show of force? It’s a significant country with a significant navy. When Australia heads up through the international waters in Southeast Asia and North Asia is that a show of force?”
G20 leaders, including US President Barack Obama, meet in Brisbane on Saturday and Sunday with boosting global growth the main theme, although issues such as Ukraine are also expected to be discussed.