Abbott vows to shirt-front Putin as Russian diplomat recalls better times

Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced criticism from both sides of Australian politics. EPA/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL

A senior Russian diplomat says Australia-Russia relations are at a “historic low”, as Tony Abbott has pledged to “shirt-front” Vladimir Putin at the G20 next month over the downing of flight MH17.

In a bipartisan attack on the Russian president, opposition leader Bill Shorten accused Putin of holding back information about what happened to the plane.

Alexander Odoevskiy, second secretary at the Russian embassy, contrasted present relations with the “historic high” when John Howard invited Putin for a bilateral visit in association with the 2007 APEC meeting in Sydney.

The Abbott and Shorten comments did not help the bilateral relationship, Odoevskiy told The Conversation.

“We haven’t seen any facts from the Australian side,” he said, just “strong harsh words”.

He was not familiar with the term “shirt-front” (defined in football parlance as an aggressive front-on bump).

It was not helpful for Australia to lay blame before the results of the investigation into the crash, he said. “We want the investigation to be done. Australia wants it to be done. Why pre-empt the outcome?”

He said the embassy was preparing for Putin to attend the Brisbane meeting of the G20, which was a “multilateral forum focused on economic issues”.

Earlier Abbott told reporters: “Look, I’m going to shirt-front Mr Putin … you bet I am. I’m going to be saying to Mr Putin: Australians were murdered and they were murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian-supplied equipment. We are very unhappy about this. We accept that you didn’t want this to happen, but we now demand that you fully co-operate with the criminal investigation and if the criminal investigation identifies suspects that you have some influence over, they’ve got to be produced and justice has got to be done.”

Abbott predicted there would be a lot of tough conversations with Russia and “I suspect that the conversation that I have with Mr Putin will be the toughest conversation of all”.

The prime minister accused Shorten of seeming to play politics over the Putin visit – Shorten has conceded that the government could not determine whether he came but said it should have tried harder to keep him away.

Shorten today said he believed Putin “knows more about what happened with MH17 than he’s let on”. There was plenty of evidence to indicate indirect if not direct Russian involvement in the shooting down of the plane, he said.

The plane appears to have been shot down over Ukrainian territory by a missile fired by Russian-backed separatist rebels fighting government forces.

Shorten wished Putin would show enough conscience not to come “because he’s rubbing our faces in it”.

“When you deal with international bullies, the way you do it isn’t by laying out the red carpet,” he said.

“I don’t think he’s welcome, I don’t think most Australians want him here.”

He certainly would not be seeking to meet Putin while he was in Australia.

“Putin doesn’t seem to to think the same rules apply to him as apply to other people. So I wouldn’t give him the time of day,” Shorten said. “It’s an international conference, but it’s extremely frustrating to see this Putin fellow come to Australia, when Australians are revolted by what happened to MH17.”

Odoevskiy, who is on his second posting to Australia, witnessed the Putin 2007 visit, the first by a Russian president to Australia. Howard and Putin signed a deal for Australia to sell uranium to Russia.

“The Russian-Australian relationship was at a historic high under that Liberal government. It’s obvious we’ve reached a historic low,” Odoevskiy said.