Defence monitoring Russian vessels close to Australia

Russian naval soldiers line up in front of the Russian warship Varyag. EPA/Yun Suk-Bong

The Defence Department is watching Russian naval vessels that are currently transiting international waters to the north of Australia ahead of the weekend G20 attended by president Vladimir Putin.

In the latest development in relations between Russia and Australia in the lead-up to the Brisbane summit, Defence said in a statement tonight that in accordance with international law it had been monitoring the ships.

“Defence regularly undertakes maritime surveillance patrols in the approaches to 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,” the statement said.

The Seven Network reported that four Russian warships were in the Coral Sea off Bougainville. It said they were led by the flag ship of Russia’s Pacific fleet, the guided missile cruiser, Varyag.

Defence noted that Russian naval vessels had previously been deployed in conjunction with major international summits, such as APEC in Singapore in 2009. A warship from Russia’s Pacific fleet had accompanied former president Dmitry Medvedev’s 2010 visit to San Francisco, it said.

Defence said questions about the vessels should be directed to the Russian authorities.

On the sidelines of APEC, Tony Abbott this week spoke to Putin about the MH17 downing.

A spokesman for Abbott said he had told Putin it was incumbent on all countries, including Russia, to co-operate fully with the independent investigation into the atrocity. We had to do our best to provide a measure of justice for the families of the victims, Abbott had said.

“The Prime Minister told president Putin that Australia was in possession of information suggesting that MH17 was destroyed by a missile from a launcher that had come out of Russia, was fired from inside Eastern Ukraine and then returned to Russia. If this is true, it would be a very serious matter,” Abbott had said.

Abbott urged Putin to follow the precedent of apology and appropriate restitution that the United States had set when it inadvertently shot down a civilian aircraft.

The spokesman said Abbott and Putin agreed that all relevant information should be provided to the independent investigation and that the investigation should proceed with the full support of the international community.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said he feared that because of Abbott’s “brain snap” in originally saying he would “shirtfront” Putin , there had been a diplomatic faux pas and now Putin was being let off the hook about the issues.

Asked what he would say if he came across Putin at the G20 (Shorten will be in Brisbane), the opposition leader said: “Nothing”.

Shorten didn’t think Putin cared what Australia thought.

“We need to be speaking to the rest of the world to put pressure on, to make sure that we get the information we want,” Shorten said.

“Surely there’s information that the Russian military have, that people close to the separatists have, which can tell us what happened, why it happened, and what’s going to be done, who’s responsible. It’s results that count, not headline grabbing brain snaps.”

“We have given Putin the opportunity to look strong.

"We can’t go down the path of silly word games. What we now need to do is work through international agencies, work through other countries and indeed work with the Russian government.”