It’s gunboat diplomacy of the most literal kind.
Vladimir Putin has stationed four warships close to Australian waters before the G20 leaders’ meeting of the most powerful world economies in Brisbane starts today. The President’s show of naval muscle comes at a time when Russia has drawn global criticism for its intervention in Ukraine, where it is still reportedly sending tanks, artillery and troops.
But it has left David Cameron less than impressed. “I didn’t feel it necessary to bring a warship myself to keep myself safe at this G20, and I’m sure that Putin won’t be in any danger,” he said last night.
Mocking Mr Putin’s machismo was more than just a joke. It was yet another dig at a man who has backed rebels and split Ukraine in arguably the most delicate European crisis so far this century.
Vladimir Putin: Inside the Russian President's Daily Life
Vladimir Putin: Inside the Russian President's Daily Life
1/9 He’s big on exercise
Putin spends two hours a day swimming, where he gets “most of Russia’s thinking done”, according to political advisors. He’s also a gym-goer where he enjoys weight-lifting.
2/9 The gym is followed by reading
His favourite genre of books are about historical figures such as Ivan the Terrible, Catherine II, Peter the Great. Not for him are the works of JK Rowling and John Grisham.
3/9 He likes cold baths
Of course he does. He does have warm baths too, but he spends time completing “his cleanse”.
4/9 He’s not keen on the internet
Maybe because it makes him aware of how many people hate him, but truly because he finds “the screens within screens and the bars building up with messages confusing”.
5/9 He can’t be given milk
There is no explanation as to why. He also can’t be offered food products by his host – all foreign food stuff has to cleared by the Kremlin first.
6/9 He’s learning English via sing-alongs
Putin has a tutor to help him learn the England language, with afternoon sessions.
7/9 He’s an animal-lover
It may seem strange to imagine the Russian President haring around with animals, but he is very fond of his pet Labrador who is apparently “not afraid of him”. He also goes in for hunting parties.
8/9 He has a travel regime to rival Mariah Carey
Putin flies in Russian chefs, waiters and cleaners to ensure his overseas stays are up to his standards. He also has all hotel toiletries replaced with his personal products and fresh fruit under special Kremlin anti-contamination seals.
9/9 He’s not a big conversationalist
“He doesn’t talk,” the interpreter told Newsweek. “He feels no need to smile. He doesn’t want to go for a walk. He doesn’t want to drink... At anyone time there are 10 people around him... You cannot get more than 3m close to him because the space is guarded so carefully. He is endlessly surrounded by whispering aides, cameramen, bodyguards.”
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
The G20 leaders’ summit was established in 2008 to find cross-border solutions to the financial crisis, with those 20 members representing 85.9 per cent of the world’s economy. Although economic growth and creating jobs remain central to the agenda, this year the focus is on Mr Putin.
Mr Cameron made that warship aside – as well as once again comparing Russia’s annexation of part of Ukraine with the actions of Nazi Germany – 24 hours before he was due to meet Mr Putin today, raising the stakes with suggestions of more sanctions.
He added: “Every time there’s been a step in the wrong direction – whether that was an illegal referendum in Crimea, whether it was the incursion of Russian troops, whether it was destabilisaition – Europe has taken a step in a firm direction.”
It’s likely to be a frosty meeting and Mr Putin will also meet critics in the form of the French President François Hollande and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Any words shared with Barack Obama are likely to be no warmer than when the US President ignored a friendly back slap from his Russian counterpart at a conference in Asia earlier this week.
Russia is reportedly hoarding gold as sanctions continue to devastate the value of the rouble and damage its stock market, while Mr Putin shows no sign of accepting any Russian responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysian Airline MH17 over Ukraine.
The Australian premier Tony Abbott has demanded recompense as he believes evidence conclusively shows that Russian-backed rebels launched the attack with Russian weapons.
There was talk last night of a 200-strong protest outside Brisbane’s Hilton hotel, where Mr Putin is staying in a king suite. But Brisbane was strikingly quiet yesterday, with residents taking to the beach on what was made a public holiday. Police said the small crowd that had gathered outside the Hilton actually cheered Mr Putin’s motorcade. Indeed, protests have been incredibly peaceful so far.
Maria, a Dutch management consultant, lives near Musgrave Park, which is a short walk from the G20’s convention centre and home to the most dedicated anti-capitalist protesters.
Pushing her bike on the edge of the park, Maria says this is the “cutest protest I’ve ever seen”, with origami boats left in the street, a stage for musicians, and possums clambering up trees.
Not even a huge banner bearing the legend “Genocidal 20” seems aggressive – particularly not when 19-year-old media representative Callum points out that A$25 (£14) T-shirts with that logo have sold out in less than a week.
It had been thought these protests could be marked by the same violence that so scarred the London summit in 2009. Some civil liberties have been temporarily restricted for the event in an attempt to limit trouble, but so far the protesters’ biggest gripe is about the high number of police drafted in to keep an eye on what is clearly a peaceful protest.
At today’s meeting, Mr Cameron will be looking to back up his many tough words in the past week, not least a thinly veiled attack on Putin’s Russia in an address to the Australian Parliament in Canberra.
His warning to internet companies that they had a “social responsibility” to take down extremist images of beheadings and terrorist recruitment videos grabbed headlines, as did his vow to stop unreformed British jihadists from returning home for two years.
But just as startling was his claim of an “incipient creeping threat to our values”. Certain countries, he argued, believe in an “authoritarian capitalism that is unencumbered by the values and restrictions” that countries playing by the rule of law impose upon themselves. It wasn’t difficult to work out who he was aiming at.
For his part, Mr Putin argues that EU and US sanctions are illegal, even claiming that they were not only harming Russia, but the world economy that the G20 is supposed to defend.
“It’s undermining the entire system of international economic relations,” he claimed in an interview yesterday.
But if Mr Cameron can make a joke of Mr Putin’s heavily armed warships then there is no reason to think he will take this point seriously.
The protests might be borderline jolly in a city that is currently illuminated by all colours of the rainbow in celebration of hosting the summit, yet Russian-Western politics will be as tense as at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall.