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.
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.
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