TONY KEVIN. ‘Putin meets Turnbull’: an interesting encounter at Hangzhou.

Sep 9, 2016


Chris Ullmann’s ABC News report on main outcomes for Australia of the Hangzhou G20 Summit led with an account of an impromptu ‘encounter’ between Malcolm Turnbull and Vladimir Putin. Maybe they bumped into one another in the hotel lift or corridors? We don’t know which side initiated this conversation, but it could be a positive step towards normalising Australian-Russian relations.**

The report, attributed to ‘Australian sources’, seems based on a briefing to Ullmann from the Prime Minister himself or a senior member of his delegation. Ullmann writes:

‘There are no pictures of Vladimir Putin’s encounter with Malcolm Turnbull at the G20 in Hangzhou, but his message on the Syrian war could not be clearer. The Russian strongman listed the litany of Western errors in the Middle East, saying George W Bush should never have unsettled the region by deposing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The United States and Australia were repeating the error in Syria and playing into the hands of radical Islam, he said.

“I’m fighting for the legitimate Government of Syria,” Mr Putin added. “Who are you fighting for?”

It was, Australian sources conceded, a very good question’.

One can see why Turnbull may have been quite chuffed, as Putin did not have to bother talking with him at all. Tony Abbott had, along with the then British and Canadian prime ministers, been ostentatiously and deliberately rude to Putin in the lead-up to and during the last G20 Summit which Abbott hosted in Brisbane two years ago in Nov 2014, to which

Putin sent a powerful naval taskforce from Vladivostok in ironical self-defence after Abbott’s previous threats to ‘shirtfront’ him over MH17.

Since then, we have had Australian participation in the ill-advised NATO/EU governments’ universal boycott of the Russian 70th Anniversary of Victory in WW2 commemorations in Moscow in April 2015: a Ukraine-related Western sanctioning signal that was intended to wound Russians deeply: and did so.

Later in 2015, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop unilaterally went the extra mile in her studied refusal to send a condolence message to her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, after the ISIS sabotage of a Russian civilian aircraft which blew up over Sinai on 31 October 2015 killing 250 Russian holidaymakers mostly women and children. This was a gross lapse in decency, presumably intended to send Moscow a message of continuing Australian anger about the unresolved MH17 shootdown. In contrast, John Kerry sent a courtesy condolence message to Lavrov as did many European Foreign Ministers.

Putin could therefore have been excused for choosing not to exchange more than the barest nods with Turnbull. Instead, ever the professional, he seized the opportunity to make useful points to Turnbull about Syria.

After all, Putin is a leader who recently initiated a rapprochement with Turkey’s President Erdogan, whose government had deliberately shot down a Russian military aircraft over Syria a few months ago, killing two Russian servicemen and prompting a total Russian freeze in relations with Turkey. I guess compared to re-extending the Russian hand of friendship to Erdogan, whom Putin bitterly condemned at the time for ‘a stab in the back’, managing a short encounter with Turnbull was easy. And Turnbull it seems had the good manners not to dispute Putin’s pointed question about Syria, then or later.

Might Russian – Australian relations be at the beginning of a long road back towards something approaching civility and mutual respect? If so, someone might respectfully suggest to Julie Bishop to be on the same page as her Prime Minister, before her next opportunity comes to display good manners towards Russia.

Since 2015, Julie Bishop has assiduously attended whatever meetings with NATO and the EU she can get to.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin is an Emeritus Fellow at Australian National University. His forthcoming book ‘Return to Moscow’ is to be published by University of Western Australia Press in February 2017. It is essentially a travel memoir built around comparative impressions of his return visit to Russia in February 2016, but with serious reflections on contemporary Russian culture, history and foreign policy.



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