The Sydney Morning Herald
By Peter Hartcher
Receiving a diplomatic handshake from Vladimir Putin is like getting flowers from the Mafia. At exactly the time he was greeting other leaders at a series of summits this week, the agents of the Russian state attacked, disrupted and intimidated countries across the full breadth of its reach.
The violence, sabotage and threats were delivered coldly, deliberately, and malevolently across at least five theatres around the world. The Russian naval sally into Australia's northern approaches was pointed — one of the ships, though dated, is nevertheless capable of carrying tactical nuclear missiles — yet it was the least of them.
Putin was, in some cases, meeting the leaders of the very countries whose interests he was acting against. But, in every case, he was acting against the West and against the norms of peace and stability.
Yet the leaders all continued to follow the rules of civility and diplomacy as if Putin were a peaceloving democrat, playing right into his double game.
"Putin is infinitely duplicitous," says an ANU Russia expert, John Besemeres. "He's conducting runaway aggression with the confidence of someone who's got away with a lot of stuff and he's not getting a lot of pushback, so he thinks, 'Why not?'"
Tony Abbott's frustration at Putin's unapologetic impunity flared in the moment he threatened to shirt-front the Russian president when he visited Australia for this weekend's G20 summit.
But in the event Abbott was reined in by the expectations of Australia's civilised democracy and the pending pressures of playing host. He merely suggested Putin consider apologising and paying compensation for Russia's complicity in the death of 298 civilians aboard MH17.
"Putin has no conscience at all about MH17," says Paul D0nting of not just Abbott but the US, Europe and the entire community of civilised countries.
"He's full of bitter anger and resentment and absolutely determined to reassert Russia's status as a great power," says Dibb.
Western economic sanctions over his invasion of Ukraine have not restrained him in the least: "Is he trembling and backing down? No, he's not. What sort of approval rating has he got in Russia? Eighty-seven per cent."
What did Putin and his agents do over the past week or so? As Abbott was asking him to restrain the rebels to allow the search of the MH17 crash site to be finished before the onset of winter, Putin was intensifying the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
He sent reinforcements across the border. As renewed fighting broke out, Moscow dispatched 32 tanks, 16 heavy artillery pieces and 30 heavy trucks to bolster the Russian-backed rebels, according to Ukrainian defence spokesman Andriy Lysenko.
The commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove, went further: "We have seen columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defence systems and Russian combat troops entering Ukraine."
The forces were nuclear-capable, he said, but he didn't know whether they were nuclear armed. "But they do have the kind of equipment there that could support that mission if required."
On Wednesday the UN Security Council convened a meeting on the crisis: "We are deeply concerned over the possibility of a return to full-scale fighting," the UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen, told the council. To date, about 4000 people have died in the fighting, according to the UN.
Russia denied the "alarmist anti-Russian allegations," according to a Moscow military spokesman. Russia also denied sending any forces into Crimea before annexing it. Putin later conceded that Russian forces had indeed been on the ground.
By the time Abbott was appealing to Putin to apologise for the shooting down of MH17, trucks marked "Cargo 200" — the Russian code for its dead troops — were driving from Russia into Ukraine and back again, according to the independent monitors for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Second, Russia dramatically undercut the long-running effort by the West to negotiate an end to Iran's drive to build nuclear bombs.
With the negotiations entering the climactic final days next week in what Germany's foreign affairs minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has described as a "make-or-break moment," Russia announced that it would sell Iran eight nuclear reactors to generate electricity.
Russia is Iran's historical ally. Russia's state nuclear power company, Rosatom, said it would "co-operate in the field of nuclear fuel cycle and ecology" with Tehran and will "[discuss] the issue of economic expediency and feasibility of fabricating fuel rod components in Iran, which will be used at these power units".
While the Russians say this will all occur under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Western officials were distressed.
London's Financial Times reported: "Any bilateral deal that allows Iran to continue an indigenous uranium enrichment program could jeopardise the entire P5+1 talks," a reference to the Western negotiating group of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council members plus Germany.
"Iran has been pushing hard for the right to provide its own fuel to its existing Bushehr-1 facility. 'If Russia agrees to that, it's not going to boost the chances for a deal, it's going to destroy them,' said one Western diplomat."
Germany's Steinmeier said that, if no agreement could be reached with Iran by the November 24 deadline, it could be at least two years before the talks could meaningfully resume.
Third, on Wednesday Russia announced plans to resume Cold War patterns of flights by sending long-range bombers flying into America's neighbourhood, over the Gulf of Mexico.
Again, these are geared to carry nuclear weapons, although it is unstated whether the planes will actually carry them. The Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, said that "we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico." It would fly its bombers "as part of drills."
The US was unimpressed: "We do not see the security environment as warranting such provocative and potentially destabilising activity," a senior Obama administration official told US media.
At the same time, Russia will be working on building military bases in sympathetic countries including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, Shoigu had announced earlier this year.
Fourth, Putin this week sent elements of his Pacific Fleet into the South China Sea to conduct live fire drills for the first time there.
The move was announced as Putin was arriving in Beijing for last weekend's APEC summit. It was "a rare show of surface presence in the region," according to the US Naval Institute's Eric Wertheim. "It's part of this expanded push from Russia that we're seeing."
Finally, the warships pushed south in a gesture intended to demonstrate the Russian navy's reach as far south as Australia.
Paul Dibb points out that Abbott made his "shirt-front" threat to Putin on October 13. The Russian ships reportedly left their home port on October 23. "Can that be a coincidence?" Dibb poses. He interprets Putin's message to Australia: "Look what I can do, Tony Abbott!"
Michael Wesley, an ANU professor of international security, says Russia's multidirectional military thrusts and feints are "very much about signalling that Russia still counts, it's not a declining power.
"When Russia wants to have influence in a region, it can reach out and do so. And there's an element where Putin loves to humiliate NATO and the other US allies.
"I think Putin is making the most of a reasonably weak power capability."
Russia's renewed aggression is part of its insecurity and might be dismissed as the macho muscle-flexing of an inadequate nation but there is always the sobering reality that it is backed by 5000 nuclear warheads.
Putin knows that, ultimately, his threats must be taken seriously because the risk of any rival's miscalculation could be catastrophic.
Putin is hard for the West to comprehend, and so far impossible to deal with, because his Russia behaves like a 19th-century nation state.
An expert on global security, Robert O'Neill, now an honorary professor at Sydney University, warned last year that "the nature of world politics is changing" and "international society in the 21st century could prove to be dangerous for a large, well-endowed but sparsely populated country like Australia.
"Demand for minerals and energy will rise and place more pressure on international relations, and the major powers may well seek to strengthen their own bases for competition with others by, in effect, taking over and exploiting medium and smaller powers. Australia could face threats like those which confronted weaker states of the 18th and 19th centuries."
Far-fetched? Some experts think we're nearly there.
Dibb: "Terrorism is a serious threat – God help us all. It's an established threat and it's always going to be a threat. But what we are seeing now is unexpected. We have two, big, nasty authoritarian countries in our region, and they are both throwing their weight around.
"Russia is using its military force and China is using its forces for coercion of other countries. They're both authoritarian, continental-sized nuclear powers. Isn't that something to worry about?"
Two weeks ago, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said in China: "In many ways, the world we're living in today is much more like 19th-century and 18th-century global diplomacy, the balance of power and different interests, than it is the bifurcated, bipolar world we lived in the Cold War and much of the 20th century."
In truth, we now live, quite unexpectedly, in a time that has aspects of 18th and 19th century competition and rival spheres, aspects of Cold War intimidation and aggression, together with late 20th century elements of coexistence and liberalism. History has not ended, Francis Fukuyama, it's blurred.
In the meantime, while we try to make sense of it, welcome to Australia, President Putin.
This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald