'Most powerful' Putin takes on West at Apec

2014-11-11 11:24
Russia's President Vladimir Putin walks to a tree-planting ceremony at the Apec economic leaders' meeting outside the International Conference Center in Yanqi. (Mandel Ngan, AFP)

Russia's President Vladimir Putin walks to a tree-planting ceremony at the Apec economic leaders' meeting outside the International Conference Center in Yanqi. (Mandel Ngan, AFP)

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Moscow - Russian President Vladimir Putin is heading into showdown talks with Australia's leader as part of what is expected to be his toughest foreign trip since the start of the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

But Putin appears well prepared to take the heat in Beijing later on Tuesday and Brisbane this weekend, enjoying the Forbes title of the "most powerful man in the world" and domestic approval ratings exceeding 80 percent.

Much to the chagrin of Washington and Brussels, Moscow is also cultivating support in major developing economies such as China, which pledged ever-closer cooperation with Russia this week.

"There was this idea, in Australia in particular, to turn the G20 into a place where Russia would be stigmatised for its aggression against Ukraine", said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairperson of the Kremlin-connected council on foreign and defence policy.

"That won't happen because half of the G20 members are not interested in seeing so much hype about this", he told AFP, ahead of the G20's Brisbane summit this weekend.

"There won't be any flagellation."

Australia plans 'robust' discussion

Tensions with the West rose after Putin sent troops to annex Crimea in March and then supported a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

Australia is one of Putin's toughest critics and has joined other countries to impose sanctions on Russia for what they see as the Kremlin's desire to redraw modern Europe's borders.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has repeatedly vowed to take Putin to task over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in July, in which 298 people died in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.

Abbott and Putin were expected to meet later Tuesday in Beijing on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.

"I am going to have a very robust conversation with him", the Australian leader said on Saturday, urging Moscow to "fully co-operate" with MH17 investigations under way and expecting it to "do what it can to ensure that justice is done".

Anger at the Russian strongman was so fierce after the MH17 incident, Kiev and the West say the plane was blown out of the sky with a missile supplied by Russia that some said Putin should be banned from coming to Australia.

But Abbott also wants the G20 to stay focussed on its economic remit, and sought instead to meet Putin in Beijing rather than Brisbane, to get the MH17 conversation out of the way at APEC first.

No compromise in sight

Many observers say the seizure of Crimea has changed Russia irreversibly.

Tensions in society have spiked as livelihoods have been hit hard by the plummeting ruble, and the media has been discussing whether World War III is a possibility.

Western sanctions, as well as falling oil prices, appear to have only antagonised the Russian leader instead of forcing him to change tack.

Putin seems unlikely to back down.

"Vladimir Putin today is the only head of a major state who is able to blackmail the world with a big war", said analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.

Despite efforts to maintain a patina of civility, the G20 will unlikely produce tangible agreements to ease tensions between Russia and the West.

"I doubt that there will be any fundamental reduction in the confrontation between Russia and the West", Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, told AFP.

"That confrontation has its roots in deep differences about the future of the international order in Eastern Europe, on which neither side seems willing to compromise significantly."

An official meeting with US President Barack Obama is not on Putin's agenda, although the two briefly met at the Apec summit in Beijing.

Last month Putin accused Obama, who listed "Russia's aggression" in eastern Ukraine among the top global threats of hostility and meddling.

Shortly afterwards, Putin vowed that Russia would unapologetically protect its interests, in what many observers said was the most hawkish, anti-US speech of his 15-year rule.

Last week the Kremlin chief provoked further anger by making light of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that the Soviet Union signed with Nazi Germany in 1939 to divide Eastern Europe, leading to World War II.

"At the G20 Putin will be isolated from the West", said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

But if he finds the expected isolation offensive, he will not show it.

"Is Putin winning? Well, too early to say, but since the start of this year he has certainly shown the strength of his capacity to influence events in Russia's near abroad, and the weakness of the West's", said White.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  vladimir putin  |  us  |  russia  |  china  |  australia

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