US warships monitored a Russian naval task group as it headed down through Asia towards Australia in an apparent show of force by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arrives in Brisbane tonight for the G20 summit.
The US surface warships are believed to have kept watch on the four Russian vessels near Japan as they headed south.
The Australian has been told the US and the Australian Defence Force have been in close contact over the group’s progress.
When the Russians headed southward more than a week ago, the Royal Australian Navy frigates HMAS Paramatta and HMAS Stuart, and a long-range P3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft from the RAAF were sent to monitor them.
It has also been suggested that a US submarine was observing the ships. The presence of the four Russian ships has triggered speculation that there could be a fifth vessel in the group — a nuclear submarine.
It was common in the past for a Russian taskforce far from home to be escorted by a nuclear submarine, which would scout ahead of the flotilla. Naval sources say that is a less common practice now but the increasing Russian posturing around the globe has raised the possibility it is happening again.
The Russians’ arrival appeared to be part of its global show of strength, which in recent weeks has included sending bombers towards NATO airspace in Europe and towards the US and over Japanese territorial waters.
The ships’ arrival comes after weeks of tension between Mr Putin and Tony Abbott, with the Prime Minister vowing to “shirt-front” the Russian leader after the shooting-down of flight MH17 over Ukraine, which killed 298 people, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.
Former Australian rear admiral James Goldrick, now a Lowy Institute fellow, said the Russian voyage was probably planned before the “shirt-fronting” comment was made.
“It is a message that Russia is a Pacific power and that it has military capabilities in the Pacific, that it has reach and that it is prepared to demonstrate it,” he said.
“It is about being assertive.
“Clearly it is a message for other countries, but also it is part of a continuing demonstration by Putin to the Russian public that Russia is a great power asserting its presence and that it won’t be ignored.”
Mr Abbott said it was not unusual for Russia to deploy naval elements during a significant international event but “certainly it is unusual for Russian naval elements to be in Australian waters”.
He said Russia was being more assertive and its decision to deploy into the Pacific would have been made months ago.
“We’re seeing — regrettably — a great deal of Russian assertiveness right now in Ukraine,’’ Mr Abbott said. “So, it’s not really surprising and we are doing what you’d expect us to do. We are carefully monitoring the movements of these ships when they are in Australia’s approaches.”