Russia has sent a fleet of warships towards Australia in an apparent display of muscle-flexing ahead of the G20 meeting amid tensions between the two countries over the MH17 crash.
Defence announced late on Wednesday it is “monitoring Russian naval vessels that are currently transiting through international waters to the north of Australia”.
It stressed: “The movement of these vessels is entirely consistent with provisions under international law for military vessels to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters.”
Defence Force chief Mark Binskin confirmed Defence was watching the fleet. In a reference to the fact it was a considerable distance for the Russian navy to travel, he noted one of the ships was an ocean-going tug, which tows other ships.
“Their confidence? One of them is an ocean-going tug,” he said. “It’s just part of their operation. They are in international waters. They are allowed to do that. They are in our approaches and we will continue to surveil them with air and maritime assets.”
Defence noted that Russia had sent naval battle groups to international meetings previously.
“Russian naval vessels have previously been deployed in conjunction with major international summits, such as the APEC meeting in Singapore in 2009. A warship from Russia’s Pacific Fleet also accompanied former Russian President Medvedev’s visit to San Francisco in 2010,” its statement said.
Defence sources said the Australian Defence Force had sent two frigates, the Stuart and the Paramatta, and a P-3 Orion surveillance plane to monitor the Russians.
It comes as Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a sharp meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on the sidelines of the APEC summit, during which they discussed the MH17 crash.
Asked if it was a show of force, Air Marshall Binskin said: “You’d have to ask the Russians.”
Russia’s TASS news agency reported late last month that the battle group, led by a Slava-class cruiser that is capable of carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, left from Vladivostok on October 23.
The fleet is made up of the “Varyag” cruiser, a destroyer named “Marshal Shaposhnikov”, a salvage and rescue tug and a replenishment oiler.
It is understood the Russians have in recent years increasingly been making such gestures and it is widely regarded in defence circles as a way of Moscow flexing its muscles and showing that it can project force around the globe.
Defence said in its statement that all further inquiries should be referred to the Russian authorities.
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy could not be reached for comment.