Menace clouded the arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Brisbane Australia on Friday, as he was the only world leader to bring along a naval fleet, including his Pacific flagship, forcing Australian vessels to intercept as it neared territorial waters.
Russian officials claimed the boats are testing their range in anticipation of climate research in Antarctica, but in light of Mr. Putin’s escalating provocations of the West, the symbolism was impossible to ignore.
It was a reminder that, even at this meeting from which Mr. Putin was nearly uninvited amid outrage over the downing of a passenger jet by Russian enabled separatists in Ukraine, he is the one who makes the threats. Other recent gestures have likewise revealed a belligerent vanity, with an undertone of nuclear danger, which raises worrying questions about Mr. Putin’s true goals, broader strategy and appetite for risk.
These include the frequent sorties of Russian military planes into or near the airspace of other countries, often NATO members, including one over the Labrador Sea during a NATO summit.
In September a Russian plane buzzed a Canadian warship in the Black Sea during Russian combat training near the Crimean port of Sevastopol, coming within 300 metres and causing the HMCS Toronto to lock its radar on the plane in anticipation of firing in self defence. Russia has denied the flight was provocative, and said it was routine.
Other airspace incursions have been noted over the Arctic, where Russia and Canada have disputed claims to energy resources.
These are not merely exercises in international airspace or waters, but rather they are provocations, “almost an invitation to an accident,” said Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto, now a visiting professor at Harvard.
They are increasing in frequency, intensity, and recklessness, he said.
As winter approaches, there are fears Mr. Putin’s next move could be to cut off gas to Ukraine — or to Europe — despite the economic harm it would cause Russia
Mr. Putin has used this lever before, and Russian companies have reportedly purchased much of Germany’s gas storage capacity in recent months, as a way to prevent stockpiling there.
While the fear of gas disruption seems to have been largely averted by a deal last month to secure $4.6-billion in guaranteed funds for Russian gas that transits Ukraine into Europe, Mr. Putin’s recent behaviour suggests playing by the rules is not a top priority.
The self-sabotage of a gas shut-off could cause great harm to Russia’s economy, not least via the sanctions it could trigger, but such a tactic is no more risky than invading a neighbouring state or providing arms to separatist militias.