Turning on the television this morning, flicking through the paper or scanning a news website you’d be excused for thinking it was 1962; reports of Russian warships off the coast of Australia and the threat of a new Red scare (well, technically red, white and blue).

As News.com.au put it:

“A convoy of heavily armed Russian war ships, including at least one high powered missile cruiser, are cruising international waters to Australia’s north.”

But before you start looking under the bed, the Australian Defence Department says there’s nothing to worry about: “The movement of these vessels is entirely consistent with provisions under international law for military vessels to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters,” it said in a statement.

Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin said deploying the ships was “just one part of their [Russia’s] operations. They’re in international waters. They’re allowed to do that. And we’ll continue to surveil them,” he said, adding: “Their confidence? One of them is an ocean-going tug.”

The flotilla consists of four ships, including: destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, ocean tug Fotiy Krylov (some sources claim it’s instead salvage ship Photios Wings), supply tanker Boris Butoma and the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Varyag.

Varyag, named after the moniker Varangians, has been in service since 1983, serving in the Mediterranean some time last year.

A P3 Orion Surveillance Aircraft and an Anzac class frigate, HMAS Stuart, have been sent to the Coral Sea to shadow Russia’s formation.

But although the Australian media seem ready to rebuild the Berlin Wall, the Russian media reported only briefly the story, with the publication Gazeta (Newspaper) running a story titled, “Russian ships frightened Australia”. The article stated that the Australian media were attributing the appearance of the vessels to the G20 summit held later this week in Brisbane. “Despite the panic that rose in the blogosphere, the Australian military said that Russia does not violate the law of the sea, but pledged to closely monitor the Russian [ships].”

The daily newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets (Moscow Komsomolets) reported that Australian officials believed the appearance of the ships was due to “Prime Australian Tony Abbott’s desire to ‘attack’ the Russian president in a verbal fight” at the G20 summit. The article added that some ships went on combat duty in the Pacific Ocean on October 23, with the objective to ensure naval presence and show a “flag in the region”.

The BBC’s Russian service covered the story, reporting that a representative of the Australian Department of Defence said the presence of Russian ships in the Pacific during the G20 summit was perceived as an attempt to create an “aura of power” around Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The “aura of power” quote gained some amount of traction with smaller online publications, with many using the quote.

Larger Russian media outlets have yet to cover the story, with websites like RT, Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts), RIA Novosti (RIA News) and Pravda (Truth) focusing instead on the topics of Ukraine, NATO and domestic issues.

This is not the first reported case of Russian showboating leading up to a major global event. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was accompanied by warship Varyag (yes, the same one) on his 2010 visit to San Francisco, and Russia previously flexed its naval muscle in 2009 when ships were docked off the coast of Singapore during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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