Was it really necessary for Tony Abbott to promise to 'shirt-front' Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 summit in Brisbane? Seasoned public servants often blanch when their political masters make populist remarks about other nations or their leaders. An intemperate comment from a politician can ruin a bilateral relationship, or at least jeopardise many years of patient diplomacy.
Except, in the case of Australia-Russia ties, there isn't much of a bilateral relationship to speak of. Aside from the 2007 Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, achieved at a high point during the Howard years, Australia and Russia have little to cooperate on. The two nations are geographically distant, ideologically incompatible, and are competitors in Asia's energy and resource markets, as well as in the global wheat trade. The total two-way trade value of A$1.8 billion in 2013 saw Russia ranked 31st in the list of Australian partners, lower than Belgium (24th) and the Philippines (29th), and comparable to Turkey (33rd). After the tit-for-tat sanctions of 2014 there will be even less trade between the two this year.
In the Antarctic Treaty system Australia and Russia are often at loggerheads: as ASPI's Anthony Bergin has pointed out, Moscow has recently blocked the establishment of marine reserves in Eastern Antarctica due to its desire to expand its commercial fishing operations.
What about public opinion? Even before the downing of MH17, Australians' perceptions of Russia were unenthusiastic. In 2013 the BBC Country Ratings poll indicated that some 53% of Australian respondents perceived Russia's influence in the world as negative, while only 29% felt it had a positive impact.
All told, then, it would seem there is little harm in berating Russia. And after the loss of Australian lives on MH17, an act that Canberra still sees Moscow as bearing some culpability for, Abbott certainly wouldn't be shirt-fronting a friend.
On this occasion, though, Abbott's team has misjudged the tone.
This is a shame, because recent Australian diplomacy behind the scenes on the issue of Ukraine has been admirable. Building a coalition of supporters for an Australian-sponsored UNSC resolution after MH17 was no mean feat, even if the conditions were largely favourable at the time.
When politicians use colourful language on foreign affairs they are generally trying to engage in two types of signalling: domestic and international. Nikita Krushchev's famous statement that the USSR would outlast (mistranslated as 'bury') the US was designed to motivate Soviet citizens in a post-Stalin era and shore up fears that peaceful coexistence was not appeasement. It was also calculated to convey to the US, which was interested in probing the Soviet leader for weak spots, that he would not be pushed around.
Putin has done the same. After becoming President he famously commented – in Russian street slang – that he would wipe out Chechen terrorists 'in the shithouse'. His public response to Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's suggestion for a bigger Russian military presence near the US was 'we don't f**king need a military base in Cuba'.
Sometimes, though, such tactics can backfire badly. Ronald Reagan won praise at home for his tough talk on the USSR. But on a visit to Moscow he found himself surrounded by children giving him flowers, and an awkward question from a journalist: 'Mr President, do you still think you're in the evil empire?'
Unfortunately for Abbott, his colloquial language fails three tests of such utterances. First, it served no particular domestic agenda, even though the public was the main intended target. Granted, some rhetorical statement was necessary to counterbalance the impression that by allowing Putin to come to Brisbane, Australia was capitulating in the face of perceived Russian bad behaviour. Even so, there was little for the opposition to capitalise upon because the heat had gone out of the issue, so a return to bellicose posturing was unnecessary.
Second, it did little to advance Australia's international interests. Frankly, the promise of physical violence – even metaphorical violence – can only serve to reinforce the worst type of chest-thumping, loutish and parochial stereotypes that many still have about Australians.
Third, it was delivered as the prelude to the wrong forum. Had Brisbane been hosting a meeting on human rights or security issues, Abbott's comments might have been contextually more appropriate. But the G20 is a leaders' summit on economic and trade issues, where much of the real action is bilateral (and unreported, because it happens on the sidelines).
Russian diplomats were quick to react to Abbott's gaffe. The second secretary at the Russian embassy in Canberra, Alexander Odoevskiy, reminded the media that Putin has a black belt in judo. He also pointed out that he was not sure where Abbott would get the chance to shirt-front Putin since a bilateral meeting between the two had not even been arranged.
In a sense it is fortunate that Abbott chose to speak bluntly about a low-priority relationship for Australia, one which was on a downward trajectory before the conflict in Ukraine and which has little prospect of turning around any time soon. It is also likely to be a storm in a teacup. The Kremlin is used to being chastised by Western governments, and views Canberra (rightly or wrongly) as little more than a pro-US mouthpiece. So in a bilateral climate in which even mutual respect is hard to achieve, it is unlikely Abbott's comments will do much long-term damage.
Yet Abbott could simply have said that, despite differences between Moscow and Canberra, he considered it would be churlish not to invite Putin – especially since trade and interdependence is regularly touted as a path to peace. He could also have stressed that he would be taking the matter of a proper independent investigation into MH17 up with Putin as a matter of urgency, and that he would clearly convey to him Australia's frustrations with Russia's intransigence. That would have left him looking statesmanlike, with the moral high ground intact.
Abbott and his team should learn something from this. It is fine to make bold and provocative statements occasionally if doing so is calculated to actually achieve a specific purpose. Yet when there is little obvious to gain, it is probably best for even the most ardent pugilists to resist the temptation to lash out.