The diplomatic drama, which has been simmering since a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over an area of Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists in July, threatened to overshadow Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's goal of keeping this weekend's G-20 summit focused on economic growth.

But Abbott, who had previously said he would physically confront the Russian president over the Flight 17 disaster that killed 298 people, including 38 Australian citizens and residents, did little to dampen tensions with his latest critique of Putin's Russia.

In recent days, four Russian warships have entered international waters off the northeast Australian coast to coincide with Putin's visit to Australia for the summit that brings together the leaders of the world's 20 biggest industrialized and developing economies. Australia, in turn, sent three warships of its own to monitor them.

The Russian embassy said today that Russia's Pacific fleet was testing its range, and could be used as security for Putin.

Abbott was not impressed.

"Russia is being much more assertive now than it has been for a very long time," he said at a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, also in Australia for the summit. "Interestingly, Russia's economy is declining even as Russia's assertiveness is increasing."

The prime minister, who met with Putin earlier this week on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing, aired details of his conversation with the Russian leader.

"One of the points that I tried to make to President Putin is that Russia would be so much more attractive if it was aspiring to be a superpower for peace and freedom and prosperity instead of trying to recreate the lost glories of tsarism or the old Soviet Union."

Abbott, an athletic 56-year-old former amateur boxer whose government is a staunch US ally, has gained a higher international profile by loudly demanding more cooperation from Russia on the Dutch-led investigation into the downing of Flight 17.

He raised eyebrows last month when he declared he intended to "shirtfront" Putin, using an Australian football term for a head-on shoulder charge to an opponent's chest.

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