Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently issued a bold threat to Russian President, Vladimir Putin, saying that he would 'shirtfront' Putin at the next G-20 meeting in November. 'Shirtfront' is the Australian football term for flattening an opponent with a shoulder charge. Abbott's use of violent imagery stems from his justifiable outrage over what he believes was Russia's hand in the July, 17 shooting down of a Malaysian Airline in Ukraine that claimed the lives of 298 passengers, including 28 Australians.
"I'm going to shirtfront Mr. Putin, you bet I am," Abbott told reporters. "I'm going to be saying to Mr. Putin, Australians were murdered and they were murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian supplied equipment. We are very unhappy about this."
Abbott's threat to flatten Putin plays into the latter's image of being a tough guy. Putin, a former KGB colonel, is a black-belt in Judo and is celebrated in Russia for his frequent displays of advanced athletic ability and machismo. Abbott is also no walkover. He was a student boxer and actually won two high profile awards at Oxford University.
While Abbott's threat of physically assaulting Putin is just figurative (we hope so), Putin has chosen not to respond altogether. This is not because he doesn't think he can beat Abbott (we know he does), but because deflecting allegations of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine is no longer a top priority for Putin. In fact, the 5' 7" Russian President recently ordered Russian forces near the Ukrainian border to withdraw; something that was unimaginable some months back. This is not to say that the situation in Ukraine is not a priority for Putin, it is; not just as big a priority as the threats waged by red-bearded Omar al-Shishani, commander of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (NASDAQ:ISIL).
Omar al-Shishani has threatened Russia, saying that he will get his revenge on the nation, according to a report on Bloomberg. While most Islamic terrorist groups have in the past spewed acrimonious messages of hate to the West and Israel (and ISIL has done this too), Omar has added Russia to the list. The Chechen has a special place in his hate-filled heart for Russia. Chechnya and Russia have engaged in extended wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For this reason, Russia isn't the most popular of countries among Chechens, including Omar. The ISIL military commander warns that there are thousands of Chechens ready to join his quest for retribution against Russia.
Any leader would run in panic mode after being threatened by an arch terrorist like Omar, who has the sociopathic foibles of Hitler and diabolical endurance of Gaddafi. Putin is however not just any leader. He has his eyes on the bigger picture, which is not ISIL's threat of physical attacks in Russia, but the disruption of political order in the Middle East brought about by campaigns against ISIL; specifically in Syria, where ISIL militants are highly active.
With the involvement of the U.S., its Western allies and several Arab countries (even Iran now has one foot in) in the anti-ISIL campaign, Syria has become a big political chess board. Any big move now could rearrange political alliances in Syria, potentially disrupting Putin's weapons pipeline.
The fact that Russia has been supplying high grade modern military equipment to the Assad regime in Syria is no big a secret as Iran's use of proxy wars in the Middle East. In fact, a report on Reuters in January revealed that Russia had at the time made a delivery of armored vehicles, drones and guided bombs, among other high grade military equipment.
Syria not only acts as a pipeline to weapons money for Putin, but is a crucial political partner. As Emerging Growth highlighted in a previous article, Russia's only military base outside the former Soviet Union is in Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus. It pays to have a firm partner in a strategic position like the Middle East where the world's political, economic, military and ideological interests conflate. Moscow however knows that increased foreign campaigns against ISIL on Assad's nation may undermine the strength of its partnership with Syria. For this reason, ISIL is presently Putin's biggest threat.