The 7000-ton Perekop training ship is loaded with 200 cadets and armed with anti-submarine rockets and anti-aircraft guns. It will arrive in Port Moresby on Wednesday and stay until Saturday, Russian state media reported, quoting Russia’s navy spokesman Igor Dygalo.
The ship is on a two-month long mission that began in April and has included stopovers in Europe and Sri Lanka. Russia’s ministry of defence said the aim of the mission was to conduct exercises to train cadets in navigation.
Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, Rimbink Pato, said the visit is the first of a range of visits by APEC members in the lead up to the APEC Leader’s Summit in November.
“This is not a formal port visit by the Russian Navy but rather, a goodwill visit for young people, arranged at a convenient time with so many able to come to our country at once,” Minister Pato said.
“Naturally, we have informed the Australians, our major security partner and close neighbour, and advised them of the nature of the visit.
“As is usual with our friends and ally, the Australians welcome our attempts to draw attention to the forthcoming APEC summit, and they support our efforts to cultivate friendship and understanding among the youth of APEC nations.”
However, not everyone has taken the visit at face value.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, told The Australian there was a question of what the diplomatic motivation was behind the port stop, considering it strayed from usual Russian naval routes.
“I would join it up to the very unusual aircraft deployment that the Russians did in Indonesia on the other side of the island but there is no sort of bristling military weaponry or capability … it’s really just a visiting of the flag,” he said.
“So the question is: what is the diplomatic motivation behind this?
“The Russians are more interested in the Pacific if you sort of join the dots of what they did in Fiji with the training mission with the Fijian armed forces.”
In 2016, Russia donated a 20-container shipment of weapons and military hardware to Fiji and stationed Russian troops on the islands to train local forces in how to use the equipment.
The Fijian government said the hardware was to arm Fijian peacekeepers on UN missions and the donation was seen as unusual by Pacific Island experts.
“The security orthodoxy in the Pacific Islands region is changing as new external actors play a greater role in the region, and local states engage in ‘new Pacific diplomacy’, placing Australia’s and New Zealand’s influence in the region at risk,” experts Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos said in a 2016 paper that examined the Russian donation.
Dr Graham said Russia was keen to show it was courting countries that the West considered their partners.
“A poke in the eye for the US — that’s the standard cynical interpretation for anything they would do down here,” he said.
“It may just be a fairly low-cost way of showing the flag, announcing that Russia is still present and operates globally ... is engaged and has an interest in areas that other countries might regard as their backyard.”
He said PNG’s role as host to the APEC summit this year could also be behind the visit.
The French navy’s Jeanne d’Arc mission arrives in Darwin this week, an amphibious exercise involving two French ships along with British marines.
A Defence spokesman said the department was “aware of a planned port visit to Papua New Guinea by the Russian Navy”.