Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Pic: AAP
Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Pic: AAP

Julie Bishop reveals tense confrontation

FORMER foreign minister Julie Bishop has revealed what was said during her tense confrontation with Vladimir Putin in the wake of the MH17 disaster.

The Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine in July of 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board. Thirty-eight Australians were among the victims.

An investigation pointed the finger at Russia, concluding the plane was hit by a Buk surface-to-air missile launched by pro-Russian rebels.

At the time, then-prime minister Tony Abbott infamously promised to "shirtfront" Mr Putin over his failure to take responsibility.

"I'm going to shirtfront Mr Putin," Mr Abbott said.

"I am going to be saying to Mr Putin, Australians were murdered.

"There'll be a lot of tough conversations with Russia and I suspect the conversation I have with Mr Putin will be the toughest conversation of all."

But when the chance to follow up on his threat arose at the Asia Europe Meeting in Italy later that year, Mr Abbott could not attend. Ms Bishop went in his place.

Speaking at the launch of the Meridian 180 forum at UNSW in Sydney today, Ms Bishop entertained the crowd with a detailed account of her encounter with Mr Putin at the event.

"We were sitting in this very elegant conference room in Milan, with all the world leaders from Asia and Europe around the table. I was probably the only foreign minister representing a leader there," she said.

"I was sitting opposite President Putin. And he hadn't agreed to a bilateral meeting with me, nor did I expect it, because I'm a foreign minister and I wasn't his counterpart. But I had to speak to him about MH17 and Russia's lack of co-operation.

"So, at a point in the proceedings, I saw that his advisers had left him for a cup of coffee or a break of some description, and he was alone at the table. So I hotfooted around the other side and tapped him on the shoulder, and said, 'President Putin, I'm Julie Bishop, Australia's foreign minister.'

"And he looked at me, and I started to talk, and because the microphones were there he said, 'No, come over here.' So we went away from the table.

"And we stood there, and he spoke English and understood what I said very clearly, and I could see my DFAT officer having conniptions over the other side of the room, trying to take out a phone to take a photograph of this momentous occasion.

"We spoke for about 10 minutes. I delivered Australia's message to him as forcefully as I could. His eyes never left my face, and they are piercing blue eyes. And then he said, 'So this is what you call a shirtfront?'

"I said: 'It's more of a diplomatic buttonholing.'"

At that point Mr Putin's entourage managed to extricate him.

Ms Bishop's story drew laughter from the crowd at UNSW, particularly when she quoted Mr Putin using her best Russian accent.

At the time of the meeting back in 2014, she told reporters Mr Putin had responded "very constructively".

"I had a very detailed discussion with him. I implored him to use Russian influence over the separatists in eastern Ukraine to enable our investigators to have access to the crash site," Ms Bishop said.

Mr Abbott did eventually meet Mr Putin himself, grabbing the Russian President for a 15-minute conversation on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing.

He "observed that when the United States had inadvertently shot down a civilian aircraft, it had duly apologised and made appropriate restitution," according to the prime minister's office.

The pair agreed that all relevant information would be provided to the investigators examining MH17's demise.

When a Kremlin spokesman was asked whether Mr Abbott had "shirtfronted" Mr Putin, he delivered a wry response.

"It appears that he did not try."