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West confronts Putin at Asia-Pacific summit

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Beijing (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday had a close-up brush with Western anger over the Ukraine crisis and the downing of Flight MH17, as the White House warned that his sanctions-hit government was staring at "isolation".

Putin held separate bilateral meetings in Beijing with US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott -- after the latter had used colourful sporting terminology to demand a face-to-face encounter with the Russian strongman.

But the Kremlin said that on the fate of the Malaysia Airlines plane at least, which the West says was downed by a Russian missile supplied to pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine, Putin was not standing in the way of a full and transparent accounting.

The White House said Obama and Putin had met three times on Tuesday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in the Chinese capital, which was taking place ahead of a G20 summit to be hosted by Abbott in Australia this weekend.

"Their conversations covered Iran, Syria, and Ukraine," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told reporters in Beijing.

Both Russia and the United States are involved in the P5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear programme, but on Syria Moscow is a key ally of Bashar al-Assad's government and has supported him throughout the uprising that began in March 2011.

The biggest current differences between the US and Russia, though, are over Ukraine.

In mid-October, Putin accused Obama of having a hostile attitude towards Russia, while Obama decried "Russian aggression in Europe" in a recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Earlier Tuesday US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Beijing: "We continue to be deeply troubled by Russian activities. If they continue... it's a recipe for isolation."

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader, reportedly warned at the weekend that the world was on the "brink of a new Cold War" at an event to mark 25 years since the Berlin Wall's fall.

- 'No shirtfront' -

Heading into Tuesday's meetings, Abbott had pledged to "shirtfront" Putin over the fate of Flight MH17, which came down in July with the loss of 298 lives, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.

"Shirtfront" is an Australian Rules Football term in which a player violently charges an opponent.

"The leaders have robustly spoken out in favour of speeding up the investigation of the reasons for the tragedy," the Kremlin said after Putin and Abbott met Tuesday at the APEC summit.

"Vladimir Putin stressed that from the very beginning Russia consistently demanded that the investigation be unbiased, quick and effective," it said.

Abbott's office underlined that evidence suggesting a Russian-supplied missile had blown MH17 out of the sky over eastern Ukraine, from a launcher that was then returned to Russian territory, was "a very serious matter".

Both leaders agreed that the international investigation into MH17 should proceed with all relevant information made available, Abbott's office said in a statement.

But Abbott also pointed out to Putin that the United States, after it downed an Iranian passenger jet over the Gulf in 1988, had expressed its regrets "and made appropriate restitution".

"He commended the precedent to President Putin," the statement said.

However, despite the strong words heading into the meeting, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Abbott had not delivered on his "shirtfront" threat.

"It appears that he did not try," Peskov told the state news agency RIA Novosti.

Anger at Putin was so fierce after the MH17 tragedy that some said he should be banned from visiting Australia for the G20 summit in Brisbane.

But Abbott wants the G20 to stay focussed on its economic remit, and sought instead to meet Putin in Beijing rather than Brisbane, to get the MH17 conversation out of the way.

- No compromise in sight -

"There was this idea, in Australia in particular, to turn the G20 into a place where Russia would be stigmatised for its aggression against Ukraine," said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Kremlin-connected Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

"That won't happen because half of the G20 members are not interested in seeing so much hype about this," he told AFP.

Western sanctions, as well as falling oil prices, appear to have only antagonised the Russian leader instead of forcing him to change tack.

Putin seems unlikely to back down, experts said heading into the G20.

"I doubt that there will be any fundamental reduction in the confrontation between Russia and the West," Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, told AFP.

"That confrontation has its roots in deep differences about the future of the international order in Eastern Europe, on which neither side seems willing to compromise significantly."

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