Enough spoken of planes, let's speak about ships.
A few days before the summit of the G20 (19 economic powers and European Union) in Australia on November 15 and 16, a Russian mini-fleet arrived ashore of Brisbane. It comprised the missile-launcher cruiser Varyag (admiral ship of the Russian fleet in the Pacific), the antisubmarine destroyer Marshall Shaposhnikov (carrying two Kamov 27 helicopters), the salvage tug Photius Krylov and the replenishment oiler Boris Butoma. Australia, which prime minister Tony Abbott had just announced that he would "shirt-front" Vladimir Putin as soon as he would arrive in Brisbane, sent the frigates Parramatta and Stuart to meet that fleet. Interrogated, the Russian embassy in Canberra, as well as the admiral commanding the mini-fleet, answered that these ships were proceeding to some tests and trainings for Antarctica missions, and that they would also ensure the protection of president Putin during the G20 summit.
The Australian navy and press explained in length that the expedition of such a fleet over such distances was a major operation prepared months in advance, therefore likely since the beginning of the year, without any relation with the degradation of international situation lately. In reality the mini-fleet had left the harbour of Vladivostok on October 23 and was already back there on December 15.
As for the mission of protecting the Russian president, one can wonder about the utility of a mini-fleet anchored in international waters (22 km away from the shores) in case of any attack against, for example, the president's bedroom or car on land. Nevertheless it is true that the later became, as soon as he arrived, the target of extreme and very undiplomatic demonstrations of aggressivity, from the demand of public excuses for the shooting down of the Malaysian plane, to the accusation of threatening and attacking several European countries, including appeals to the 18 other countries to unite against Russia and subjective camera shooting angles intended to show him isolated.
Looking closer nonetheless, the constitution of said mini-fleet presents a very different interest at sea. A submarine hunter (and this one also has a good anti-aerial capacity) is the perfect tool to localise a big metallic body underwater. The world-biggest salvage tug is the perfect tool to explore it and fish it back, and this one supports divers and helicopters and has additional accommodation for rescued sailors. The Ka-27 "Helix" helicopter exists in two versions, the one dedicated to anti-submarine fight and the one dedicated to search and rescue. But there must have been some serious motives for Russia to send a submarine hunter visit for two months the pinguins of the Antarctica naval desert, and make a U-turn half way, while there would have been a lot of uses for this kind of ship in November and December in the Arctic (since it belongs to the Pacific fleet), or even in the Northern Sea or the Black Sea as a reinforcement.
Speaking about rescue, an airplane crashed in the sea offers, precisely, more chances of survival (if found quickly) than an airplane crashed on the ground. And being more vulnerable from the surface during taking off and landing, it's at the two ends of the route that help and rescue have the highest probabilities of becoming necessary. On the other hand a missile fired from international waters, especially pirates-infested ones like the Western Pacific, offers less risk of identification of the shooter than a missile fired from a country's proper territory.
President Putin is known for his calm, appearent or real, his measure and restraint even under pressure or facing direct adversity. One doesn't easily imagine him running away hastily, as if he was culprit or not at ease, from an international conference, as useless as it may be. And by the way, while coming back from a "BRICS" summit in Brazil his plane had respected the schedule, that 17 of July when a very similar-looking Malaysian plane got shot down at direct sight above the ex-Ukraine shortly after their routes had met. But on November 16 Russia made its presidential plane take off by surprise, several hours before the announced flying plan.
Twenty years ago, on April 6, 1994 precisely, two chiefs of state in duty died for having respected the time schedule and the flying plan that had been announced. If they had had Russian intelligence agents or counselors, they might still be around today.