Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refused to repeat his pledge to “shirtfront” Russian President Vladimir Putin should he attend the G20 in Brisbane.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may dodge a shirtfront if he visits Australia next month but should expect a “very robust conversation” over the downing of MH17.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott grabbed global headlines for tough talk after pledging to shirtfront the Russian leader during the upcoming Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane.

Mr Abbott wouldn’t repeat the aggressive term on Tuesday, but insisted he would hold robust talks with Mr Putin over the “murder” of 38 Australians who died when the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

He also raised doubt about whether Mr Putin would attend the G20, saying that robust conversation would occur “should he come to Australia”.

The Russian Embassy says Mr Putin is preparing for multi-lateral talks at the G20 but no request had been made for a one-on-one with Mr Abbott.

“We are not exactly sure where and when Prime Minister Abbott would like to shirtfront President Putin,” a spokesman told AAP.

Mr Abbott’s comments were immature and unhelpful, he said.

But Mr Abbott expected a meeting with Mr Putin.

“I can expect that while he’s a guest of Australia he will undertake to have a conversation with the Australian prime minister,” he said.

His shirtfront threat came amid frustration over Russia’s lack of co-operation in the investigation of the attack on MH17 by Russian-backed rebels which killed 298 people.

A shirtfront is an aggressive front-on bump that knocks an opponent down, commonly used in Australian Rules football.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten came to Mr Abbott’s defence, saying the prime minister “probably chose the wrong language”.

“I’m sure if he had his time again, he would use different words,” he told reporters in Townsville.

The words provoked an angry response from Russian online news site Pravda, which called him insolent.

And former Australian ambassador to Russia Cavan Hogue said the Pravda article was a good indication of what Mr Putin thought of the Australian prime minister.

“The line taken and the tone and the timing would all have been set by him,” he told ABC Radio.

“It’s pretty clear that he’s not really interested very much in what our prime minister says.”

Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie said Mr Abbott and Mr Putin were acting like “hormone-affected schoolboys trying to out-macho each other on the footy field”.

She also said Mr Putin’s decision to withdraw 17,600 troops from the border with Ukraine showed he was doing his best for world peace.

Mr Shorten says Mr Putin shouldn’t attend the G20 summit in November, but Mr Abbott says Australia does not have the power to ban him.

The government sought the views of G20 members on excluding Mr Putin, but it was decided he should attend.