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Indonesia juggles Russia, Ukraine and the West

July 7, 2022

With its traditions of neutrality and nonalignment, Indonesia has had to tiptoe around the Ukraine war debate. Pro-Russia sentiment in the region complicates Jakarta's foreign policy challenges.

Indonesian President Jokowi and his wife during their train trip from Poland to Ukraine last week
A large percentage of Indonesians say they support maintaining economic ties with Russia despite its invasion of UkraineImage: Laily Rachev/Biro Pers Sekretariat Presiden

In what some pundits considered mere image politics, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Kyiv and Moscow last week, becoming the first Asian leader to do so since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.   

Widodo, who is more commonly known as Jokowi, used his visits to Kyiv on June 29 and Moscow the following day to focus on the global food supply crisis caused by the Ukraine war.

"Indonesia would like the war to end soon, and the supply chains of food, fertilizers and energy need to be restored immediately because it affects the lives of hundreds of millions and even billions of people," Widodo reportedly said in Moscow.

Before he jetted off to Europe, he stated that his visits "are not only important for Indonesians, but also for other developing countries in order to prevent the people of developing and low-income countries from falling into extreme poverty and hunger."

Soaring food and fuel prices hit Southeast Asia

Before the war, Indonesia was the world's second-largest importer of Ukrainian wheat. It also has a high dependence on Russia and Ukrainian-produced fertilizers and other agricultural products.

In Southeast Asia, the war in Ukraine has resulted in spiking oil prices and soaring inflation. Whether Widodo's visits achieved anything to tackle the surging prices remains to be seen.

"Trips like this are often more about symbolism than substance," said Ben Bland, director of the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House and the author of Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia.

Widodo visited Kyiv before Moscow, which some have interpreted as a subtle nod in support of Ukrainian independence. But by publicly discussing the potential food supply crisis while in Russia, Widodo was "implicitly pushing back on the false Russian narrative" that the West is to blame for the food crisis, Bland told DW.

Ukraine war could cause mass starvation

What will happen at the G20 summit?

For some, however, Widodo's ill-suited figure as a peacemaker was intended primarily for his domestic audience.

"Indonesians see Jokowi being praised and recognized on the international stage. This instills a strong sense of national pride, as Jokowi is seen to embody a stronger Indonesia," said Bridget Welsh, an analyst at the University of Nottingham Malaysia's Asia Research Institute.

As the world's fourth-most populous country, Indonesia played the role of first among equals in Southeast Asia up until the 1990s. However, its leaders have drifted towards isolationism since then.

Widodo cannot sit quietly this year even if he may want to. Indonesia holds the rotating presidency of the G20 grouping and is expected to involve itself in global issues.

The G20 leaders' summit will be hosted in Bali this year, scheduled for November it could be a dud as Widodo has defied Western pressure to exclude Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He has also invited Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, and analysts reckon Jakarta is betting on Putin and Zelenskyy participating virtually at the conference, which may be enough to forestall a threatened US and European boycott of the summit if Putin shows up.

An embarrassing G20 summit would add additional strains on Indonesia's place in world affairs, especially as it will take over the reins of the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2023 around the same time as the G20 summit in Bali.

Neutrality and non-alignment

With its traditions of neutrality and non-alignment, Indonesia has had to tip-toe around the Ukraine war debate.

In March, Indonesia voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and called for a withdrawal of Russian forces. But it has refused to impose sanctions on Moscow or clearly condemn Putin's actions in Ukraine.

Jakarta has been more careful in its unilateral and bilateral diplomatic statements, said Bland.

"This reflects Indonesia's relatively good relationships with both Ukraine and Russia before the invasion, its longstanding tradition of non-alignment, and its wariness of being drawn into conflicts further afield when it faces so many challenges at home," he added.

The 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia was an important precursor to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War-era alliance of neutral states.

Although Widodo has stuck closely to Indonesia's historic policy of non-interference, he must tread carefully as public opinion is decidedly non-neutral on the issue of the Ukraine war, according to recent polls.

"There is a large share of Indonesians who see the West as provoking the war. A neutral stance appeases this view," said Welsh. "Most Indonesians do not see benefits from taking a position on a war so far away from Indonesia," she added.

Large support in Indonesia for ties with Russia

The recently released Democracy Perception Index 2022, conducted by Berlin-based marketing company Latana in collaboration with the non-profit organization Alliance of Democracies, asked respondents from 52 countries across the world if they think their governments should cut economic ties with Russia over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

In Indonesia, net support for keeping ties with Russia was almost 50%, the second-highest of the 52 countries surveyed. Only the Chinese were more in favor of maintaining relations.

Interestingly enough, a larger percentage of Indonesians said they support maintaining economic ties with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine than said they would support keeping economic ties with China in the event Beijing tried to invade Taiwan.

Radityo Dharmaputra, an Indonesian analyst, has written that, "a dominant strand in Indonesian discussions of the Russian war on Ukraine has focused on American and Western hypocrisy." 

In an article published in March, he concluded this is, "more about disdain for the West rather than wholehearted support for Russia's actions."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru