Indonesia Is a Fence Sitter on the Russia–Ukraine Crisis

Indonesia Is a Fence Sitter on the Russia–Ukraine Crisis
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

While Indonesia’s government avoided taking a stand on the war, public opinion tilted in favor of Russia.

By Yohanes Sulaiman

On February 25, 2022, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement describing the attack on Ukraine as unacceptable — without directly mentioning Russia as the aggressor. Indonesia’s stance was unpopular and critics lambasted its unwillingness to take a stand to censure or sanction Russia.

Even though Indonesia later adopted the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning the invasion and demanding that Russia immediately withdraw, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that Indonesia was “pushing for resolutions that contain the aspirations of all parties in a balanced manner,” Why is Indonesia refusing to directly call out Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

Analysts attributed this ambiguous stance to Indonesia’s desire to prevent antagonizing Russia to attract more Russian investment in Indonesia.

Public opinion in Indonesia also tilts in favor of Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a strongman figure, a style of leadership that is popular in Indonesia. While Russia is seen as willing to stand up against U.S. hypocrisy, Ukraine is seen as naive, easily incited by the United States and its allies to provoke Russia.

Indonesia wants to keep its options open in the future. While the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and the U.S. is currently strong, Indonesia cannot forget that the U.S. and the West imposed an embargo against it in the aftermath of the violence in East Timor in 1999.

This history makes it difficult for Indonesia to completely rely on the U.S., especially for advanced military weaponry such as fighter jets. Indonesia decided instead to purchase advanced fighter jets from Russia — notably the Sukhoi SU-27 and SU-30 — and was in negotiations to purchase SU-35 fighter jets before the plan was abandoned due to fears of U.S. sanctions.

With the U.S. and its allies piling up more sanctions on Russia, the Indonesia–Russia military relationship is essentially frozen in the short term. But Indonesia wants to keep its options open — sooner or later, the embargo will be lifted and Indonesia needs to maintain an alternate source for its advanced weaponry.

Geopolitically, Indonesia wants to avoid Chinese or U.S. hegemony in its backyard. Due to its sheer size, Indonesia sees itself as a natural leader in Southeast Asia. Indonesia distrusts both China and the U.S. as there is a long history of the two countries interfering in Indonesian internal affairs. For example, the U.S. supported the PRRI/Permesta rebellion in 1958 and China was involved in the 30th September Movement.

China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and mainland Southeast Asia is seen as destabilizing the region from Jakarta’s perspective. At the same time, Jakarta has concerns over the Quad and AUKUS, fearing that they will further destabilize the region.

Russia is seen as a less threatening power due to its distant location from Southeast Asia. Despite fears among the Indonesian military that Russia’s aggressiveness may herald the rebirth of a new, aggressive Soviet Union, the Russian military’s disastrous performance in Ukraine has eased that concern — at least for now.

In the long run, a collapsed and isolated Russia is not in Indonesia’s interest, as Russia provides an appealing counterweight to China and the United States. This is reflected in the Lowy Institute’s 2021 survey on Indonesian people’s attitude towards global powers. Trust towards the U.S. has dropped by 16% since 2011 to 56%, while trust towards China has declined to 42%. In contrast, 47% trust Russia.

Indonesia’s refusal to openly condemn Russia should not be seen as feeble diplomacy on Indonesia’s part. Jakarta has strategic concerns that prevent it from strongly condemning Russia’s aggression.

Even so, Indonesia should not stay in the middle, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disturbed the global order and led to questions about the U.S. implicit commitment to its security partners, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Had Russia’s invasion not been met with international condemnation, it would most likely have encouraged other countries to behave aggressively. This would cause many problems for Indonesia, especially in regard to its goal of maintaining regional stability in Southeast Asia.

There are questions as to whether China will behave more aggressively, as a result of the initially weak responses from Western countries. It was only after Ukraine showed its resilience that the West imposed stringent economic sanctions and started sending real military aid. This is a lesson that many countries in Southeast Asia are paying attention to.

Yohanes Sulaiman is a Lecturer in the School of Government at Jenderal Achmad Yani University, Bandung, Indonesia and Nonresident Fellow at The National Bureau of Asia Research.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum.  East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics,  economics, business, law, security, international relations and society  relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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