Commentary: Jokowi's Ukraine and Russia visit is not just image politics
President Joko Widodo is the first Asian leader to make the trip to both capitals since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indonesia must test the limits of its non-aligned position, says Bloomberg's Clara Ferreira Marques.
SINGAPORE: Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Kyiv and Moscow last week, offering to be a diplomatic bridge between the two. The first Asian leader to make the trip to both capitals since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he made a few headlines, but no real progress.
Critics saw the journey as image politics. And yet, Widodo’s not wrong to see a role for states outside the wealthy world in helping to resolve a crisis that has punished emerging markets, particularly those that are also importers of food, fertiliser and fuel, like Indonesia.
Southeast Asia’s most populous country is well placed to act. It has historic political and military ties to Russia and economic connections with Ukraine; it also holds this year’s presidency of the Group of Twenty (G20) and next year’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It has a strong diplomatic presence to back any initiative.
Even small-scale success, however, requires ambition and a concerted push for more than empty Kremlin promises.
THREAT TO FOOD SECURITY
Jokowi, as the Indonesian leader is known, had more than one concern on his travels: Most obviously, the threat to food security — a longstanding headache for Jakarta that’s only worsened since Russia’s troops began streaming over the border into one of the world’s largest grain exporters, bombing silos and farmland, disrupting logistics and driving up prices. Indonesia is a major buyer of Ukrainian wheat.
The G20 summit, scheduled for November in Bali, also needs to be salvaged. Unwilling to leave out Russia, Jokowi has invited Ukraine, but now needs to hope both will attend remotely to limit the risk of paralysing the entire gathering.
There were no miracles. In Ukraine, Jokowi visited the scarred city of Irpin, as other dignitaries have before him, called for peace and offered to carry a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Moscow, the Indonesian leader said he had secured Russian guarantees for the security of food and fertiliser supplies, but offered no specifics — while the Kremlin simply turned the occasion into a demonstration of support, and proof that efforts to cut off Russia cannot succeed.
INDONESIA MUST TEST LIMITS OF NON-ALIGNMENT
Can Indonesia achieve more? Certainly.
But it must test the limits of its non-aligned position and acknowledge that unpicking a global food crisis and a war that violates the basic principles of Indonesia’s own foreign policy — among them, respect for sovereignty and non-aggression — is impossible if Russia is allowed to pit the West against the rest.
Nor will platitudes on the need for talks suffice. It won’t be enough to allow this peacebuilding effort to fade as Jakarta’s recent attempts have, say in Afghanistan or Myanmar.
Indonesia exemplifies the balancing act many emerging nations have struggled with over the past few months. They are juggling discomfort with Moscow’s disregard for basic norms and the reality of popular support for Russia — the result of Soviet-era ties, distrust of the West, admiration for a strongman leader and the widespread perception, fed by pro-Russian social media propaganda, that Putin is supportive of Islamic nations.
Indonesia voted in favor of a United Nations resolution condemning Russian aggression and Jokowi pointedly visited Kyiv first, but the nation has also sidestepped explicit censure of Russia and refused Ukrainian requests for weapons. That can prove an advantage.
Clearly, the idea of Indonesia bringing an end to the entire war is, at best, optimistic. Putin has shown no indication that he is ready to negotiate an enduring peace and feels he can outlast Ukraine in a war of attrition.
After all, he does not have to worry about the vagaries of electoral cycles the way Western leaders do. He’s also a man who perceives himself as the great leader of a great power, waging an existential fight — so not amenable to being influenced by a country he sees as a lesser player on the world stage. Ukraine, meanwhile, may be skeptical of Indonesia’s bona fides.
NOT WHETHER TO ACT, BUT HOW TO DO SO
With an eye on its import bill and another on the South China Sea, though, Indonesia still has good reason to act. Failure to do so will allow Moscow to make a bad situation worse by claiming unquestioning support in the Global South and encourage Beijing to learn all the wrong lessons.
Jakarta also has the required clout, because Russia needs not just China but the wider emerging world to avoid isolation and retain global influence. That includes this large, populous Muslim nation, a major importing economy and a regional heavyweight.
First, Jokowi must resist being complicit in Russian efforts to blame the West for a food calamity that the Kremlin’s own actions have exacerbated — as Senegalese President Macky Sall was last month.
There is nothing neutral about supporting one side’s dangerous and misleading narrative. He must push back too against attempts to use grain and fertiliser exports as bargaining chips.
But he can go further, as a loud emerging market voice, pushing for the Kremlin assurances necessary to free Ukrainian exports — not just vague statements. He can press Moscow for specific and public guarantees to merchant shippers and insurers in order to open up Black Sea ports like Odesa.
He can help persuade Turkey and others to provide the necessary security guarantees for Ukraine, where officials would otherwise resist removing the mines protecting its coast. And yes, Jokowi can demand Western action too, including swift and meaningful financial support for vulnerable economies and coordinated efforts to mitigate the consequences of sanctions overcompliance.
Non-aligned positions, especially for those with traditions dating to the original 1955 Bandung meeting, are hardly irrational. And yet, India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, is wrong to separate Europe’s problems and the world’s — the surge in grain, fertiliser and fuel prices proves that.
The question is not whether to act, but how to do so. Neutrality is not to be confused with passivity in the face of disaster.