Indonesia's staging of this year's G20 meeting faces geopolitical storm clouds that could scupper the event. Image: Facebook

Maroon signs carrying the slogan “Recover Together, Recover Stronger” line the expressway that will carry the leaders and their delegations across the water from Bali airport to the luxury tourist enclave of Nusa Dua for the G20 Summit in late October.

Maintenance crews are busy painting and dollying up the sides of the route, just as they did for the World Bank-International Monetary Fund conference four years ago. Below, workers are planting beds of young mangrove trees on the tidal mudflats, part of a showcase environmental program.

The Indonesians do these things well. It may still be seven months out from the summit, but Joko Widodo wants everything ship-shape for an event he regards as his country’s coming-of-age and a milestone in his two-term presidency.

Yet in far-off Ukraine, the brutal Russian invasion – and the ripples it is sending around the world – threaten to rain on his parade, just at a time when foreign tourists are starting to return to post-pandemic Bali.

With the crisis already casting a dark cloud over the conference, the man who normally has little interest in foreign affairs is faced with the tough decision to disinvite Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Unless he does, as many as 15 leaders, led by US President Joe Biden, will almost certainly decide not to come rather than be in the same room with someone they detest and who is already being accused of war crimes.

Without Putin and the Russian delegation, there is a danger China and India could mount a boycott of their own. Both were among the 23 countries which abstained in the overwhelming March 2 United Nations vote to condemn the unprovoked invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) talks to Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on May 18, 2016. Photo: AFP/Host Photo Agency
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, talks to Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on May 18, 2016. Photo: AFP

Diplomats don’t think they will, realizing the difficult position Widodo finds himself in and considering the two big powers did not actually vote against the resolution, as did only North Korea, Eritrea and Syria.

Indonesia may have been tempted to abstain as well, given its historic non-aligned status and an initial statement on the crisis condemning “every act which is a clear violation of the integrity and territorial sovereignty of any country” – but did not mention Russia by name.

In fact, Indonesia’s rejection of sanctions and its otherwise tepid response to the Russian action has drawn widespread criticism, notably from the angry Ukrainian ambassador to Jakarta who found himself in hot water for penning an openly critical letter to Widodo, calling his compromise “shameful.”

Indonesia’s reluctance to impose sanctions reportedly stems from a US$1.4 billion oil refinery being built on Java’s north coast by state oil company Pertamina and Russian energy giant Rosneft, which is also involved with Premier Oil in a new gas discovery in the North Natuna Sea.

“We will not blindly follow the steps taken by another country,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah. “We will make a decision based on our domestic interests and whether sanctions would solve anything. We see time and again that sanctions do not mean the resolution of a particular issue.”

Things are likely to come to head at the scheduled G20 foreign ministers meeting in June, with most of the participants expected to object to the presence of a Russian delegation. By then, Putin might have saved Widodo further embarrassment by unilaterally disinviting himself.

For the first time since he became president in 2012, the Russian leader did in fact stay away from last year’s G20 in Rome, ostensibly because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which seems to explain his continuing preference for long meeting tables. He sent Finance Minister Anton Siluanov in his place.

Whatever transpires in Bali, there is a precedent for denying Putin a seat at the summit. In 2014, the original G8 political forum suspended Moscow following its annexation of Crimea. In 2017, The Kremlin announced its permanent withdrawal from that grouping.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already said he does not want to see Putin at the G20 in Bali. Photo: AFP / Thomas Samson

Commentators are already predicting a new Cold War developing in the aftermath of the crisis with Russia widely regarded as a pariah state as long as Putin remains in power and Russian troops occupy large parts of eastern Ukraine and perhaps more.

Government sources say with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi out of the country and the palace drafting the initial response, Widodo called in chief maritime minister Luhut Panjaitan and other senior advisers to prepare a “worst case” scenario for the G20.

One senior government official said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent statement that he would not want the Russian leader at the summit was the first hint of the mounting pressure. That was soon followed by other predictable calls for Putin to stay away.

The official said Indonesia would try to accomplish the “impossible task” of delinking the summit from Ukraine, arguing that the group was created to deal with economic issues, which this year will focus on a new global health architecture, the digital economy and the transition to clean energy.

That mirrors Widodo’s remarks that the G20 – whose members contribute 80% of the world’s GDP – is a gathering for economic cooperation and not a political venue, underlining what the official described as the president’s “enthusiasm” for a summit he hopes will result in a wave of new foreign investment.

Interestingly, the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KADIN), whose former chairman Rosan Roeslani has just taken up his post as the new ambassador to Washington, initially appeared to give little serious thought to the crisis impacting the associated G20 business summit.

Foreign Minister Marsudi is fuming over the open letter Ukrainian ambassador Vasyl Hamianin posted on Facebook, attacking Widodo for not taking a tougher line on the invasion in which thousands of civilians have died in indiscriminate Russian bombing and artillery strikes.

He was called to the ministry for a dressing down over a breach of protocol in which he asked the president: “When the war ends, shame will descend. Shame among those nations which supported the Russian attack or remained silent. Is Indonesia prepared to be ashamed?”

Firefighters work on a fire on a building after Russian bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian positions in the south. Photo: Fox News / Screengrab

The ambassador’s letter also drew an angry Facebook response from Dina Sulaeman, director of the Indonesian Center for Middle East Studies and already a critic of Widodo’s decision to support the anti-Russian resolution in the UN General Assembly.

Sulaeman accused Hamianin of taking a “white supremist” tone in calling on Widodo to “boldly oppose war crimes and crimes against humanity, and strongly condemn Russia and Putin.”

Judging from social media posts, Sulaeman’s post reflected sympathy for the Russian position in Muslim-majority Indonesia – if only because of a strong underlying anti-American, anti-Western attitude in broad segments of society.

That, maintains foreign policy analyst Radityo Dharmaputra, stems from the “war on terror” and from what is seen as the hypocrisy inherent in the reluctance of Western governments to support Palestine, but the speed at which they went to Ukraine’s assistance.

Sulaeman claimed Ukraine had sent 5,000 troops – or the third biggest contingent – to join the US-led coalition in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. In fact, it deployed 1,650 men over that period, the sixth-largest group among the 39 nations.

But her misguided assertion that Putin was fighting a “separatist” war against Ukraine, a now independent but former part of the old Soviet Union, probably resonated the most in Indonesia, which has had a long history of separatist rebellions.