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. The current question is, will the two meet in Bali? Photo: AFP

JAKARTA – Slammed the world over for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he still wants to attend what would almost certainly be a hostile G20 Summit in Bali in October – a meeting that may not happen anyway if his intended presence triggers a boycott among most of the member states.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is sticking to what critics complain is his naïve belief he can convince the G20 leaders to set the Ukraine war aside and focus solely on the economic issues that spawned the growth of the organization in the first place in 1999. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said allowing Putin to take his seat at the G20 would be a “step too far” after Russia’s ambassador to Jakarta Lyudmila Vorobieva revealed Putin intended to accept Widodo’s formal invitation, which he made last November at the Rome summit.

Widodo’s naivety extends to Indonesian politicians and even some academics who have called on him to use his position as president of the G20 to resolve the Ukrainian conflict instead of simply acting as what legislator Effendi Simbolon referred to as an “event organizer.”

Analysts believe Putin will save Widodo further embarrassment by not showing up for the summit, as he did last year by conveniently using the Covid pandemic as an excuse in a year when he only traveled twice – to Switzerland for a summit with President Joe Biden and to India.

His last overseas visit was to Beijing in early February, shortly before the Ukraine invasion when he is believed to have told Chinese President Xi Jinping of his plans. In 2019, he made 23 trips abroad but cut that to five in 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

“Putin is not going to the G20,” one former senior US State Department official told Asia Times. “It’s impossible. I just can’t imagine him attending. It’s simply not going to happen.”

The tone of Indonesia’s response to the February 24 invasion was set with a statement that avoided mentioning Russia, described the invasion as merely “unacceptable” and urged the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power, “to take concrete steps to prevent the situation deteriorating.”

Insiders say with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Europe, palace officials called in former Indonesian ambassador to the United Kingdom Rizal Sukma, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), to help in drafting the official response.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a file photo. Image: Tass

But that process was abandoned after Widodo reportedly intervened and produced a watered-down draft of his own. According to one account, some of his closest aides even suggested Indonesia join 35 other countries in abstaining in the subsequent March 2 UN vote condemning Russian aggression.

In the end, Indonesia was among the 141 countries which voted for the resolution, but ruled out imposing sanctions against Moscow. Six days later, Marsudi called her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with what a spokesman called a message of peace “so that all parties provide opportunities for dialogue and diplomacy to work in this difficult situation.”

Noting Indonesia’s adherence to a “free and active” foreign policy, which avoids involvement in conflicts with major powers, analysts say Ukraine has shown that while the dictum applies multilaterally, it is defined differently at a bilateral level.

The government continues to avoid naming Russia and using the word ‘invasion’ in statements, unlike authoritarian Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who also supported the UN resolution, leaving Laos and Vietnam as the region’s lone abstentions.

Widodo’s inexperience in foreign affairs and his desperation to salvage one of the landmarks of his presidency are clearly one factor, but a former Indonesian diplomat feels Jakarta’s position also stems from the surprising number of Indonesians who have taken Russia’s side in the war.

Some academics blame it on broader anti-American and anti-West sentiments among the Muslim majority, who see Washington treating Ukraine – and Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky – a lot differently than what they regard as the red button issue of Palestine.

Rather than viewing the invasion as a brutal attack on another sovereign state, social media commentators often have a very different view of Putin, calling out Zelensky for provoking the Russian strongman by flirting with the idea of joining an aggressive NATO.

Russia’s infantry in action in Ukraine. Photo: Tass

Ignoring the fact that Ukraine has been an independent state since it broke away from the crumbling Soviet empire in 1991, there is also the misperception that Russia is fighting a war against separatism, something that resonates in a country with a history of separatist conflicts.

Meanwhile, foreign ministry officials are still trying to figure out President Biden’s curious statement that if the US fails in its attempt to expel Russia from the G20, then Indonesia should also invite Ukraine, presumably as one of the guest nations it is permitted to add to the gathering.

In Washington, it has been passed off as another of Biden’s missteps. “He often makes statements without giving much thought to the issue at hand,” noted one diplomatic observer. “It is a well-established penchant of his. It’s hard to see a strategic rationale for taking that position.”

China opposes Russia’s expulsion, but the Kremlin has already dropped a broad hint that Putin will stay away from Bali by asserting that “nothing terrible will happen” if the US and its allies succeed because many G20 members are at economic war with Moscow anyway.

So far, Jakarta has invited Spain, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the chairmen of the African Union (Congo), the African Union Development Agency (Rwanda), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Cambodia), the Caribbean Community (Antigua and Barbuda) and the Pacific Island Forum (Fiji).

It has also invited 10 international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Islamic Development Bank and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Indonesia can add to the list, but inviting Ukraine would immediately turn the summit into a political arena – something Widodo is trying to avoid – instead of focusing on an agenda aimed at strengthening the global health architecture, the digital economy and energy transition.

The G20 is usually run along two pillars of discussion – financial, and what is known as the Sherpa Track, which addresses non-financial economic and development issues. Aside from that, there are also 10 engagement groups from various professional circles. 

Vladimir Putin dines with other leaders at a G20 Summit in 2017. Photo: WikiCommons

For all that, however, Ukraine will always be the elephant in the room, if only because of sanctions and the rippling economic impact on global trade. As the former diplomat predicted in an off-the-record conversation: “More than ever political factors will dominate the G20. I think Indonesia should expect that.”

The retired State Department official agreed. While he said he appreciates the different cross-currents Indonesia is facing, “it is naïve in the extreme to think Jokowi can restrict it to the economic issues when we are witnessing the most important political event in decades.”

The Indonesian president was expected to have a bilateral session with Biden at the annual US-ASEAN summit in Washington, originally scheduled for March 28-29, where he presumably would have been expected to engage in a substantial and unscripted discussion on Ukraine.

But the meeting has been postponed – at least until May – and Marsudi instead went to Anhui, China, at the invitation of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for dialogue among neighbors and other interested countries on another still-warm hotspot – Afghanistan.