Volodymyr Zelensky spent considerable time arguing Ukraine's case to oftentimes skeptical Indonesians. Photo: WikiCommons

JAKARTA – Billed as “President Volodymyr Zelensky Talks to Indonesia,” it was an opportunity for the embattled Ukrainian leader to try and change the minds of many Indonesians, whose bias against the West has found them squarely on the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Whether the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia’s (FPCI) May 27 webinar achieved that goal is doubtful, but a clearly irked Zelensky had a question for Deputy Parliament Speaker Muhaimin Iskander when he queried him about his willingness to compromise with Russia.

“What is the bottom line for you to keep your country independent?” the Ukrainian leader asked the concurrent National Awakening Party (PKB) chairman. “And as soon as you answer this question yourself, you will understand our bottom line.”

Dressed in his trademark military-style T-shirt, he went on: “We want to live in our own country, we do not want anyone’s territory, we don’t want anything from anyone, and we are not going to wage war on other countries’ land.”

Zelensky said Russia “first shoots, then says okay we are ready to talk about compromise, let us have a negotiation. This is how terrorists act. They say we can’t see you in the EU and they shoot at us. We can’t see you in NATO and they shoot at us.”

The FPCI’s founder and chairman, former Indonesian ambassador to Washington Dino Djalal, later sought to persuade Indonesians they shouldn’t allow their prejudices against the US and European Union to blind them to parallels with their own history.

Wrapping up the session, the host compared the Russian assault on Ukraine to Indonesia’s struggle for independence from Dutch rule in the late 1940s and the value its people attach to preserving their sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“If this has taught us anything, it is that no foreign power, no matter how powerful, can never contain or subdue the free will of the people of another country,” said Djalal, who was born in Belgrade. “I think history is full of these lessons.”

Sukarno declaring the independence of Indonesia at 10am on Friday, August 17, 1945. Photo: WikiCommons

‘A war of independence’

The Ukrainian president repeatedly returned to that same theme. “This is a war for independence,” he declared. “We have to fight because everything has a price and that’s the way it is. This war will end when we gain our independence.

“Russia does not want to let Ukraine live freely because it does not believe Ukraine is an independent nation. It is also said in the constitution that it is the Ukrainian people who independently decide on its political course.”

The ongoing war has become a major talking point in a country far removed from the conflict, with conservative Muslims in particular still chafing over what they see as the West’s war on Islam and its unequal treatment of the Palestine issue.

Many commentaries and op-eds portray the Russian attack as justified, triggered by perceived efforts to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into eastern Europe. As one social media critic put it: “Ukraine is a puppet and a proxy of the West.”

Zelensky argued that Ukraine has never been part of any bloc, telling his audience: “Ukraine has decided for itself to move in the direction of the European Union. Believe me, this is what was at the core of the recent two revolutions in Ukraine.”

On the prospect of negotiations, he said: “The only reason to meet Putin is for a return to a peaceful life and to avoid a food crisis,” he said. “There are things to discuss with the Russian leader. We aren’t eager to talk to him, but we have to face reality. We all want our lives back and we want to live, not just exist.”

Zelensky had earlier outlined the war’s impact on Ukraine’s wheat exports, noting that 22 million tonnes of the grain is sitting in silos across the country because Russia has blockaded all of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Sending it by rail to European ports is now the only way out.

Sending it by rail to European ports is now the only choice, but although 80% of the country’s farmland remains under Ukrainian control, there have so far been no significant shipments of wheat or sunflower seeds to the outside world since the war erupted.

Indonesia’s 30 flour mills, which accounted for most of the three million tonnes imported from Ukraine in 2021, are now looking for alternative sources to feed the massive instant noodles industry.

Franky Welirang, chairman of the Indonesian Wheat Flour Mills Association (Aptindo), says a tight market and sky-high prices are already making it difficult for the world’s biggest wheat importer, which brought in about 10 million tonnes last year.

Other traditional exporters have cut shipments to prevent domestic prices from spiking, with the United Nations warning that 40 to 50 million people could face hunger this year, a figure Zelensky described as conservative.

Questions remain about whether US President Joe Biden or Vladimir Putin will attend the G20 in Bali. Photos: AFP / Jim Watson and Grigory Dukor

Who will be at Bali’s G20 summit?

“Already in July, many countries will see their stocks depleted,” he said. “The crisis is coming closer. You will see prices increasing, a harbinger of destitution for those who are already poor. It will bring a political crisis to some regions.”

Against this background, the war has left October’s G20 summit in Bali hanging in the balance with mostly Western partners threatening to boycott the gathering if Putin attends, as he has claimed he will despite widespread skepticism.

Anxious to keep the summit on track and showcase Indonesia as a destination for investment, President Joko Widodo invited Zelensky to Bali, taking US President Joe Biden at his word that he would come if both warring parties are there.

The White House later rowed back from Biden’s impromptu remarks, saying it wouldn’t be enough to ensure his presence. Zelensky indicated he would not be making the trip anyway as long as the war raged on.

“I cannot leave Ukraine and I cannot go anywhere in person because I am staying with my people,” he said. “They need my support and I need their support here. I will join you if there is no war. If there is still a war, that can be done online if your leadership can accept this option.”

That appeared to rule out any thought Indonesian officials might have had to use the summit as a negotiating platform, apparently hoping that by autumn the two exhausted sides will be looking for any opportunity to end the conflict.

If Britain and the European Union members of the G20 have made it clear they don’t want to be in the same room as Putin, Zelensky left no doubts either: “I believe that only friendly states, partner states, will attend the summit and there will be no occupiers or aggressors.”