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 – The nearer the day, the less likely Russian President Vladimir Putin will show up for the November 14-15 Group of Twenty summit in Bali as the Indonesian government fields an 18,000-strong security force to safeguard world leaders on a holiday island normally overrun with foreign tourists.

Although President Joko Widodo still expects Putin to attend, along with US President Joe Biden and Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping, Jakarta-based diplomats say Indonesian officials have received signals for the first time that Putin won’t be making the trip.

The Russian president himself has yet to confirm, but he told the Valdai Discussion Group in Moscow last week that if he decides against making the 15-hour flight, Russia will still be sending what he called a “high-level” delegation in his place.

In 2017, three years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin’s plane was forced to make an 800-kilometer detour to avoid flying over most of the NATO countries, Poland and the Baltic states on his way to the G20 summit in Hamburg.

He would not need to do that flying to Bali with a route that would presumably take his modified Ilyushin II-96 over Kazakhstan, northern Afghanistan and India before crossing the Indian Ocean. The four-engine jetliner has a 10,000-kilometer range.

Russian Ambassador to Indonesia Lyudmila Vorobyova recently said his presence would depend on the situation in Ukraine, where Russian forces are on the defensive and in danger of losing the key port city of Kherson, which Moscow recently annexed.

That and other battlefield setbacks alone would seem to preclude his attendance, particularly when he faces the very real possibility of being ostracized by the majority of his Western counterparts who gather in Bali.

Biden ruled out any meeting with Putin on the day the Pentagon issued a new National Defense Strategy calling the Russian invasion an “acute threat” and characterizing China as the most consequential challenge for the United States.

Russia has targeted Ukraine’s capital Kiev after suffering setbacks on other war fronts. Image: NBC News / Screengrab

Despite their increasingly testy relationship, Xi hinted at a possible meeting with Biden in Bali in a peaceful message he sent after securing an unprecedented third term as leader of the Communist Party of China.

After the Bali summit, the Chinese president is expected to fly on to Jakarta to join Widodo in witnessing the dynamic test of the Chinese-funded Jakarta-Bandung fast rail project, which has been dogged by delays and cost overruns.

The US$8 billion venture has cast a cloud over China’s Belt and Road Initiative and drawn a worrying line under the $35 billion the world’s 74 lowest-income nations owe China in official debt service payments this year.

Putin did not attend last year’s G20 summit in Rome, citing concerns over the Covid pandemic, though he did participate via video link. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, who has held that post since 2011 and is a former first deputy prime minister, came in his place.

Siluanov only participated virtually in the G20 finance ministers meeting last July, but veteran Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was at the foreign ministers’ meeting the week before, where he walked out after listening to strong criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“If the West doesn’t want talks to happen, but wants Ukraine to beat Russia on the battlefield, then there’s nothing to talk about with the West,” he said in a short speech.

Putin did go to the 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, despite controversy over the annexation of Crimea and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by pro-Russian separatist forces in an occupied area of Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. 

During the Valdai group’s annual meeting on October 27, Putin told Connie Bakrie, director of Indonesia’s Institute of Defense and Security Studies: “Russia will definitely be represented there at a high level. Maybe I will go too. I will think about it.”

“We have very good relations with Indonesia throughout most of recent history,” he said. “When President Widodo calls me, he calls me brother and I say the same to him. We value our relationship.”

Answering Bakrie’s question about AUKUS and the Quad, security pacts created between the US and regional allies, Putin described it as an attempt “to take the failed system of bloc thinking from the Atlantic region to Asia,” where China was the target.

Appearing to rule out a similar alliance between Russia and China, he described it as a “very harmful and dangerous approach” and went on: “If this practice continues, the errors and problems will pile up. Of course, we have always opposed and continue to oppose policies like this.”

It won’t please Widodo, but at this point, there is little hope of the Bali summit producing a joint communique that will meet the satisfaction of the 20 participating nations, particularly if Western leaders insist on condemning Russian aggression.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, wearing traditional Balinese attire, attends a ceremony to celebrate Indonesia’s 74th Independence Day at the presidential palace in Jakarta on August 17, 2019. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency / Anton Raharjo

It is understood that if a joint communiqué is not forthcoming, it will be replaced by a chairman’s statement, circulated among member states, which seeks to reflect the tone and substance of the discussions – a practice that has been followed at all the preparatory sessions.

“They have worked very hard behind the scenes but it is hard to see how they can come up with compromise language, even in a chairman’s statement,” says one senior Western diplomat. “One of the frustrations is some of the statements have been weak.”

Diplomats say that Moscow’s sudden decision to halt Ukraine’s Black Sea grain exports will ensure that food security will be high on the agenda in Bali and another major source of friction between Russia and Western delegations.

The G20’s fourth meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors meeting in Washington on October 12-13 ended without a communiqué with Russia complicating attempts to coordinate a response to the rising threat of a global recession.

The US Federal Reserve’s decision to continue raising interest rates to ward off inflation and China’s reluctance to reduce the debt of developing countries were both contentious issues, holding back any progress on climate change and energy transition in the process.

There was a similar deadlock at the G20’s energy transition talks in Bali in September, where China questioned the global commitment to limit the average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius while the US and the Group of Seven countries opposed anything Russia tried to table.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi sought to put a brave face on it all. “Under normal circumstances, negotiations at the G20 are never easy, especially when gaps between countries are fairly wide, like now,” she said in an October 21 statement.

It is only the G20 health ministers who have kept geopolitical tensions at a minimum in producing a six-point plan of action at their final meeting last week. As Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin put it: “The language of health knows no borders.”

Meanwhile, preparations for the prestigious summit continue apace. The government has canceled large-scale religious gatherings, for which Hindu-majority Bali is well known, and much of the traffic-choked southern part of the island is likely to be locked down.

Balinese Hindus carry sacred ornaments during a purifying ceremony called Melasti amid the Covid-19 pandemic on the beach in Denpasar, Bali, on March 11, 2021. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Johanes Christo

The 21,000 delegates will be swept from the airport in a fleet of electric-powered vehicles, across an over-the-water expressway to the upmarket tourist haven of Nusa Dua, home to eight five-star hotels which will accommodate the leaders and senior officials.

The summit itself will be held in the tightly guarded Bali Nusa Dua Convention Center, the venue for the annual 2018 World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings and other major international conferences.

Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander General Andika Perkasa, who retires next month, has taken personal charge of protecting the G20 leaders and 10 invited guest heads of state, among them Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is only likely to attend virtually.

Bali recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the devastating October 12, 2002, terrorist bombing that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists, in the worst such incident since the September 11 attacks in the United States a year earlier.

The current threat level is generally perceived to be low. The last significant terror incident in Indonesia was the coordinated bombing of three churches in the port city of Surabaya in May 2018 that left 28 dead, including 13 attackers.

Perkasa will oversee a security force comprising 14,300 TNI personnel and 3,200 police officers, backed by 12 warships deployed around the island, four F-16 and Su-30 jet fighters from bases in East Java and South Sulawesi and two maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

Parking and guarding the leaders’ aircraft is a logistical headache. There is space for about six wide-body aircraft at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport, while others will have to be parked on the neighboring island of Lombok and Surabaya, both a short flight to Bali.

Any overflow will be 60 to 80 minutes away at the Sultan Hasanuddin airport in the South Sulawesi capital Makassar and Halim airbase in southern Jakarta, where the Indonesian president’s plane is normally stored, along with those of state guests.