Almost two weeks in, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been condemned by most countries around the world, including Indonesia. After some initially vague statements that avoided mentioning Russia by name, Indonesia voted in favour of both the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russian aggression and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights decision establishing an independent commission to investigate all alleged human rights violations in the war.
Yet the Indonesian public, especially online, continues to sympathise with (if not outright support) the Russian position. Pro-Russian Twitter threads have been incredibly popular among Indonesians. A pro-Russian comical anecdote (which apparently originated on Chinese social media site Weibo) likening the war to a conflict between an ex-husband and wife was shared widely in Indonesian Whatsapp groups. Perhaps most concerningly, several Indonesian academics have also come out in support of the Russian position. This support has ranged from criticising the Indonesian government’s condemnation of Russia to even reproducing Russian narratives in speeches and articles.
For example, on 24 February, Universitas Nasional (UNAS) hosted an online discussion on the conflict, with speakers including the Ukrainian Ambassador to Indonesia Vasyl Hamianin. A presentation from Universitas Indonesia “Russia observer” Dr Ahmad Fahrurodji prompted a furious response from the ambassador, who described it as ahistorical, unscientific, and “Soviet communist propaganda”.
Why is this happening? It seems hard to understand, given Indonesian governments and society have historically supported victims of aggression and conflict, be it in Palestine, Myanmar, or Iraq.
However, there are several reasons the public have been inclined to support Russia in this case. The first is a strong anti-American and anti-western attitude in society. This anti-Americanism has previously been observed in Indonesian attitudes toward the US “war on terror”, which was in itself a major driver of anti-American sentiment. Indonesian political scientist Saiful Mujani argued in 2005 that anti-American sentiment has not usually translated into political action like demonstrations. But the rise of social media over recent years has allowed ordinary people to express these previously hidden views more publicly.
A dominant strand in Indonesian discussions of the Russian war on Ukraine has focused on American and western hypocrisy. Many have contrasted the west’s reluctance to support Palestine with the speed at which support has flowed to Ukraine. The issue is therefore more about disdain for the west rather than wholehearted support for Russia’s actions. This sentiment has been exacerbated by Indonesian scholars who have chosen to depict the conflict as a response to NATO’s expansion into the Russian sphere of influence, rather than examining the deeper historical and cultural context. This is similar to attitudes in China, where Russia has been viewed as a revisionist power struggling against the hypocritical west.
Another crucial factor influencing Indonesian responses to the conflict is the public preference for “strong” leaders. As the popularity of Prabowo Subianto in the 2014 and 2019 elections showed, the Indonesian public is highly responsive to rhetoric about nationalist and populist leadership. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been portrayed as a hypermasculine, strong, and assertive leader. In 2018, for example, Gerindra politician Fadli Zon argued that Indonesia needs “a strong, brave, visionary, smart, and authoritative leader like Putin”. Putin was already popular in Indonesia before the attack on Ukraine, so many Indonesians have been inclined to accept his narrative of the conflict without much question. Indeed, in the Indonesian media and among the public, Putin has been portrayed as an intelligent and experienced former intelligence official, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been reduced to a caricature, given his past life as a comedian.
A third factor that could help to explain pro-Russian views among the Indonesian public is religion. This might seem counterintuitive, given Russia’s communist past, and the dominant perception in Indonesia that communism is anti-Islam. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s and the Chechen wars in the 1990s only reinforced these views. And as recently as 2015, Russia’s military attacks on Syria prompted large demonstrations in Indonesia.
The last few years, however, have seen concerted efforts to portray Russia as a friend and ally of Islam. Last week, for example, a popular YouTube channel described Russia as corresponding to the “Rum” people described in the Quran, people who follow Christianity but align themselves with Islam at the end of days. This narrative is increasingly common in the Islamic community in Indonesia, leading to questions over the potential for the Russia-Ukraine conflict to start World War III, or the end times. A viral video showing Ukrainian neo-Nazi Azov fighters coating bullets in pig fat, apparently for use against Muslim Chechens, only served to add to the impression that the “natural” side of the conflict for Muslims was with Russia.
Related to this last point, a final dimension that must be considered is the extent of Russian public diplomacy in Indonesia. Surveys have previously shown that Indonesians have largely ambivalent to negative views of Russia. But since 2013, Russia has used the state-funded Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH) Indonesia website and its popular Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts to improve public perceptions of the country, and portray it as non-communist and pro-Islam. Similarly, it has funded a Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Jakarta.
One vital aspect of Russia’s soft power efforts has involved offering scholarships to study in Russia, and support for Russian Studies programs in universities in Jakarta and Bandung. Tellingly, the scholar involved in the heated exchange with Ukrainian Ambassador Vasyl Hamianin is involved in the Universitas Indonesia (UI) Russia Studies program and graduated from a Russian university. It was a similar story with another UI scholar, whose article repeated Russian propaganda word-for-word. Lecturer Sari Gumilang described the invasion as a “military operation” (in line with the official narrative of the Russian government that there is no war in Ukraine) aimed at “demilitarization and de-Nazification” (which has been debunked by many prominent scholars).
An absence of credible news outlets with the resources to send their own investigative journalists into the war zone and the apparent lack of Russian and East European specialists in Indonesian academic circles has created this vacuum of credible information, informed analysis, and clear standpoint on the Russian war on Ukraine in Indonesia. This has then been filled by latent anti-American and anti-western perspectives, the idealisation of strong leaders like Putin, religious arguments suggesting Russia is an ally of Islam, and pervasive pro-Russian public diplomacy and propaganda. Poor digital literacy in Indonesia has meant pro-Russian perspectives have taken hold relatively easily.
It is important to stress that it is possible to condemn the hypocrisy of the west while also opposing Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Indonesia needs more voices from the highest levels of politics, academia and the media who can provide more nuanced perspectives and provide some balance to the simplistic pro-Russian views flooding social media.