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Why do many in Indonesia and Southeast Asia support Russia in its war with Ukraine?

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South East Asia has remained neutral to the Russian attack on Ukraine (Photo: Twitter)

Two inter-related factors guided the Southeast Asian state’s response to the Ukrainian war – one is their traditional inclination towards non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and remain neutral on issues of far-away countries and the other is the geo-political implications of the war and the attendant anxieties that come with small countries’ sense of insecurity vis-à-vis large neighbours conducting their foreign and defence policies based on manufactured history. As a result, their initial response was one of neutrality to the conflict. The only exception was Singapore which from the very beginning of the invasion condemned Moscow for its ‘unprovoked’ military attack on Ukraine violating international law and the UN Charter which prohibits acts of aggression against sovereign states. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that if international relations were based on “might is right”, the “world would be a dangerous place for small countries like Singapore”. Singapore unequivocally named Russia as the aggressor.

Other nine countries in the region remained neutral till the time the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in an emergency session strongly deplored the Russian aggression against Ukraine and called for immediate ceasefire with 141 countries supporting the resolution including eight countries of Southeast Asia, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar (not the Military Junta, which openly supported the Russian invasion on grounds of national security but the representative of the old government who is still recognized as the legitimate representative by the UN) with Vietnam and Laos abstaining. This was definitely a shift from an innocuous consensus statement the countries issued as an ASEAN grouping on 26 February, two days after the invasion. The ten foreign ministers of ASEAN stated they were “deeply concerned” and called on the “relevant parties” to “exercise maximum restraint”, pursue dialogue and de-escalate tensions.

Individual countries had varied responses to the conflict. Even before the invasion began, Indonesia had called for Russia to resolve its dispute with Ukraine peacefully, warning that a conflict risked derailing the world’s economic recovery from the pandemic. On the day of the attack, i.e., on 24 February, President Joko Widodo called for an end to hostilities while the foreign ministry “condemned any action that violates territory and sovereignty”. 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. Two days after the invasion, Brunei foreign ministry issued a statement condemning “any violation of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country.” Behind this shift in the position lies an inherent anxiety and concern that their immediate large neighbour China and with whom some countries of the region have territorial disputes based on an imaginary nine dash line might take the cue from Moscow and do the same to them.

The Philippines was completely silent on the issue at the beginning of the war and was more concerned like India to evacuate its nationals trapped in Ukraine. Filipino defence secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, stated the Philippines would remain “neutral” because the conflict was “none of our business”, which stands in sharp contrast to the country’s efforts to internationalise the South China Sea issues in its own dispute with China. However, as the invasion progressed and destructions wrought on Ukraine, the Philippines expressed “explicit condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine”. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob took a more cautious approach to begin with expressing his ‘sadness’ at the events in Ukraine. His office later issued a statement of “serious concern”, but instead of singling Russia out as the aggressor, urged “all concerned parties” to de-escalate the conflict. Thailand’s response was more or less similar to Malaysia’s as it expressed “deep concern” and its support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue. Having generally cordial relations with Russia, and its inclination to avoid taking sides in great power politics, its Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that Thailand would remain “neutral” in the conflict.

Cambodia similarly took a neutral stand and wished the conflict to be settled peacefully. Vietnam’s position was somewhat like India’s as it abstained from the UNGA vote. Having long term defence relations with Moscow, Hanoi has relied on Russian-manufactured weapons to modernise its armed forces to serve as a deterrent against China in the South China Sea. Keen not to offend Moscow, Vietnam stated that that it was “deeply concerned” by the conflict and that the “relevant parties” should “exercise restraint”, respect international law and seek a peaceful resolution through dialogue. Vietnam has abstained from any criticism of President Putin’s actions because Russia is its most important defence partner over the past two decades. As with Vietnam, Laos also did not want to spoil its long term relations with Moscow by levelling any criticism against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and therefore remained neutral by abstaining from the UNGA vote. Myanmar Junta was the only ASEAN member that openly supported the Russian aggression. Being practically isolated by the international community for overthrowing a legitimately elected government, Myanmar has become practically dependent on Russia and China for arms supplies and its other needs and therefore had no other option but to support Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

While the governments’ responses were influenced by the perception of their national interests based on the gravity of the war and its geo-political implications, social media’s response was largely pro-Russian, particularly in Islamic countries of Southeast Asia like Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, some even supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A few days after the invasion, the University of Indonesia organised a seminar on the subject where the Ukrainian Ambassador was also invited and was outraged by the open support of Russian invasion by the academics. There are several reasons why 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 is not the first time that one observes such anti-Americanism in Indonesia, but was also evident in public’s responses towards 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 theme in Indonesian discussions of the Russian war on Ukraine has focused on American and western hypocrisy. They find the speed at which support has flowed to Ukraine contrasts sharply with the West’s reluctance to support the Palestine issue. It is not so much for their wholehearted support for the Russian actions but contempt for the West that determines their response to the issue. This sentiment has also been influenced by some Indonesian scholars who have chosen to portray 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. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been portrayed as a hypermasculine, strong, and assertive leader. 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. The West is portrayed as anti-Islam. So was Communism of Russia in the past because of its involvement in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but the perception has changed in recent years because of Moscow’s closeness to some Islamic countries. Russia’s public diplomacy had also been responsible for a change in the perception of Russia as friend of Islam as opposed to the West which is largely viewed as anti-Islam. 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.

Notwithstanding their varied responses and the reasons for them, all the countries in Southeast Asia want the war to end as they are concerned that its effects, particularly in economic and security spheres, will be felt in the region.

The Russia-Ukraine war is already having profound global consequences that are affecting every part of the world. Southeast Asia will not be spared, though the severity of the impact will depend on the duration of the conflict and its ultimate outcome. The plethora of sanctions that the West together with some others have imposed on Moscow will undoubtedly affect the Russian economy as its currency Ruble has already lost its value by more than 30 per cent and is likely to affect more as the war intensifies. To conduct a war itself will have profound effect on the Russian economy pushing the prices of oil, which is already felt all over the world. Russia together with Ukraine produces a lot of wheat and corn, the production of which are already disturbed, particularly in the case of Ukraine, which is considered to be the granary of Europe.

 Food prices will also shoot up. Rising oil prices will have effect on transportation that will have effects on other goods. Higher energy prices will reduce discretionary spending by consumers leading to lower consumption. At the same time heightened geopolitical risks will intensify market volatility disrupting investment flows. The weakened growth will reverberate across the globe. The sanctions by the Western alliance on Russia will hit Russia’s financial and energy sector hard. The removal of Russia’s major banks from the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a secure messaging system that facilitates rapid cross-border payments, making international trade flow smoothly, will deal a big blow to Russian trade and make it harder for Russian companies to do business. The Russian central bank will not be able to use its US$600 billion reserves to defend the plunging Russian ruble. The global economy will go into a tailspin if the war does not stop immediately, particularly after it had already slumped with the raging Covid-19 slowing the economic activities all over the world.

Southeast Asian countries are worried more about the security impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What if China takes the cue from the Russians and invades the smaller countries to fructify all its claims on the South China Sea? The Chinese have already made it clear that they would take over Taiwan by force, if needed. They can also put pressure on Japan in the Senkaku Island which the Chinese call Diaoyu and claim it as their own. Whatever the treaty obligations the US may have in the case of the security of Taiwan and Japan, will it come to their rescue when they will be threatened by a Chinese invasion? The Ukraine war shows the irrelevance of the United Nations Charter, a rule-based international order and sanctity of a country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Both Russia and China have unanimity of views on their pushback against a US-led international order and what they decide to act together to challenge the existing regional order in Southeast Asia and in the Indo-Pacific. Southeast Asian countries will be haunted by such concerns for a long period of time.

Also Read:  Lessons for India from the Russia-Ukraine crisis