This morning on my Twitter feed, amid the flow of depressing news from Ukraine, I came across two fascinating articles on how the nation’s war with Russia is being viewed by the public in Indonesia. The first article, published on an Indonesian studies blog maintained by the University of Melbourne, points to the surprising fact that much of the Indonesian public (or at least those who are active online), “continues to sympathize with (if not outright support) the Russian position.”
The article argues that pro-Russian Twitter threads have been widely shared among Indonesians and points to several Indonesian academics who have come out publicly in support of the Russian position. As the article’s author Radityo Dharmaputra writes, this support has ranged from criticizing the Indonesian government’s veiled and relatively cautious criticisms of Russia’s invasion to “even reproducing Russian narratives in speeches and articles.”
As an example of the latter, Radityo cites an online discussion hosted by Universitas Nasional (UNAS) on February 24. During the event, the presentation from Dr. Ahmad Fahrurodji, a Russia watcher based at UNAS, was reportedly so biased that it prompted Vasyl Hamianin, the Ukrainian ambassador to Indonesia, who was also taking part in the discussion, to describe it as “Soviet communist propaganda.” (For those interested, the video of the event is available here.)
What explains this trend, which would seem to cut against Indonesia’s own intense sensitivity to its own national sovereignty? There is no doubt that misinformation and disinformation are playing a role.
The second article on the topic, published yesterday in the South China Morning Post, claims that pro-Putin messages are being shared in social media groups used predominantly by ethnic Chinese Indonesians. In particular, it describes a pro-Russian comical anecdote that likens the war to a conflict between a put-upon man (Russia) and his ungrateful ex-wife (Ukraine), which reportedly originated on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo and has since been shared widely in Indonesian WhatsApp groups in both Indonesian and English translation.
It is hard to know the exact provenance of these memes, and whether Indonesian users are being targeted directly, but whatever their origin, disinformation and misinformation in general only go so far in explaining people’s views and attitudes. Radityo’s article highlights a number of additional factors. He describes the popularity in Indonesia of leaders with a hypermasculine, strongman image, citing some politicians who have expressed explicit praise for Putin in the past, as well as the surprising impacts of Russian public diplomacy in Indonesia, which has succeeded in overturning entrenched negative stereotypes of Russia, in part by depicting it non-communist and friendly to Islam.
However, perhaps the most salient in terms of the global response to the Russian invasion is his observation that views of the Russia-Ukraine war have been filtered through the widespread anti-Western attitudes, and broad skepticism of U.S. and Western policies, that is widespread in Indonesian society, and which has been magnified in recent years by social media. Closely conjoined to this is a perception of Western double standards in the treatment of the Ukraine crisis and other conflicts affecting the Muslim world.
“A dominant strand in Indonesian discussions of the Russian war on Ukraine has focused on American and western hypocrisy,” he writes, with many contrasting the West’s reluctance to support the Palestinian cause with the speed at which support has flowed to Ukraine. He concludes that this phenomenon is “more about disdain for the West rather than wholehearted support for Russia’s actions.”
Interestingly, Jordan Newton, a consultant who focuses on social media extremism, noted today that while these views are not universally held on Indonesian social media, “admiration for Russia and skepticism of the West appears to be cutting across local political lines,” describing the current moment as “probably one of the rare occasions in recent years where people on both sides have had something they can agree on.”
These examples are just anecdotes, and there is no way of knowing how widespread such views are among the Indonesian public, especially offline. But this skepticism toward the West offers hints about the way that the developing world is likely to respond to the hardening of superpower alignments that is taking place amid the Russian-engineered carnage in eastern Ukraine.
The February 24 invasion has galvanized public opinion in Europe and North America, nudging the Swedes out of a multi-generational neutrality and prompting the Germans to pledge 100 billion Euros to rearmament. It has also in some quarters fostered the sense of a “with us or against us” struggle against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and autocratic powers writ large, in which the world’s nations are essentially being asked to choose a side. Witness the government of Lithuania’s misguided cancellation of a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from Bangladesh after it abstained from last week’s U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion, or the considerable Western diplomatic energy that has attempted to coax India (and important Western partner in other respects) away from its careful position of neutrality.
In this increasingly polarized context, there has been a tendency among many commentators to exempt past U.S. and Western policy toward Ukraine from any rigorous scrutiny, and to dismiss any notion that it might have either played a role in fostering tensions between Ukraine and Russia or that Western nations failed to undertake the diplomacy that might have headed off the invasion. To do otherwise is to be accused of “whataboutism” – drawing a false moral equivalence between Russian and Western (or Ukrainian) actions – or to be accused of parroting the Kremlin’s “talking points.”
But these glimpses of Indonesian public opinion point to the unintended (if largely foreseen) consequences of past U.S. and Western missteps, particularly the flouting of international law in the 1999 bombing of Serbia, the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the even more disastrous regime change operation in Libya in 2011. These cases have all helped weaken of the norm of state sovereignty, and in some senses gave Putin the excuse he needed for violating this norm in his own turn. But perhaps the more challenging thing is that it has created a disjuncture between ideals and reality that is all too jarring in regions of the world that are less susceptible to Western (and particularly U.S.) exceptionalist appeals.
It is only natural when the U.S. government exempts itself from international law and then condemns other countries for doing the same, or treats differing conflicts with vastly differing degrees of moral urgency, that a large proportion of the world’s population will, rightly or wrongly, stand ready to point it out.
This has implications for the weeks and months to come, as governments in Europe and North America gird themselves for offensives in the global battle against an undifferentiated authoritarian bloc. Outside the West, where these lines are rarely drawn with such clarity, we should not be at all surprised to see considerable numbers of people sitting on the fence.