Widodo wades through the quagmire of the Russian-Ukrainian war

JAKARTA – Despite all the rhetoric, the underlying reason for Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s adventure in global diplomacy was more to try to salvage the G20 summit in Bali next November and deal with a global food crisis. growing than any overly ambitious mission to try to end the war in Ukraine.

It says a lot about Widodo that he would go this far, but the summit has come to symbolize a major milestone in his presidency which he hopes will bring the added bonus of more foreign investment to a battered economy. the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although nothing truly substantial emerged from his two back-to-back meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, achieving a miracle of peace was hardly on the cards as the war rages into its fifth month. .

The president has shown little interest in foreign policy so far unless it yields economic dividends, but his efforts to save the G20 have forced Indonesia to play a more constructive role on the world stage rather than acting as a mere spectator.

Widodo may have been stung by a comment from lawmaker Effendi Simbolon, a member of his ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), who told him last April that he should be more proactive and don’t just act as an “event organizer”.

Widodo renewed his invitation to Zelensky to attend the G20 meeting, which he can only do remotely, and carried a message from the Ukrainian president to Putin, the contents of which were not disclosed.

His talks in Moscow appeared to focus mainly on the impact of the invasion on energy and food prices, telling reporters that the new harvest in Ukraine would leave 77 million tonnes of wheat trapped in storage facilities in the besieged country.

In this, Widodo might be able to claim at least some credit for helping push a United Nations-brokered effort to reopen a trade corridor across the Black Sea, currently blocked by Russian navy ships and mines. Ukrainian defenses.

As Widodo flew to Moscow on June 30, Russia claimed it had ended its occupation of the strategic Zmiinyi (Serpent) island as a sign of goodwill, but Putin told the UN that would only allow safe passage of Ukrainian grain if the West lifts its sanctions.

It was described by a US official as “extortionist diplomacy” and there was no immediate sign that Zmiinyi’s withdrawal would lead directly to a deal. Ukrainian officials instead insisted that their forces push the Russians off the island.

Captured by the Russians last February, the rocky outcrop guards the approaches to Odessa, Ukraine’s largest deep-water port which normally handles 40 million tonnes of cargo a year, or 65% of its trade.

Widodo has an interest in releasing wheat shipments. The longer the war drags on, the greater the risk that a flour shortage will force local businesses to raise the politically sensitive price of instant noodles, a hugely popular Indonesian staple.

The wheat crisis in Ukraine has inflationary repercussions in Indonesia. Image: Twitter

Widodo’s government only recently faced protests over a war-related increase in the domestic price of palm oil, which led to a brief export ban on the product and the dismissal of the Minister of Trade Muhammad Lutfi during a cabinet reshuffle on June 16.

Kremlin officials say Moscow talks focus on the prospect of increased Russian wheat exports to Indonesia, which last year amounted to just 2,955 tonnes, up from three million tonnes imported from Ukraine, partly to compensate for an Australian deficit.

Russia and Ukraine account for a third of world wheat exports, and Ukraine alone produces enough grain to feed 400 million people. But the Moscow blockade means that kyiv can only transport two million tonnes a month, 60% less than usual.

Officials say a fifth of Ukraine’s grain elevators were damaged during the war or are now in Russian-occupied territory, while a backlog of 20 million tonnes from last season’s harvest remains stuck in storage just as farmers bring in the winter harvest.

As a guest at the G7 summit in Germany’s Bavarian Alps, Widodo got a taste of what he might expect at the G20 – if it happens – with US President Joe Biden and leaders allies focusing directly on Ukraine and the impact of sanctions on Russia. .

The Indonesian government condemned the war, but toeing a nice diplomatic line, it refused to dissuade Putin from showing up for the Bali rally, which in the worst case could lead to a boycott by a majority of pro- Westerners of the group. members.

Although Moscow was part of what was then the G8 when it was formed in 1997, it was suspended indefinitely after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and finally announced its final withdrawal three years later. This is unlikely to happen with the G20.

Widodo feels the need to tread carefully, not only because of Indonesia’s historical non-aligned status, but also because many conservative Muslims support Russia – a consequence of the West’s perceived hostile attitude. towards the Islamic world.

But critics point to Jakarta’s initial response to the invasion, which avoided naming Russia as the invader and called on the parties to seek a ‘peaceful resolution through diplomacy’, as if Ukraine were a willing participant at war.

“A generous interpretation of the mission would define it as an example of Indonesia’s cherished ‘independent and active foreign policy’,” wrote retired diplomat David Engel, director of the Indonesian program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. .

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi on May 18, 2016. Photo: AFP

“Jakarta never got tired of picking up the ‘independent’ or non-aligned part of that phrase from the moment the Russian troops began their brutal rampage,” he said, pointing to the visit to the two capitals at war as corresponding to the “active” part. of doctrine.

Most analysts believe Putin will stay away from the summit and Zelensky has said he will not attend if the war continues. This rules out any possibility of face-to-face peace talks in Bali, especially when the Russian president’s ultimate goals are still unknown.

According to reports, Widodo told Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at a meeting on the sidelines of the G7 that Putin would not come either. But Moscow said no decision had yet been made.

Diplomats are now more optimistic the summit will go ahead unscathed, with new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reversing his predecessor Scott Morrison’s stance and saying he will travel to Bali with no strings attached.

Other G20 countries also appear to have changed their stance, notably Germany, whose Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, host of this year’s G7, told German television: “There is a common conviction. .that we don’t want to torpedo the G20. ”

The head of the 27-nation European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, went even further, saying she did not rule out sitting down with Putin. It was important, she said, “to tell him to his face what we think of him.”

Widodo was positioned in the foreground of the official G7 photo, standing between Scholz and Biden, who at one point hugged the Indonesian leader in a gesture Jakarta media saw as recognition of his newfound global stature.

Australia’s former ambassador to Jakarta John McCarthy says if Putin makes an appearance in Bali it would take considerable skill on the part of Indonesians to ensure the meeting stays on track and doesn’t go downhill in acrimony.

That could be put to the test on July 7 and 8 when G20 foreign ministers, apparently including Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, meet in Bali’s heavily guarded tourist paradise of Nusa Dua to lay the groundwork for the 17e summit of the economic powers of the West.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry said it was still unclear if Lavrov would be able to attend, but if further G20 preparatory meetings are any guide many ministers will simply step down when his turn comes. to speak.

Putin’s whirlwind visit to Turkmenistan on June 29 was his first trip abroad since the start of the war, but the prospect of walking into a nearly empty room in Bali will not sit well with someone now widely branded a criminal of war.

A Russian missile strike on a shopping center in central Ukraine that killed 18 people on the second day of the G7 meeting is seen as further evidence that Moscow is deliberately targeting the civilian population in a bid to break their spirits .

Besides his almost abnormal fear of catching Covid, there may be another important reason Putin wants to stay home. As economic sanctions begin to bite, he may fear that any prolonged absence could lead to a palace coup.

Although he has little to show for his efforts in shuttle diplomacy, Widodo’s latest appeal to the UAE was to secure a renewed promise from President Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan to help fund the $32 billion plan to move Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to Kalimantan.

This undated handout showing computer-generated images of Indonesia’s future presidential palace in East Kalimantan, as part of the country’s capital relocation from slowly sinking Jakarta to a site 2,000 kilometers away on the island of Borneo covered with jungle which will be called Nusantara. Photo: AFP/Nyoman Nuatra

Maritime Coordination Minister Luhut Panjaitan flew from Jakarta to Abu Dhabi to prepare for the visit, seen as another indication of Widodo’s determination to get the ambitious project off the ground before his second term ends in 2024 .

The government has often claimed that the UAE is ready to provide $20 billion in investments, which would be channeled through the Indonesian Sovereign Wealth Fund. This would fill a funding hole left by the withdrawal of Japan’s Softbank earlier this year.

More than the G20 summit, the new capital, known as Nusantara, is a potentially key part of Widodo’s legacy, cementing its place in the history books and serving to rebalance the development of the archipelago far from the dominant island of Java.

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