Russia raises its head in Indonesia
Moscow aims to deepen strategic ties with Jakarta through arms sales, joint exercises and vocal diplomacy
When Russia’s new ambassador to Indonesia, Lyudmila Georgievna Vorobieva, addressed the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (JFCC) this week, she had only been at her post for 10 days, barely enough time to recover from her jet lag.
But, as Vorobieva acknowledged, it was still enough time for conversations with Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials and her British counterpart about the March 4 nerve-agent poisoning of a Russian political émigré and his daughter in the southern England town of Salisbury.
Her JFCC appearance did not resemble the noisy encounter that occurred in September 1983 when 10 Soviet diplomats chose Bangkok as the only capital outside of Moscow vigorously to defend Russia’s shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 off the Kamchatka Peninsula, which it had treated as an intruding US spy plane.
But Vorobieva is clearly no shrinking violet either. While saying she appreciated the “balanced view” of Indonesian officials, she called on Britain to produce hard evidence that proved Moscow’s culpability in a case that has led to the expulsion of 150 Russian diplomats around the world and retaliatory measures by Moscow.
The blond diplomat is well practiced at defending Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged excesses. As ambassador to Malaysia, she made the same argument in publicly fighting off allegations that a Russian missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, resulting in the loss of 253 lives.
Why were Britain, the United States and the European Union “demonizing” Russia? she asked rhetorically at the JFCC lunch, before answering: “I think it’s because we have our own voice and we have our own interests we want to pursue.”
Jakarta-based Russian diplomats generally keep to themselves, but Vorobieva’s arrival may signal a more high-profile stance. Fluent in English, French, Thai and Lao, she has spent a collective two decades in Southeast Asia, starting with part of her childhood in Bangkok with her diplomatic parents.
The muscular Stalinist statuary dotted around Jakarta speaks of the close relations that existed in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and founding Indonesian president Sukarno’s government. Then, much of Indonesia’s Air Force fleet consisted of Soviet-made warplanes.
During president Suharto’s 32 years in power, those relations cooled as Indonesia emerged as an anti-communism bulwark in Southeast Asia. Indonesia was core to the 1967 creation of the then-six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), formed originally to counter the spread of communism in the region.
But in more recent years, Indonesia-Russia relations have warmed significantly, ironically because of a 15-year US arms embargo imposed on Jakarta after the killing of East Timor demonstrators in 1991 and the territory’s bloody separation from Indonesia eight years later.
While US president Barack Obama’s administration lifted the arms embargo in 2005 and the US has since delivered 24 refurbished F-16 fighters to add to nine older models, they now share the sky with 16 twin-engine Russian-made Sukhoi jets, which first entered service during the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter.
The Su-27s and Su-30s are now being joined by another 11 Su-35 air-superiority fighters in a US$1.1 billion barter deal that was concluded in February, only weeks after Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto became the third airman to command the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI).
Two of the combat-ready Su-35s have already been delivered and another three are expected to land in August, giving the air force a greater ability to patrol its vast airspaces. As with the initial deal, part of the cost will be paid through Indonesian exports of palm oil, rubber and other commodities.
Although their engines have half the life of a US-made F-16, the Su-35 is suited to archipelagic operations with a superior range and a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers, three times that of the American fighter.
Indonesia is only the second overseas customer after China for the fourth-generation warplane, warding off what the Russians have claimed was heavy US pressure to stall Indonesia’s military technical cooperation with Moscow.
Russian news reports speak to plans for shipbuilding and helicopter programs, and Russian assistance in the production of 30mm and possibly 100mm ammunition for the BMP-3F infantry fighting vehicles now in service with the Indonesian Marine Corps.
The Marines have 82 old Russian-built BTR-50 and BTR-80 armored personnel carriers in their inventory, while the navy is equipped with Yakhont anti-ship missiles and Strela and Iga surface-to-air missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes.
The Indonesian Army’s Russian hardware includes a squadron of Mi-17 transport helicopters and five Mi-35 Hind gunships, which are being joined this year by eight US Boeing AH-64E attack helicopters ordered two years ago.
Vorobieva says it is wrong to talk about Russia in the context of Sino-US rivalry in the South China Sea, where various regional nations have territorial disputes.
But she was also coy about a visit made last December by two Russian long-range bombers to Biak, an island outpost boasting a 3,500-meter runway off the north coast of the Indonesian province of Papua.
Indonesia and Russia have often discussed the possibility of building a satellite launch station at Biak’s Frans Kaisiepo airport, once a refueling stop for airlines on trans-Pacific flights from the US to Jakarta.
The Tu-95 Bears flew 6,500km from Far East Russia’s Amur Oblast region and were refueled over the Pacific Ocean by Il-78 tankers, with the Russian Defense Ministry saying the flight was carried out in “strict accordance with international air law.”
Indonesian officials have said the navigation exercise was part of an agreement between the Russian and Indonesian militaries. Vorobieva sought to play down the significance of the three-day visit, insisting the mission was “routine” even though it was the first of its kind.
She also claimed the four-engine strategic bombers, which first flew in 1952 and are used these days as a cruise-missile platform, had previously flown to “other places” in the region, while declining to elaborate.
Six Russian Pacific Fleet naval ships have made port visits to Indonesia in the past two years, and the ambassador confirmed they would return this year to participate in joint military exercises.
But setting aside closer military cooperation – and Bali’s popularity as a destination for 70,000 Russian tourists last year – Vorobieva acknowledged that there is still much work to be done to strengthen ties between the two giant countries.
Two-way trade amounted to only US$2.3 billion in 2017 and Moscow’s investments in Indonesia are minimal, despite big talk of refinery, power-plant and railway projects when President Joko Widodo and his counterpart Putin met at the Asean-Russia Summit in Sochi in 2016.
Reliability and trust may still be issues. Russia promised to invest in big-ticket aluminum and nickel smelters if Indonesia agreed to hold off on a planned 2014 ban on the export of mineral ores. Jakarta kept its end of the bargain, but the Russians notably did not.