Russia and Indonesia: Renewal of Defense Cooperation

After decades of stagnation, Russia and Indonesia have signed a number of new defense agreements. Russia has returned to South East Asia in a dramatic fashion, but why now? What are the implications for the region? Leksika's new Asia specialist investigates.  


After about five decades of complicated relations between Moscow and Jakarta, the Russia-Indonesia strategic partnership is on the rise once again. The growth in the defense sector in both countries plays a significant role in their foreign defense policies. Since the early 2000s, relations have been steadily improving, both economically and militarily, with Indonesia’s recent announcement in its plan to purchase Russia’s SU-35 serving as the latest example.

On January 8th 2016, President Joko Widodo welcomed Russian Trade and Industry Minister Denis Manturov with open arms. Manturov was part of a Russian mission striving to improve relations with Indonesia on a variety of fronts. The meeting was reported to discuss the improvement of economic and defense cooperation, as well as planning for a formal Presidential visit to Moscow in May 2016.

By May, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joko Widodo signed an agreement on cooperation in the defense sector during a meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort, Sochi. The agreement solidifies ties of both countries amid Western sanctions. Specifically, cooperation aimed at improving cyber and military technology capabilities was ensured, with a specific eye on cyber security to counter transnational crime and terrorism. In addition, the two countries agreed hold regular consultations on information security.

Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has also confirmed Indonesia’s intention to purchase Russia’s SU-35 multi-purpose fighter jets during his upcoming visit to Russia. The main part of the negotiation is complete and agreement has entered its final stage, with both sides discussing the matter of transferring the fighter jets from Russia to the Indonesia. All of Indonesia's military pronouncements are supplemented by the transfer of technology in accordance with the country's laws, noting that the Russian side has not voiced disagreement and only formalities remain before the deal is closed.

A Look to the Past

On August 12th 1956, Indonesia and the Soviet Union signed their first trade agreement in Jakarta. This marked the first step toward favorable conditions for bilateral cooperation, providing Soviet ships safe passage through the Indonesian Archipelago. In return, in 1959, the Soviet Union sold two submarines and four destroyer-class ships from the Black Sea and Pacific fleet to Indonesia. This was to become the first of many visits by the Soviet Fleet to Southeast Asia. Indonesian officers and other military personnel began to train in Soviet military and civilian institutions. The Soviet Union also sent groups of naval and aviation military advisors to the country, 400 advisors in total during the 1960’s, at the peak of Indonesia-Soviet Union bilateral defense cooperation.

The 1960s was also the height of the West Irian conflict, where Indonesia struggled to gain control of the territory of Western Irian from Dutch control. The final stage of the Indonesian confrontation planned a military invasion of West Irian. The Indonesians secured military weapons, and also had political and military support from the Soviet Union. Since U.S is both allied with Indonesia and the Netherlands, the U.S intervened in the conflict as a third-party mediator between the two countries. By 2 April 1962, U.S President John Kennedy was able to persuade the Dutch Government to hand over the territory to Indonesia.

The “West Irian” case deeply strengthened Indonesian – Soviet Cooperation, where Soviet support of Indonesia reflected that Moscow had a clear-cut on its position. The Soviet defense cooperation was substantial in that it enabled the Indonesian military to achieve a military development leap in less than eight years, making Indonesia a military giant throughout South East Asia.

However, by the early 1960s, Sino-Soviet split between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union was beginning to weigh in Indonesia’s political decisions. During the1950s, the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia) has been rising steadily in the national elections. It was a direct competitor for political power with the Indonesian Army. President Sukarno himself was moving politically in the same direction. In 1965, a coup overthrew President Sukarno. Moscow was critical of the PKI leadership due to its pro-Beijing elements, adopting Mao Zedong as their role model, and moving away from a Marxist-Leninist one. By late 1960s, many of the Soviet advisors had been recalled from Indonesia, and stricter regulations were implemented regarding military support for the country. In 1963, Indonesia’s New Order Defense Budget dropped drastically from 83% of the government spending to 25%., diminishing the relationship of the Soviet Union and Indonesia.

Reigniting the Fire

 Under Suharto’s rule, the U.S replaced the Soviet Union as the primary supplier for the Indonesian military. Washington sought to reinforce Indonesia’s anti- Communist credentials and to bolster U.S influence in Southeast Asia. As the Cold War continued to wage, the need for the U.S to align with Indonesia was strong. However, concern for human rights took on a much more prominent role in American policymaking in the post Cold War years. Given Indonesia’s record on human rights, these issues left the relationship between U.S - Indonesia to degradation. East Timor was an obvious human rights crisis point. In 1991, Indonesian troops killed over 200 Timorese at the Santa Cruz cemetery. In response, the US Congress effectively banned Indonesia from receiving American military equipment, and prevented Indonesian military personnel from attending training programs in the United States. More publically, the sanctions have prevented the sale of nine F-16 tactical aircraft.

In the meantime, the Soviet Union had dissolved and Russia was active in lobbying its interests back in South East Asia, including Indonesia. The nation’s embassy and the Defense Attaché section made considerable effort. This marked the reestablishment of a previous relationship the two countries once had. Indonesia was one of the first regional countries that followed after the Malaysia - Russia military transaction. 

On December 26th, 2004, a tsunami hit Indonesia’s province of Aceh. Indonesia called it a national emergency as most of the towns and villages were reduced to ruble. Ironically, the disaster relief operation in the aftermath contributed to the development of a closer bond between Russia and Indonesia. On January 5th, 2005, President Yudhoyono called President Putin to request emergency assistance, including direct military logistical support. On the same day, medical and other support units of the Trans-Volga Military District and the 61st Air Army Regiment (Military-Transport Aviation) were put on full alert. A front-line military medical unit was deployed, which was an action that required special approval from the Russian President.

By January 15th, 2005, the Russian Ministry of Defense had deployed a special-purpose medical unit (a fully autonomous field hospital) comprising of 147 personnel to Aceh. By February 19th, the hospital treated 2,066 patients, including 1,656 locals. Russian epidemiologists were actively engaged in monitoring and preventing possible epidemics. After the end of its tour of duty, all the equipment was transferred to the Indonesian military.

At the end of October 2005, a Russian Pacific Fleet (RPF) made several port calls in South East Asia, including Indonesia. The visit of Russia’s Pacific Fleet to Jakarta signals the importance aimed at achieving positive political outcomes. The visit reflects that Russia has restored its military capabilities in the region. Returning to Southeast Asia was demonstrating that Russia was capable of offering assistance, including military support, to its clients and allies. In addition, the visit of warships was a ‘live’ display of military technology and hardware, aimed at impressing potential buyers. In 2007, Putin’s visit to Jakarta saw the signing of a bilateral agreement under which Russia would provide Indonesia with a $1 billion loan (USD) to purchase a set defense packages between 2008 and 2010. This includes purchases of two Kilo Class 636, five Mi-35P, ten Mi-17, and twenty BMP-3F. This agreement has led to consistent improvement of bilateral cooperation between the two countries, leading to the purchase of Russia’s SU-35.

Bottom Line: Why Has Indonesia Chosen Russia?

Past Relations: Russia’s history as a reliable arms provider to Indonesia has given Moscow an advantage in dealing with the Indonesian government. This includes a number of personal relationships, not only a level of professional trust. In addition, Indonesia’s conventional military strength was at its height during the time when Russia supplied them.

Strictly Business: Russia has demonstrated that it had no intention to link their trade agreements to Indonesian domestic political issues. Moscow is unlikely to cut off supplies or training because of human rights abuses, which has been the consistent U.S policy. Russia has also been more willing to employ other methods of payment, including state defense loans.

Political Similarities: Political similarities between Indonesia and Russia should be accounted for in Indonesia’s decision to partner with Russia. The two countries were faced with similar historical paths such as transition from an authoritarian regime to a more democratic state. Both countries’ political elites were also similar to one another; President Putin was a KGB officer during the Soviet era while President Yudhoyono had been a general under the military-backed regime led by Suharto. In addition, both countries are currently facing Islamic terrorism and separatist regimes.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons