Widodo’s mission to Moscow: seeking peace—and an end to Putin’s blockade of Ukraine’s wheat

By embarking on a ‘peace mission’ to Russia and Ukraine after attending the G7 summit in Germany, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, will be following in few footsteps and with, at best, no greater likelihood of ending Vladimir Putin’s war than those who have tried so far.

A generous interpretation of the mission would define it as an exemplar of Indonesia’s cherished ‘independent and active’ foreign policy. Jakarta has never tired of reprising the ‘independent’ or non-aligned part of this phrase from the moment Russian troops began their brutal rampage.

It was in this self-declared even-handed spirit that Jakarta framed its initial formal response to the invasion, which wilfully avoided naming the invader and called on both parties to pursue a ‘peaceful resolution through diplomacy’, as if both sides were somehow equally intent on war. It was also inherent in Indonesia’s abstaining (like India, Brazil and 55 other states) in a UN vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, contrary to a majority of over 90 member states that ensured Moscow’s ejection from the body.

The visit to the two warring capitals, however, could be seen as corresponding to the ‘active’ part of the doctrine, as enunciated by one of modern Indonesia’s founders, Mohammad Hatta. The country’s first vice president, Hatta said the early republic’s foreign policy was ‘constructed … for the purpose of strengthening and upholding peace’, and to that end Indonesia would ‘work energetically … through endeavours supported if possible by the majority of the members of the United Nations’.

Widodo himself seemed to be invoking the spirit (if not the name) of Hatta in explaining the purpose of his mission before departing for Europe. ‘I am going to visit Ukraine,’ he said, with the aim of inviting ‘the President of Ukraine, President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, to open up opportunities for dialogue in the context of peace’.

He intended achieving the same goal through his trip to Moscow. He would replicate his overture to Zelensky by also inviting Putin to open a dialogue with his Ukrainian counterpart and ‘as soon as possible … make a truce and stop the war’.

Widodo was evidently just as determined to remind the G7 nations of the need for peace. ‘We will encourage and invite the G7 countries to work together to broker peace in Ukraine,’ he said, ‘and also to find an urgent solution to deal with the food and energy crisis that is engulfing the world.’

A generous soul might also think that Widodo believes his mission has some chance of success and give him credit for trying. And many Indonesians must have generous souls, judging by media commentary.

In praising Widodo for the initiative, one notable Indonesian foreign policy commentator has, for example, argued that rather than seek an end to the conflict, he should press for a ‘ceasefire’, since Indonesia lacked the resources and presence in the region to broker a resolution. Widodo’s intervention would help save Russia’s face and give Ukraine a chance to avoid further humanitarian tragedy.

More critical observers, however, would see all this as quixotic at best, bunkum at worst.

Zelensky is probably among them, however polite his welcome is. A leader who understandably has placed a premium on receiving tangible support for his country’s defence rather than platitudes about peace, Zelensky is probably struggling to see the point of his Indonesian counterpart’s visit, at least so far as Ukraine’s interests are concerned.

Widodo represents, after all, a country that has resisted imposing sanctions on Ukraine’s attacker and whose broad public commentary, as Ukraine’s embassy in Jakarta would have reported, has tended to swallow the Russian lie that the principal cause of the war was Ukraine’s and NATO’s alleged provocation. And Widodo’s line that he would be urging both his interlocutors to seek dialogue would likely strike a man battling to stave off hundreds of thousands of invaders intent on destroying his nation’s independence as galling false equivalence. And he’d be right.

The kindest assessment of Widodo’s visit to the Kremlin is that it is naive and ill-judged—if indeed he really thinks he can broker even a ceasefire, let alone a dialogue. However even-handed Widodo might believe his approach is, in effect it stands to serve Russia’s interests far more than Ukraine’s. Putin won’t pay a jot of notice to Widodo’s appeal. Instead, he will exploit the visit for his own propaganda purposes. Stand by for photos of the two beaming presidents shaking hands.

A more compelling explanation for Widodo’s mission than the pursuit of peace is Indonesia’s—and his own—self-interest. Widodo’s aspiration to host a successful G20, and thereby showcase Indonesia and post-Covid Bali, is one element of this.

Comments from Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the G7 suggest that a European boycott of the Bali G20 summit in response to Putin’s attendance now looks less likely than earlier. Scholz has insisted, for example, that Germany does not want to ‘torpedo’ the G20.

But Widodo would be keen to remove any risk of this by shoring up the compromise originally touted by US President Joe Biden and now advanced by Widodo himself of having Zelensky attend the summit as a special guest. Presumably this reinvitation will be the first of Widodo’s talking points in the meeting in Kyiv.

Widodo’s primary objective in Moscow, however, is likely to be an end to Russia’s effective blockade of Ukraine’s grain exports, which he has cast in a non-aligned mould as a move that would help alleviate the hardships many are experiencing in developing nations because of the war.

None would benefit more from this than his own country. Indonesia is the world’s largest importer of wheat (by dollar value) and sourced 25% of its imports from Ukraine in 2021. Ukraine was Indonesia’s largest supplier of wheat in 2020.

The grain is used to make noodles, which have become a popular, relatively cheap staple for many millions of Indonesians. But shortages of wheat and wheat flour have hurt consumers and producers alike, significantly reducing production of wheat-based foodstuffs and sparking price inflation. Widodo’s administration faced widespread protests over a similar price spike in global cooking oil prices resulting from war-related shortages of that commodity, prompting a short-lived export ban on Indonesian palm oil and, recently, the sacking of Indonesia’s trade minister.

The longer the war and the resultant disruptions in Ukraine’s wheat and sunflower oil exports persist, the higher the risk of steepling food prices, which historically have presaged political unrest in the archipelago.

Street protests over inflated food prices would likely be the last thing Widodo would want as he waits expectantly for his G20 guests to arrive in Bali. But by going to both the capital of the source of those imports and the lair of the person blocking them, he can at least tell his citizens that he has done everything in his power to ease their burden.

For some, therefore, Widodo’s mission to Moscow might well conjure up memories of the idealism of Hatta as he forged an admirable new identity for a nation and people hitherto victimised by Western colonialism during the tensions of the Cold War.

But for others, it’s at least as much about noodles.