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Jakarta Post

As Prabowo visits Russia again, little headway on Sukhoi

  • Marchio Irfan Gorbiano

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, July 1, 2020   /   09:15 am
As Prabowo visits Russia again, little headway on Sukhoi t your command: Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto salutes journalists before his first working meeting as minister with members of House of Representatives Commission I, which oversees defense, foreign affairs, information and intelligence, at the House complex in Senayan, Central Jakarta. (JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto’s recent visit to Russia to attend the Victory Day military parade highlighted the depth of cooperation in the defense sector between the two countries despite the absence of progress in Indonesia’s plan to procure Russian Sukhoi jet fighters, defense analysts have said.

Last week, Prabowo jetted off to Moscow to join the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Victory Day, during which he also held talks with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin.

Prabowo's latest visit to Moscow was the second in less than six months, after a trip on Jan. 28, when he met with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu.

Defense analysts said Prabowo's latest visit to Moscow is the culmination of a two-year campaign from the Indonesian Defense Ministry to offer a strategic partnership in the defense industry between the two countries, an overture that has been welcomed by the Russian government, which gradually opened itself to such an idea with the 2019 Military Technical Cooperation (MTC) meeting.

Analyst Curie Maharani Savitri of BINUS University said Prabowo's latest visit marked the changing nature of the two countries’ defense partnership, which dated back to 2003.

“Indonesia has been invested in bilateral relations with Russia since the days of president Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2003,” Curie said. “The [relationship is] evolving, from the initial role of Indonesia as a buyer of [Russia’s] primary weapons system; now Russia has opened itself to the prospect of [defense] industry cooperation [with Indonesia].”

Russia’s pivot in the defense partnership with Indonesia was part of a bigger plan to improve its ties with countries in the Southeast Asia region, which have been seen so far only as consumers of its primary weapons system, Curie said.

In a statement released following his January meeting with Prabowo, Defense Minister Shoygu considered Indonesia a key partner in the region.

“We consider Indonesia as one of the most important partners of Russia in the Asia-Pacific region. Cooperation with Indonesia is traditionally based on friendship and mutual trust. We note that there are prerequisites for bringing bilateral ties to the level of a strategic partnership,” Shoygu said in a statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry. In the statement, Shoygu expressed hope that a declaration on the strategic partnership could be signed between the two countries this year. 

Despite the warming of the ties, questions remain over progress in the US$1.14 billion deal signed in 2018 for Indonesia’s purchase of 11 Sukhoi Su-35 jet fighters from Russia as part of the former’s defense sector modernization.

A number of factors, including budget refocusing to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic as well as uncertainty over the United States’ reaction to such a purchase, are possible stumbling blocks in finalizing the Sukhoi deal.

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed in the US in 2017, stipulates economic punishments for its partners that conduct business with Russia.

“There is not yet any clarity on whether Indonesia will get a [CAATSA] waiver, whether Defense Minister [Prabowo] has lobbied [the US] or will wait until after the upcoming US election,” Curie said.

The idea of a CAATSA waiver has been floated since 2018, when then-US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said such a provision would allow US partners to have a closer partnership with the superpower and help them transition away from their dependency on Russia in terms of military weapons procurement.

Defense analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), meanwhile, said Prabowo’s recent visit to Moscow highlighted Indonesia’s aim to diversify its sources of weaponry to reduce its dependency on a single manufacturer.

Dewi said Indonesia paid a heavy price when the US imposed an arms embargo on Indonesia in 1999.

“Following the military embargo from the US after the post-referendum violence in East Timor, the government's new commitment was to diversify its [sources] of primary weaponry system procurement,” said Dewi.

Defense Ministry spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, meanwhile, said Prabowo had been invited by his Russian counterpart to discuss defense ties between the two countries.

“In the meeting, Defense Minister [Prabowo] and the Russian defense minister touched on issues of defense partnership, particularly military education, joint training and the development of defense industry cooperation,” Dahnil told The Jakarta Post late last week.

During his visit, Prabowo also joined the Victory Day parade commemorating the Soviet Union’s triumph in the Second World War. He also met with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe while attending the parade, with pictures of the two men uploaded to the Defense Ministry’s Twitter handle @Kemhan_RI on June 24.