Indonesian defense minister’s Ukraine peace plan draws fire

Tria Dianti
Indonesian defense minister’s Ukraine peace plan draws fire Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto speaks at a plenary session of the 20th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 3, 2023.
Caroline Chia/Reuters

Updated at 11:09 p.m. ET on 2023-06-6

Indonesia’s defense minister has triggered a backlash at home and abroad for his plan to end the war in Ukraine, after he suggested creating a demilitarized zone and letting people in “disputed” areas decide their fate through a United Nations referendum.

Ukraine swiftly rejected Prabowo Subianto’s peace plan and analysts have labeled the proposal unrealistic and an attempt by the former general to raise his international profile ahead of Indonesia’s presidential elections in 2024.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue defense meeting in Singapore, Prabowo said that Russia and Ukraine should pull back 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from each party’s forward position to establish a demilitarized zone that would be monitored by a U.N. peacekeeping force.

A U.N. referendum should also be held “to ascertain objectively the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants of the various disputed areas,” he said on Saturday.

Ukraine foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said there were no “disputed territories” in which to hold a referendum. He called on Indonesia to support Kyiv’s position and for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian soil.

“In the occupied territories, the Russian army commits war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” he said in a statement on Saturday. “Russia must get out of Kuranian territories … there can be no alternative scenarios.”

Prabowo’s plan has been criticized in Indonesia too, with some observers questioning whether the defense minister has a sound grasp of all the issues at play in the conflict, which started when Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Deka Anwar, a research analyst at the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said Prabowo’s proposal would reward Russia for its aggression and run contrary to Indonesia’s own principles of territorial integrity and respect of sovereignty.

“He is basically legalizing the annexation of new territories that were attained through military means,” Deka told BenarNews.

“Establishing a DMZ [demilitarized zone] is nonsensical for Ukraine, but it would benefit Russia. The ideal demilitarized zone for Ukraine would be the status quo ante Russia’s annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014.”

Meutya Hafid, chair of Parliament’s defense and foreign affairs commission, said Prabowo should be careful in expressing his opinion, especially regarding the Ukraine crisis. 

“Indonesia’s position in this conflict is clear, especially in the U.N. General Assembly in February 2023,” she said. “Indonesia was among 141 countries that opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supported Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Prabowo is one of the frontrunners for the 2024 presidential election and has been trying to boost his international profile since being appointed defense minister by Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2019.

He has visited several countries, including China, Russia, Turkey and France, to discuss defense cooperation and arms deals.

Deka speculated that Prabowo’s address was a “stump speech” aimed at boosting his prospects in the election. Prabowo was trying to appeal to some Indonesian citizens who espoused pro-Russia bias or anti-Western sentiment, he said.

“That means the Indonesian government has shot itself in the foot by tarnishing its own reputation and ambition to be the true global peacemaker and a potential go-between in the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” he said.

Echoes of Russian position

Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, has traditionally maintained good relations with both countries and recently sought to play a more active role in global affairs as a middle power, especially as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations that are not formally part of any major power bloc.

Jokowi visited Ukraine and Russia last year and offered to mediate between the warring countries.

Radityo Dharmaputra, an international relations lecturer at Airlangga University in Surabaya, said Prabowo’s proposal ignored the situation on the ground.

“The worst thing is, the proposal also offers a referendum for ‘disputed territory’,” Radityo wrote on Twitter.

“Right now, Ukraine has the upper hand. [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy just said Ukraine was ready to launch a counterattack. Then they were suddenly told to halt and withdraw? Clearly it doesn’t make sense for Ukraine,” Radityo said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy shake hands before a meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 29, 2022. [Reuters]

Dharma Agastia, an international relations lecturer at President University in Cikarang, said that Prabowo’s gesture was likely aimed at a domestic audience ahead of the presidential election scheduled for February 14 next year.

“There is no concrete evidence of support or non-support from the current administration on Prabowo’s plan,” Dharma told BenarNews, referring to the Jokowi administration.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry referred all questions on the speech to the Ministry of Defense.

Prabowo’s proposal echoes Russia’s position that the conflict should be resolved through direct dialogue between Kyiv and seperatist-held regions, and that the people of Crimea and eastern Ukraine should have the right to self-determination. 

Kyiv and Western allies reject this stance, accusing Russia of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.

Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that Prabowo’s vision was for “down the road” and “rather idealistic.”

“As of now, there are no signs of any intention to have an agreement nor fixed workable geographical areas for such a buffer zone,” he said. “Trust issues between both sides mean there is a lack of incentive as well.”

Russia has also shown signs of disregard for international agreements when they do not fit immediate national interests, he added.

Prabowo did not respond to a request for comment but his spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak said Indonesia did not take sides in the conflict.

“As the defense minister, he carries out our constitutional mandate, which is to actively push for world peace while maintaining a non-aligned foreign policy,” Dahnil told reporters on Sunday.

This story has been updated to correct Dharma Agastia’s title to international relations lecturer at President University in Cikarang.


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