Dian Septiari and Apriza Pinandita, Jakarta – Russia has expressed frustration over the "unfair" competition it faces in the arms trade with Indonesia, which, like other countries, is under the threat of United States sanctions.
Speaking to reporters in Jakarta on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Ambassador to Indonesia Oleg V. Kopylov said that while the Indonesian government had been straightforward about its intention to buy Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, not much had happened after the deal.
Indonesia and Russia signed a US$1.14 billion purchase contract for 11 Sukhoi jets in February 2018, but neither side knows when the first delivery will happen.
Kopylov said he believed the US wanted to remain the biggest exporter of arms and maintain its strength in the global arms race by preventing other countries from cooperating with Russia in the military and engineering spheres, as it had done with Turkey, India and China.
"But competition can be fair or unfair,"' he said. "If the US and Russia compete for the Indonesian market and Indonesia chooses the best, most cost-effective arms, that is fair. But the competition is not fair if it is based on sanctions or threats to countries who purchase Russian arms."
Indonesian officials have said the US has expressed its disappointment with the intended procurement. Washington has threatened countries with its Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which allows partner countries to be punished for buying Russian aircraft and other military equipment – a legacy of the Cold War era.
However, Indonesia, India and Vietnam were spared from the threat of CAATSA sanctions last year due to a waiver by the US Congress with the backing of former US secretary of defense Jim Mattis. Experts believe the waiver would require the countries in question to show that they are reducing their reliance on Russian arms, while noting the arrangement would come in handy for efforts to contain China.
A US Embassy spokesperson told The Jakarta Post late on Thursday that Washington was aware Indonesia intended to purchase Russian planes but insisted that the US did not intend to punish partners like Indonesia.
"Sanctions are meant to impose a cost upon Russia for their actions," the spokesperson said. "By deterring countries from acquiring Russian military and intelligence equipment, we are denying Russia the proceeds from those sales, which it would use to continue its international campaign of malign influence and destabilization."
Kopylov said the procurement would go ahead but that the Russian side was "not in a hurry" to follow up on the deal. "We understand that this is a very touchy issue because, as you know, some countries oppose military and technical cooperation between Indonesia and Russia," he said.
The resident Russian ambassador met with Coordinating Political, Security and Legal Affairs Minister Mahfud MD on Thursday but refused to talk to the press afterward. "The meeting discussed the bilateral partnership in general. No specific talks on [the procurement of military equipment]," said Lutfi Rauf, the coordinating ministry's deputy for foreign policy coordination, before referring all technical queries to the Defense Ministry.
The Defense Ministry was not immediately available for comment, but the minister's personal spokesperson told local media that the government would not allow "other countries [to] threaten and intervene in important policy decisions on Indonesian defense".
Russia is apparently not a top priority for newly appointed Defense Minister Prabowo, who, since taking office under his former presidential rival, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, in October, has gone on a number of overseas visits to partner countries.
Prabowo was in China this week to meet Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to discuss cooperation between the two countries. From China, he left for Japan on Wednesday.
Last month, Prabowo went to Malaysia in his first official visit to a foreign country as defense minister. He also met Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu at the ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus this year.
Security expert Mufti Makarim said Friday that the most important thing for Indonesia was to ensure it had access to vendors who were willing to enter into transfer of technology schemes that would help develop the country's strategic industry.
"[The procurement deal] must fit our needs [...] and be without the potential for embargo," the Lokataru Foundation deputy director told the Post. "This is a US -Russia contest; with our independent and active foreign policy, we have every reason to make our own choices."