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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Indonesia Eyes Russia Arms

Last week's announcement by the Indonesian government that it wants to purchase Russian-made Su-27 jet fighters and Mi-17 helicopters is seen as a major success by Russian arms traders who have successfully penetrated a lucrative Western-dominated market.


The Soviet Union sold large quantities of arms to Indonesia in the 1950s and '60s, during the rule of nationalist leader Sukarno. However, after an unsuccessful 1965 pro-communist coup was put down by the Indonesian military led by General Suharto, who later became -- and remains -- president of Indonesia, military cooperation with communist countries ceased and Western nations took over.


In the 1960s, the Suharto military regime was believed to have secretly executed 300,000 Indonesian communists, but Western governments did not object. In those years, the U.S. was losing the war in Vietnam, and almost everyone in Washington believed in the domino theory -- that, after a takeover of South Vietnam, the communists would march on to conquer all of Southeast Asia. So the overturn of a weak leftist nationalist and anti-Western regime in Indonesia by a staunch authoritarian anti-communist military junta was received as very good news in many Western capitals.


But today, more than 30 years later and after the end of the Cold War, when no one believes any longer in communists' marching and conquering anything, the Suharto regime's use of its trademark authoritarian methods in putting down political opposition has gotten it into trouble with the U.S. Congress in Washington. As a result, Indonesia has turned to Russia for military assistance and modern arms in very much the same way that Beijing turned to Russia for arms after the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1989. Hard-pressed Russian arms traders and arms manufacturers are not rich enough to be bothered by scruples in selling arms to authoritarian regimes. With the Russian Defense Ministry procuring very few arms and not paying for what little is actually purchased, the only way to survive is to export.


However, the same Russian arms traders and arms manufacturers have welcomed the Indonesian announcement of a purchase of Russian arms with some restraint. Apparently, the Indonesians made the announcement before the conclusion of negotiations. No contract has been signed or even fully prepared. The Indonesians wanted to buy relatively low-priced U.S. F-16 jet fighters and apparently do not have much money available for a lucrative deal with Russia. They want to buy Russian arms inexpensively and want to pay part of the price in the form of "barter" shipments of palm oil and other goods.


Russian arms traders and manufacturers already have had much trouble with China, India and Iran, which paid part of their arms contracts in "barter" shipments of tea, oil, clothing, electronics and food. Also, many Russian arms producers are unhappy with contracts signed by Russia's arms trading monopoly, Rosvooruzheniye. They say the money they receive does not cover the cost of producing the arms. Arms trade insiders predict there will be more hard bargaining with the Indonesians before any final agreement is clinched.


The Indonesian announcement seems to have been a deliberate political move to put political pressure on the Russian arms traders to win a deal on favorable terms and at the same time snub the U.S. Congress.


The same polarization is already besetting all other major Russian international arms trading connections in Asia. Sino-Russian arms trading relations began as purely a business link. But now this connection is an intricate part of a developing strategic partnership. More and more influential people in Moscow understand that today's China is no threat to Russia and that the Beijing military-party bureaucracy wants Russia as a long-term and stable partner.


Indian, Chinese and Iranian officials today are saying more openly that the main threat to stability in Asia is radical Sunni Muslim fundamentalism and its fighting vanguard, the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, supported by Pakistan, funded by Saudi Arabia and clandestinely sponsored by the U.S.


Politicians in Delhi, Beijing and Tehran talk of creating in the future some grand all-Asia coalition to meet this U.S.- and Saudi-backed menace, with Russia providing modern military know-how. So the announcement that the Suharto regime wants to diversify its defense affiliations was received as very good news in many Asian capitals.





Pavel Felgenhauer is Segodnya's defense and national security affairs analyst.