Shifting Indonesians’ Support For Russia: Solidarity With Ukraine And Palestine – OpEd


Indonesians have long been an ally of the Palestinians, with the level of public support for Palestine remaining consistently high in light of the recent Israeli-Palestinian crisis. By contrast, the public perception of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine reveals an entirely different picture, as a certain level of support for Russia was observed among Indonesian social media users.

Positive perception and support for Russia in the context of the Ukraine war stems partly from a coordinated disinformation effort depicting Russia as a cordial ally of Islamic countries, in opposition to Ukraine and the West, which are often portrayed as anti-Islam. These distorted narratives found fertile ground in Indonesia, where some people happen to be predisposed to interpret international conflicts through the lens of religious ideology.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Russia has been known to exploit Indonesia’s longstanding commitment to supporting the Palestinians by amplifying propaganda that Russia is on the side of the Palestinians, while the Russian government’s official responses to the crisis are mixed. Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish background, which has already been emphasized to bolster pro-Russian narratives in Indonesia, further complicates this issue. Not surprisingly, some of the most popular pro-Russian narratives in Indonesia are unfortunately mixed with anti-Semitic prejudices. At this point, a counter-narrative is urgently needed.

To maximize the effectiveness of counter-narratives, we may begin by identifying those who are most susceptible to pro-Russian propaganda. Previous research found that those who hold anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs, i.e., the idiosyncratic belief that a global Jewish conspiracy is working behind the curtain to orchestrate major world events, strongly support pro-Russian propaganda. Some experts suggest that Indonesians’ pro-Russian support emerges as an expression of anti-Western attitudes, but my research shows that participants’ negative feelings toward the “West” have contributed little to explaining their endorsement of pro-Russian narratives. 

I wonder if intertwining pro-Palestine and pro-Ukraine stances might change public perceptions of the Ukraine war since pro-Palestine stance is a cause that resonates with Indonesia’s predominantly Muslim population.

I tested this idea by conducting an experiment to determine whether participants would be more likely to sign a petition for peace in Ukraine if the petition included a message of solidarity with the Palestinians. 

I designed a simple between-groups experiment in which participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. To this end, I conveniently recruited 403 Indonesians through social media and instant messaging services, but after quality checks, only 373 participants were included in the analysis. Next, participants were randomly assigned to one out of two experimental groups. One group of 192 participants was shown a petition poster for peace in Ukraine with an additional sentence expressing solidarity with the suffering of the Palestinians (“We also strongly condemn Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinian people”), while the other group of 181 participants was shown a petition poster without this statement. 

Participants in both groups were then asked if they were willing to sign the petition, and then, I calculated the probability of signing the petition across the groups. I also measured their propensity to believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs, as I previously found that harboring this belief was associated with a stronger endorsement of pro-Russian narratives.

My analysis shows that a petition with a statement of solidarity was five times more likely to receive more signatures than one without. The solidarity message seems to work, but the most important question is: Was the solidarity statement persuasive enough for those who strongly hold anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs? To answer this question, I looked closely at participants with a stronger tendency to endorse anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs in both groups and compared their likelihood of signing the petition. 

Further analysis reveals that for those with less belief in anti-Semitic conspiracies, the decision to sign a peace petition is not really affected by whether the petition mentions support for Palestine or not—most people are willing to sign either way. Yet, for those who strongly believe in anti-Semitic conspiracies, their willingness to sign changes significantly depending on the content of the petition. If the petition does not express support for Palestine, the likelihood of signing drops significantly. But if it does express solidarity with Palestine, they remain much more likely to sign, despite their higher tendency to believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

It is important to note that the participants in my study were recruited through convenient, non-random sampling. Therefore, my findings are limited to this sample, and generalization to the population may not be warranted. These findings suggest the importance of understanding the characteristics of target audiences and tailoring the message accordingly when countering disinformation. Russia’s propaganda machine has used this playbook by adding layers of local context to maximize the reach of its propaganda abroad. For instance, Russian officials denigrate Zelenskyy’s Jewish roots to elicit sympathy from Western audiences, while declaring their alleged support for Palestinians to persuade people in other countries who condemn Israeli military attacks. 

Since last year, an initiative aimed at strengthening ties between Ukrainian and Indonesian Muslim communities has led to a significant development: a delegation from the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (RAMU) visited the Majelis ‘Ulama Indonesia (MUI), resulting in public support for the independence of Crimean Tatar Muslims. To effectively counter Russia’s strategy of eroding trust and creating division, this high-level collaboration should extend beyond formal visits and agreements. Based on these findings, the counternarratives emphasizing unity and solidarity with the Palestinians, whom Indonesians have traditionally long supported, may work as an effective counternarrative. 

Moreover, the findings underscore the role that both the Ukrainian government and its Muslim communities can play in shifting Indonesian public opinion toward a more supportive stance on Ukraine. By tapping into Indonesians’ widespread solidarity with Palestine, Ukrainian Muslim communities can actively engage with their Indonesian counterparts, highlighting the shared values and experiences between Ukrainians and Palestinians, especially in their struggle for sovereignty and peace. 

RAMU’s formal visit to MUI is a good start but should be followed by further joint initiatives and strategic communication efforts that showcase Ukraine’s diverse religious landscape and its support for Muslim rights, including those of the Crimean Tatars. By presenting Ukraine’s struggle in a light that resonates with the Indonesian public’s deep-rooted support for Palestine, these actions may pave the way for a broader understanding of Ukraine’s position, challenge pro-Russian narratives, and foster a sense of global Muslim solidarity.

Rizqy Amelia Zein

Rizqy Amelia Zein works as a social psychology lecturer at Universitas Airlangga. Her research interests are public perception of global conflict and trust in science.

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