Analysing Indonesian Netizens Response to Putin’s Projected Masculinity Two Years After the Invasion of Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin exuding characteristics of masculinity while attempting to relegate feminine actors or expressions to a subordinate position. Credit:DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty


On February 24, 2024, the world witnessed the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The full-scale invasion has caused global geopolitical repercussions and deeply affected the grassroots at various corners of the world.  

In Indonesia, the full-scale invasion surprisingly caught a lot of traction in social media. Our previous research found that Indonesian netizens responded eagerly after the invasion, with prevailing narratives being predominantly pro-Russia. This highlights the positive attitude held by the Indonesian public towards Russia. Considering Indonesians are long believed to be an “inward-looking community,” this is an intriguing finding. For example, a previous poll discovered that 92% of respondents believed that the purpose of Indonesia’s foreign policy is to protect their jobs.

Amidst the myriad of responses we gathered, we discerned two narratives expressed by Indonesian netizens towards the invasion. The first praises Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perceived masculinity, while the second ridicules President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration.

The netizens praised Putin for his perceived masculinity for bravely waging war against Ukraine, a country they saw as a Western puppet. Interestingly, however, they also demonized the masculine quality exercised by the West, symbolized by its attempt to dominate other parts of the world.

In the second narrative, we noticed the attempt to “feminize” the Indonesian government as an attempt to mock Jokowi’s administration, comparing it side by side with Putin’s machismo. The rhetoric often portrays Putin as brilliant while poking fun at Jokowi’s influence in the international arena.

Our analysis using Twitter (now X) data at the beginning of the invasion indicates that both narratives stem from a patriarchal attitude deeply ingrained since colonial times, which has influenced Indonesia’s glorification of masculine dominance. The Dutch colonial government influenced gender roles by making the native chief wear traditional clothes while the Dutch officials dressed in European-style military uniforms. They spread pictures comparing the two, with messages degrading the native chief’s masculinity compared to the Dutch officer. This propaganda aimed to diminish the native leader and portray the Dutch officer as the ideal masculine figure.

This historical trajectory of hegemonic masculinity, established during colonial rule, has persisted in contemporary Indonesian society, shaping perceptions of gender relations. Hence, the first narrative reflects this entrenched patriarchal attitude. However, we posit that this discourse can catalyze a broader conversation on how gender perspectives inform international responses to foreign policies, particularly in how social media discourse mirrors societal attitudes toward specific global events.

Projection of Putin’s Masculinities

The societal focus on Putin’s masculinity did not emerge from a vacuum. After scrutinizing the Instagram posts of the Russian Embassy in Indonesia from October 2022 to June 2023 using a content analysis methodology, we concluded that the Embassy actively articulated Putin’s masculinity.

The identified patterns of Putin’s projection of masculinity revolve around two distinct concepts: national patriotism and militarized masculinity. In these posts, Western elites are portrayed as perpetrators of the crisis, the Ukrainian people as victims of the conflict, and Russia’s Muslim population as combatants in the Ukrainian conflict. The presumed focus of the Embassy’s posts is to stigmatize Western elites in a bad light, reinforcing the positive perception of Putin, especially as a robust and resolute leader.

The concept of national patriotism in this context underscores the involvement of Russian citizens in safeguarding national security and the engagement of the Russian Muslim community in the conflict. It highlights gratitude for Russian citizens safeguarding the constitutional system and recognizes the Muslim community’s role in promoting cooperation in trade and other areas.

Additionally, another post by the Embassy portrays Putin expressing concern over Russian citizens having to fight against their brethren in the context of domestic uprisings within militarized masculine narratives. It involves using military context, such as portraying Russian citizens involved in the war as brave soldiers to defend against perceived enemies. In addition to defending against enemies such as minority groups, the “Western elite” has become an overarching antagonist. This is exemplified by it becoming the primary focus of the Russian Embassy in Indonesia Instagram posts.

Data Interpretation

In the two years since the invasion, we have consistently observed traces of the above narratives in daily online activities of Indonesian Facebook accounts.

We collected Facebook data from February 28, 2022, to February 18, 2024, using relevant Russia invasion keywords focusing on Putin’s persona, such as “Putin Barat” and “Putin Islam”. We unveiled that content with the highest interactions in Indonesia tends to harbor anti-Western and pro-Islamic sentiments, which will be explained in detail below.

Facebook was selected since it boasts Indonesia’s most extensive user base, second only to Instagram. Moreover, as Facebook is part of Meta, collecting Facebook data holds the potential to yield more comprehensive insights, given Meta also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

We gathered 8,797 Facebook posts containing anti-Western narratives with 2,302,293 total interactions from other users. In contrast, we only found 1,064 posts with pro-Islamic sentiment with 160,069 interactions. A holistic reading of the data suggests that the highest interactions occurred during the initial phases of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This dwindled towards the end of 2022 and continued to decline throughout 2023. However, despite this declining trend, two specific dates exhibited significant deviations.

On June 29, 2023, there was a rapid surge in interactions involving content depicting thousands of Russian citizens chanting Takbir to celebrate Eid al-Adha. At the same time, a post portraying Putin extending Eid al-Adha greetings to all Russian citizens and acknowledging the role of Russian Muslims also circulated widely.

Notably, this content amassed the highest number of interactions on Facebook, surpassing even content published at the onset of the first blown invasion. This pro-Putin sentiment is consistent with the nature of Indonesia’s large Muslim population, which favors Islamic-related content, often those with bombastic, alluring narratives supporting Islam.

Another noteworthy date is September 14, 2023, when another content saw a spike in interaction. The content features a video quoting news from Russia Today about a meeting between Putin and Kim Jong Un, whereby the North Korean leader conveyed his readiness to support Russia against the United States.

This content garnered 31,000 interactions, the highest since the invasion began. The dominant interactions perceived the duo as “ideal-male leaders” due to their courage to stand up to the West.

This finding demonstrates that the Indonesian netizens had continued to a gendered lens in approaching the invasion, which is Putin’s expression of his masculinity. To a certain extent, part of the narrative was reinforced by the Embassy’s posts, which often display Putin as a masculine alpha and an ideal leader.

Possible Explanations

Our analysis indicates that the consistent romanticization of Putin’s masculinity in Indonesia’s digital space derives from a patriarchal social structure deeply ingrained during the colonial era. It exemplifies how Indonesian netizens glorify the image of alpha male leaders by celebrating masculinity through an exercise of power and dominance.

Recently, Prabowo’s unofficial leading vote in the 2024 election might provide indicators of how Putin is perceived by the Indonesian community. In the 2014 and 2019 elections, Prabowo built a public persona exuding ultra-nationalist, strongly chauvinist, and Islamist populist characteristics. In 2024, his image shifted to a more reachable, caring, ex-military general by utilizing AI and other popular approaches. Therefore, the persona shift caters to the community’s expectation for a more assertive yet caring military figure as an ideal masculine leader in contemporary political events.  

Such adoration for masculinity can be traced back to the colonial era, which at the same time also relegated feminine actors or expressions to a subordinate position. During the colonial era, Indonesian society endured a three-century-long struggle against Dutch colonialism. Throughout this period, prominent figures consistently led the fight against the Dutch. This aligns with the collective Indonesian belief in the existence of a savior known as “Ratu Adil” or “Just Ruler” who would ultimately deliver Indonesia from colonial rule. Thus, Putin is seen as embodying masculine values that stand up and fight against a perceived colonial force, the West.

This narrative seamlessly aligns with Indonesians’ appetite for hegemonic masculinity, characterized by a superior uniformed chief, the alpha male archetype, and the ideology of bapakism, considered a trademark of Indonesia’s New Order era.

Consequently, we conclude that the positive discourse surrounding Putin’s invasion emanates from an ingrained gendered perspective. This has influenced Indonesian society to exalt masculinity and, in the end, shaped persistent pro-Russian narratives that have continued for two years since the beginning of the conflict, regardless of the massive destruction and pain it has caused.

Acknowledgment: The Facebook Data collection is supported by Monash University Indonesia Data & Democracy Research Hub

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Dias P.S. Mahayasa is a lecturer in Gender Studies, Department of International Relations, Universitas Jenderal Soedirman, Indonesia. He also serves as Director for the Center for Identity and Urban Studies.

  • Bimantoro K. Pramono is a lecturer in Digital Diplomacy at the International Relations Department, Universitas Paramadina, Indonesia. He also serves as Research Affiliate for Data & Democracy Research Hub, Monash University, Indonesia.