Why is Russia’s Putin visiting Vietnam after North Korea?

Vietnam is a rising nation that the West wants closer ties with. The visit is a signal from Russia that Putin isn’t isolated.

Nguyen Thi Hong Van, 55, a collector and seller of Russian souvenirs who lived and worked in Russia for 20 years, poses at her shop in Hanoi, Vietnam
Nguyen Thi Hong Van, 55, a collector and seller of Russian souvenirs who lived and worked in Russia for 20 years, poses at her shop in Hanoi, Vietnam, days before Putin's visit [File: Thinh Nguyen/Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday held talks with Vietnam’s leaders, hours after flying into Hanoi for a visit to an old ally that has positioned itself as an increasingly influential geopolitical player, wooed by most major nations. Putin flew to Vietnam from North Korea, where he met that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, on Wednesday.

The visit to Vietnam, among other things, is Russia’s way of showcasing that while Putin is treated as a pariah by the West, he still holds political clout in the East, experts have said. Communist-led Vietnam will welcome Putin for a two-day visit, the Kremlin said.

The trip comes after the United States last week imposed more sanctions on Moscow and Western countries reiterated their unwavering support for Ukraine – now fighting its third year of war against Russia – by agreeing to a $50bn loan for Kyiv at a Group of Seven (G7) summit. The visit also comes days after last weekend’s Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland.

Why Vietnam?

While North Korea, where Putin held meetings with leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday, is itself a global outcast, heavily sanctioned by the United Nations over its nuclear and missile programmes, Vietnam is a nation that other major countries want close ties with.

A rising economy and a leading exporter of garments, Vietnam today counts the US and other Western countries as important partners. India is a growing defence partner. Vietnam is also a pillar of Southeast Asian efforts to balance ties with China, keeping strong economic ties with Beijing while pushing back against perceived military threats from the Asian giant.

That backdrop makes Vietnam a choice destination for the Russian leader. “Putin will hope his Vietnam visit signals that Russia is far from isolated in Asia amid its recent Ukraine war inroads,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center. “ … Even though the visit has been pending for a while now and Moscow’s list of regional friends is quite short in practice,” added Parameswaran, who is also the founder of the weekly ASEAN Wonk newsletter.

What is on the agenda?

Vietnamese President To Lam welcomed Putin in Hanoi on Thursday, committing to further strengthening ties, which he said would enhance peace in the region and globally.

While very few details are available at the moment, their dialogue is expected to focus on strengthening their strategic partnership. In 2001, Russia became the first country to sign a strategic partnership with Vietnam.

Regional and global issues will also feature on the agenda, the Russian state news agency TASS reported. Following the meeting, a joint statement will be adopted and a number of bilateral documents will be signed, it added.

Russia is Vietnam’s biggest weapons supplier, and military and security relations are expected to figure in talks.

Le Kim Phuong, 60, and Le Thu Hong, 62 prepare Russian national flags ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Vietnam, in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 18, 2024. REUTERS/Thinh Nguyen
Le Kim Phuong, 60, and Le Thu Hong, 62 prepare Russian national flags in advance of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Vietnam, in Hanoi, Vietnam [Thinh Nguyen/Reuters]

How strong are Vietnam-Russia ties? 

Ties between the two countries date back to the Soviet Union, which was Hanoi’s biggest weapons supplier – a position that Russia today still occupies.

The Soviet Union’s military support was critical to the Communist Party of Vietnam during key historical events, including the First and Second Indochina Wars against France and the US.

However, the relationship between the two goes beyond its military scope.

“They were once on the same side of history, they shared the same ideology against Western capitalism and imperialism. And the legacy of shared ideology is still there,” said Huong Le Thu, International Crisis Group’s deputy programme director for Asia.

The Soviet Union used to host tens of thousands of Vietnamese students during the Cold War, including the current head of the Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong.

Hanoi’s architecture also has a Soviet touch, such as the museum of modern Vietnam’s founding father Ho Chi Minh, and an imposing Vietnam-Soviet Friendship Cultural Palace, built in the late 1970s.

What is Vietnam’s position on Ukraine?

Since the start of the war in 2022, Vietnam has officially taken a neutral stance.

“Vietnam has tried to cultivate a careful balance in the Ukraine war between not disrupting ties with Russia as a traditional partner while also signalling that it takes principles like territorial integrity seriously,” said Parameswaran.

As a victim of large occupying or invading powers – the US, France, Japan and China – over the past 80 years, Vietnam holds a country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity being inviolable as a sacrosanct principle.

The centrality of those principles is something that Vietnam has repeatedly underscored at global meetings discussing the Ukraine war, in veiled criticisms of Russia’s war – even though it has not condemned Moscow.

There is also a shared history, and a degree of sympathy, between Vietnam and Ukraine, which was also part of the Soviet Union, say analysts. Ukraine too used to supply weapons to Hanoi and cultural ties meant that many Vietnamese studied in Ukraine forming a large diaspora. Vietnam has supplied humanitarian aid to Ukraine through international organisations during the war.

Yet, Vietnam skipped the Ukraine peace summit last week and abstained on four resolutions at the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighbouring country. It also voted against removing Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council.

“Vietnam guides its foreign policy based on its historical legacies and its own interests – it wants to showcase that it’s able to receive Chinese, American and Russian leaders and that it is OK with being friends with anyone – it’s a multidimensional diplomacy,” Le Thu added.

The peak of such flexibility, which some experts called “bamboo diplomacy”, came last year when US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the country. Bamboo, which grows widely in Vietnam, is known for its ability to bend as needed – without snapping – serving as a metaphor for the country’s foreign policy.

In this pool photograph distributed by the Russian state agency Sputnik, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024. - Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in North Korea early on June 19, the Kremlin said, kicking off a visit set to boost defence ties between the two nuclear-armed countries as Moscow pursues its war in Ukraine. (Photo by Gavriil GRIGOROV / POOL / AFP) / -- EDITOR'S NOTE : THIS IMAGE IS DISTRIBUTED BY THE RUSSIAN STATE OWNED AGENCY SPUTNIK --
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcome ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang [Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik via AFP]

What is the US response to Putin’s visit to Vietnam?

The US is a top trade partner of Vietnam and has not taken Putin’s visit well.

“No country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalise his atrocities,” a US embassy spokesperson in Hanoi told the Reuters news agency. “If he is able to travel freely, it could normalise Russia’s blatant violations of international law,” they added.

The visit to Vietnam is a rare occasion for Putin to travel outside Russia since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest over alleged war crimes in Ukraine. The warrant means that any signatory to the ICC must arrest the Russian president should he step into their territory. Vietnam is not an ICC member.

What is China’s role in all of this?

As the war in Ukraine drags into a third year, Moscow’s political and economic dependence on China has deepened. This is relevant to Vietnam, which has a dispute with China in the South China Sea. Beijing claims jurisdiction rights to maritime resources on certain Vietnamese territories rich in oil and gas reserves.

This is where Russia comes into the picture. Two of its energy companies are involved in upstream projects in some of the contested zones.

“Vietnam is concerned that as a result of Russia’s growing dependence on China, Beijing could use its leverage with Moscow to undermine Vietnamese interests. This would include increased pressure on the Kremlin to withdraw its state-owned energy companies,” Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, wrote in a research paper in March.

Source: Al Jazeera