Putin’s visit puts Vietnam in ‘difficult position’ with ‘no breakthrough,’ experts say

WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Vietnam will put the Southeast Asian country in a difficult position and could even be seen as risky for Hanoi, according to three international relations experts who spoke on Monday to VOA. They expected no breakthrough from the visit.

Putin is scheduled to visit Vietnam on Wednesday and Thursday, after his Tuesday-Wednesday trip to North Korea.

Risks for Hanoi

“Hosting Putin in a combined trip that brings him to North Korea is bad optics for Hanoi and will bring some risks. This may make Vietnam less trustful in the eyes of the West, Japan and South Korea. But on the other hand, Hanoi would gain more trust in the eyes of Russia,” said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

According to Vuving, the link between Putin’s visits to North Korea and Vietnam lies mostly in logistics: It makes more sense for Putin’s schedule to go to these countries in one trip rather than in two separate trips.

“But it also highlights the fact that Vietnam, like North Korea, is a close friend of Russia,” he said.

Nguyen Ngoc Truong, former president of the Center for Strategic Studies and International Development, a government-affiliated think tank in Hanoi, said Vietnam had sent a message telling Russia they did not want Putin to combine the North Korea and Vietnam stops in one trip “because it could cause international misunderstandings.”

But the combined trip will still take place because “in terms of foreign affairs, Vietnam must consider all aspects,” Truong said.

‘Traditional and dearest friend’

Truong pointed out that the Vietnamese leadership is grateful for the assistance Vietnam received in past wars from the former Soviet Union. Therefore, they consider Russia a “traditional and dearest friend.”

“Vietnamese people, especially those who understand geopolitics, cannot turn their backs on their friends because of immediate events. Russians stood shoulder to shoulder with Vietnam through the darkest and happiest moments, including assisting with weapons,” Truong said.

Hoang Viet, a Ho Chi Minh City Law University lecturer and international dispute expert, stressed that Vietnam “does not want to lose its long-standing relationship” with Russia, a major power holding a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Viet noted that Russia has never had any disputes or conflicts with Vietnam.

“Given the current harsh Western sanctions, Putin’s visit puts Vietnam in a difficult position. But Vietnam still has to maintain its relations because with the Vietnamese way of thinking, they must honor traditional friendship,” Viet observed.

Relationship with U.S.

Just nine months ago, Vietnam welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden, and on that occasion, Hanoi and Washington upgraded their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, on par with the relationship that Vietnam had for many years with Russia, China and a few other countries.

Viet noted that while the U.S. views Vietnam as an important player in its Indo-Pacific strategy, Vietnam still largely relies on Russian weapons for its defense strength. Therefore, Vietnam must balance its relations with Russia and the U.S.

“No country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi told Reuters on Monday when asked about the impact of the visit on ties with the United States.

“If he is able to travel freely, it could normalize Russia’s blatant violations of international law,” the spokesperson added, referring to the invasion of Ukraine that Putin launched in February 2022.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court in March 2023 issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president over alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Vietnam, Russia and the U.S. are not members of the ICC.

No breakthrough expected

Viet expected that during the visit, Russia and Vietnam would enter into deals on weapons and oil and gas, which he called “traditional deals,” while Hanoi tries “not to violate Western sanctions.” 

Truong expected there would be no special outcomes, saying “It will be just a friendly visit. There will probably not be any breakthroughs between the two countries. Military and defense cooperation in the current situation is unlikely to develop at all.”

Vuving said he thought the top issues likely to be discussed by Vietnam and Russia will be the ways to boost bilateral trade in the face of Western sanctions, cooperation in the energy sector, including oil, gas, solar and nuclear energy, and Vietnam’s purchase of weapons from Russia.

“Issues like payments and direct flights will likely be high on the agenda, as they are critical for restoring bilateral trade,” Vuving said.

He assessed that “Russia will benefit more from the visit.”

Noting that Vietnam will be the farthest destination for Putin since his invasion of Ukraine, Vuving commented that the visit will show that after the invasion, “many friends remain loyal to Moscow. These friends are not only in Russia’s neighborhood, and some are friends to Russia not because they are enemies of the West,” he said.

“But Vietnam also benefits from the visit as it helps to gain more trust from Russia and helps to keep Russia on Vietnam’s side in the South China Sea disputes with China,” he said.

Neutral stance toward war

Vuving added that Vietnam has been trying to maintain a largely neutral stance toward the war in Ukraine. However, the hosting of Putin will carry big risks to this stance.

Viet said despite trying to balance its heart for both Ukraine and Russia, two former Soviet republics that provided colossal help to Vietnam, Hanoi still leans more to one side.

“Russia’s strength is different; Russia is also a great power. In geopolitics, interests are important. Vietnam finds more benefits in Russia than in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, the Vietnamese government still seems more inclined to maintain relations with Russia than with Ukraine,” Viet said.

Truong commented, “Ukrainians may not like this trip, but they are also a people who have gone through many tough and tragic events in their history, and they understand everything very well. As a country living next to a giant neighbor [like Vietnam], they have similar views and similar feelings.”

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