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Putin signs numerous deals with Vietnam in a bid to shore up Russia's ties in Asia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Vietnam's President To Lam pose for photos at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Thursday.
Nhac Nguyen
Pool photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Vietnam's President To Lam pose for photos at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Thursday.

Updated June 20, 2024 at 15:28 PM ET

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed at least a dozen deals with his Vietnamese counterpart on Thursday and offered to supply fossil fuels, including natural gas, to Vietnam during a state visit that comes as Moscow is seeking to bolster ties in Asia to offset its growing international isolation over its war in Ukraine.

Putin and President To Lam agreed to further cooperate in education, science and technology, oil and gas exploration and clean energy. The two countries also agreed to work on a roadmap for a nuclear science and technology center in Vietnam.

Of the 12 publicly announced agreements, none overtly pertained to defense but Lam said there were other deals that were not made public.

Putin said the two countries share an interest in "developing a reliable security architecture" in the Asia-Pacific region with no room for "closed military-political blocs." Lam added that both Russia and Vietnam wanted to "further cooperate in defense and security to cope with non-traditional security challenges."

The agreements between Russia and Vietnam were not as substantial as the pact Putin signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Wednesday, which pledged mutual aid in the event of invasion, said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and a former British ambassador to Belarus.

Putin's recent visits to China and now North Korea and Vietnam are attempts to "break the international isolation," said Nguyen Khac Giang, an analyst at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Vietnamese President To Lam embrace during an official welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace, in Hanoi, Thursday.
Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP
Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Vietnamese President To Lam embrace during an official welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace, in Hanoi, Thursday.

Giang said Russia is important to Vietnam for two reasons: It is the biggest supplier of military equipment to the Southeast Asian nation, and Russian oil exploration technologies help maintain Vietnam's sovereignty claims in the contested South China Sea.

Vietnam also has licensed Russian state-controlled oil company Zarubezhneft to develop an offshore block of its southeastern coast.

On the South China Sea, Lam said that both sides would "support and ensure security, safety, freedom of navigation and aviation" and the resolution of disputes peacefully and in accordance to international law without the use of force, according to official Vietnamese media.

Putin arrived in Hanoi on Thursday morning from North Korea after signing the strategic pact, which comes as both countries face escalating standoffs with the West and could mark their strongest connection since the end of the Cold War.

In Hanoi, Putin also met Vietnam's most powerful politician, Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, according to the official Vietnam News Agency.

Putin drove to Vietnam's Presidential Palace on Thursday afternoon, where he was greeted by school children waving Russian and Vietnamese flags.

Much has changed since Putin's last visit to Vietnam in 2017. Russia now faces a raft of U.S.-led sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine. In 2023, the International Criminal Court in Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin for alleged war crimes, making it difficult for the Russian leader to travel internationally. The Kremlin rejected the warrant as "null and void," stressing that Moscow doesn't recognize the court's jurisdiction.

Putin's trip resulted in a sharp rebuke from the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, which said that "no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities." If Putin is allowed to travel freely it "could normalize Russia's blatant violations of international law," it said in a statement.

The U.S. and its allies have expressed growing concerns over a possible arms arrangement in which North Korea provides Russia with badly needed munitions for use in Ukraine in exchange for Russian economic assistance and technology transfers that could enhance the threat posed by Kim's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Both countries deny accusations of weapons transfers, which would violate multiple U.N. Security Council sanctions that Russia previously endorsed.

It is unlikely that Vietnam would supply significant quantities of weapons to Russia and risk the progress that it has made with NATO members on military equipment, particularly the U.S., said Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst with the defense intelligence company Janes.

"I would imagine Vietnam wouldn't want to take a risk, inviting the wrath of Western countries by supplying the Russians," Rahmat said.

Hanoi and Moscow have had diplomatic relations since 1950, and this year marks 30 years of a treaty establishing "friendly relations" between Vietnam and Russia. Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow with the Wilson Center's Asia Program, said Vietnam is "reinforcing" that relationship even while it diversifies with newer partners.

Evidence of the long relationship and its influence can be seen in Vietnamese cities like the capital, where many Soviet-style apartment blocks are now dwarfed by skyscrapers. A statue of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, stands in a park where kids skateboard every evening. Many in the Communist Party's top leadership in Vietnam studied in Soviet universities, including party chief Trong.

In an article written for Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of Vietnam's Communist Party, Putin thanked "Vietnamese friends for their balanced position on the Ukrainian crisis" and hailed the country as a "strong supporter of a fair world order" based on international law, equality and geopolitical non-interference.

Vietnam's pragmatic policy of "bamboo diplomacy" — a phrase coined by Trong referring to the plant's flexibility, bending but not breaking in the shifting headwinds of global geopolitics — is being increasingly tested.

A manufacturing powerhouse and an increasingly important player in global supply chains, Vietnam hosted both U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2023.

Putin's visit is important for Hanoi on a diplomatic level, said Gould-Davies, the former ambassador.

"Perhaps for Vietnam it's a matter of just showing that it's able to maintain this very agile balance of its bamboo diplomacy," he said. "Already in the course of a year they've hosted visits by the heads of state of the three most powerful countries in the world, which is pretty impressive."

For Russia, the visit seems to have been more about optics than anything else, he said, as Moscow seeks to engage and influence other countries, particularly in the so-called Global South.

"Since the war began, Putin has not been able to travel much or very far, and he's made very few trips beyond the countries of the former Soviet space," he said.

Vietnam has remained neutral on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But neutrality is getting trickier,

Vietnam needs support from the U.S. to advance its economic ambitions and diversify its defense ties, Parameswaran said. "It has to carefully calibrate what it does with Russia in an environment of rising tensions between Washington and Moscow."

Bilateral trade between Russia and Vietnam totaled $3.6 billion in 2023, compared to $171 billion with China and $111 billion with America.

Since the early 2000s, Russia has accounted for around 80% of Vietnam's arms imports. This has been declining over the years due to Vietnamese attempts to diversify its supplies. But to entirely wean itself off Russia will take time, Giang said.

Given Putin's international isolation, Vietnam is doing the Russian leader a "huge favor and may expect favors in return," Andrew Goledzinowski, the Australian ambassador to Vietnam, wrote on social media platform X.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]