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  • Le Hong Hiep

Vietnam and Russia in the Post-Cold War World: From Allies to Inconvenient Partners

Vietnam's long relationship with Russia has seen much change since the end of the Cold War, and the recent actions of Russia has given Vietnam much to ponder about this partnership.


Photo credits: VNA

During the Cold War, Vietnam and Russia were strategic allies, as evidenced by the signing of the bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1978. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Vietnam's pursuit of a foreign policy focused on diversification and multilateralism have transformed the character of the partnership. Moreover, Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have placed the partnership in a state of uncertainty, with Russia increasingly becoming an inconvenient partner or even a liability to Vietnam. This is exacerbated by the intensifying strategic competition between Russia and China on one side, and the United States and its allies on the other, which has limited Vietnam's manoeuvring room and strategic choices.


Deep historical roots of bilateral ties

Vietnam and Russia have a longstanding history of diplomatic relations. Since the establishment of formal ties in 1950, the Soviet Union (later the Russian Federation) has provided Vietnam with critical support, both during the Vietnam War and in the years that followed. During the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union provided Hanoi with a wide array of military equipment, including tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery systems, anti-aircraft systems, missile batteries, fighter jets, helicopters, and warships, as well as the construction of 117 defence facilities, such as airports, naval bases, defence works, and training schools. Such support was critical to Vietnam’s war efforts against America and its allies during the Vietnam War, enabling the country to achieve national reunification in 1975.


The Soviet Union was also a key training partner of Vietnam, providing extensive support from 1950 to 1991. During this period, Moscow trained nearly 50,000 Vietnamese students. Moscove also helped establish many universities in Vietnam, such as the Hanoi University of Science and Technology and the University of Agriculture I. Many current high-ranking leaders, including Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, received their education in the Soviet Union. From 1978 to the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union also provided Vietnam with annual aid of between US$700 million and US$1 billion, which was used to develop industrial and civilian infrastructure, including factories, power plants, hospitals, irrigation systems, and farms.


Such a strong historical connection and the immense support provided by the Soviet Union have led the Vietnamese leadership and population to maintain a favourable view of Russia even after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. From 1991 to 1993, the bilateral ties were stagnant and disoriented, resulting in a halt to bilateral exchanges and a drop in bilateral trade to 10% of the 1989 level. From 1994 to 1996, however, the two countries reoriented their relationship, signing the Treaty on Basic Principles of Friendly Relations. From 1997 to 2014, the overall relationship strengthened steadily, with Russian President Vladimir Putin being the first state leader of the Soviet Union/Russia to visit Vietnam in 2001. During the visit, the two countries declared a strategic partnership, which was later upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2012.


The (in)significance of Russia in Vietnam’s foreign policy

Thanks to the deep historical ties, Vietnam and Russia have developed strong defence ties, especially in terms of arms transfer. Since the late 1990s, Vietnam has been modernizing its military, and the majority of the weapons Hanoi acquired were from Russia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 1995 to 2021, Vietnam's arms imports totalled US$9.07 billion, of which Russia accounted for US$7.4 billion (81.6%). Major weapons items obtained from Russia include six Kilo-class submarines, 36 Sukhoi Su-30MK2 multirole aircraft, four Gepard 3.9 class frigates, and two Bastion mobile coastal defense missile systems. As a result, Vietnam became Russia's fifth largest arms importer globally and its largest in Southeast Asia.


However, in the economic domain, bilateral cooperation remains modest. As of February 2022, Russia had invested US$953 million in 151 projects in Vietnam, accounting for only 0.2% of the total registered FDI in Vietnam. Major investments from Russia are mainly focused on the energy sector. Between 2016 and 2021, bilateral trade doubled in value, reaching US$5.5 billion. However, it only accounted for less than 1% of the total trade in goods of each country.


Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have complicated bilateral ties and put Vietnam in a difficult situation. The deep historical ties and Vietnam’s dependence on Russian arms mean that Vietnam's reactions to Russia's invasion of Ukraine have been largely muted. Hanoi was unwilling to denounce Russia's aggression and abstained from two United Nations General Assembly resolutions that condemned the invasion. It also voted against the suspension of Russia's membership in the UN Human Rights Council.


However, Hanoi is unwilling to further deepen ties with Russia due to pressures from the West, especially in light of the weak economic foundation of the Vietnam – Russia ties. This is because Vietnam is now becoming increasingly reliant on Western markets, capital, and technologies for economic development. For example, the United States is currently Vietnam’s largest export market and an increasingly important source of investments and technological transfers for Hanoi. In the defence realm, even when Vietnam may continue to buy arms from Russia, Vietnam’s efforts to diversify its arms supplies will only accelerate. Although the United States and its allies have not sanctioned Vietnam for maintaining ties with Russia, Vietnam still needs to pay attention to their valid concerns and adjust its ties with Russia accordingly.


Another challenge for Vietnam's ties with Russia is that their historical foundation may erode in the future with Vietnam electing a new leadership in 2026. Many of the emerging leaders, who were born in the 1970s and 1980s, have few memories and almost no sentimental attachment to the Soviet Union or Russia, meaning that they may place less emphasis on ties with Russia.


As Vietnam's importance in America's economic and strategic calculations vis-à-vis China continue to grow, its bargaining power has been strengthened, allowing it to maintain its strategic autonomy. This is evident in its ability to maintain ties with Russia in spite of the challenges posed by the latter's invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, in the context of escalating great power rivalry, the autonomy of smaller countries such as Vietnam will be increasingly limited, particularly if they need major powers for security and stability, as is the case for Vietnam. Therefore, if the conflict in Ukraine persists, Russia will increasingly become a burden for Vietnam’s foreign policy, and Hanoi’s ties with Moscow will inevitably suffer.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.

 
Author

Le Hong Hiep is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.


 

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