Russian President Vladimir Putin and Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc in a file photo. Image: Sputnik

SINGAPORE AND PRAGUE – Vietnam’s government has so far taken an ambiguous position to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine given its close security ties with both Moscow and the democratic West that opposes Moscow’s war. 

Hanoi is in a bind because it depends on ever-improving relations with Western governments, notably the United States, for its economic development as well as its security interests against an increasingly assertive China, with which Vietnam has contested territory in the South China Sea for decades. 

Aware that Washington and European capitals are actively attempting to form a united bloc against Russia to coordinate sanctions and responses, Hanoi may be under pressure to at least vocally support the Western condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of a democratic state. 

On the other hand, Russia was reportedly Vietnam’s biggest weapons supplier as of 2018 and remains a key trading partner. The Soviet Union was one of the few friends of communist Vietnam during the 1980s when it was seen as a pariah state by many in the West. 

Russia became Vietnam’s first strategic partner and, to date, is one of the country’s three “comprehensive strategic partners,” along with China and India.

Last year, there was even talk among Russian security analysts over whether the country’s military should attempt to form a new agreement to redeploy troops to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, a naval base built by the United States and leased to the Soviet Union in 1979.

By 2002, the Russian naval fleet had left the Cam Ranh Bay base, transferring all facilities to the Vietnamese.

“Vietnam’s response is typically ambiguous as they want to maintain the good relations with Moscow, while certainly understanding that Russia’s aggression is a direct threat to the country’s non-interference principle, particularly given Hanoi’s own perception of threat from China,” says Nguyen Khac Giang, an analyst at the Victoria University of Wellington. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, greets his then-Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 29, 2017. Photo: AFP / Natalia Kolesnikova

Putin makes his move

On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the two “breakaway” regions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Lugansk, as independent republics, a move contested by many governments in the world. 

Three days later, in the early hours of February 24 in Europe, Putin announced a full-scale invasion of the rest of Ukraine. Intense fighting has taken place in recent days, with the Ukrainian military and civilians fighting a rearguard action to protect their eastern cities, including the capital Kiev, from a Russian assault.   

In 2019, Vietnam-Ukraine trade was worth only US$536 million, according to Vietnamese government data. By comparison, its trade with Russia, a historic partner of Vietnam, was worth about $4.4 billion that year.

However, the Vietnamese people retain some close ties to Ukraine from its time as part of the communist Soviet Union. One of Vietnam’s most important business people, Pham Nhat Vuong, the founder and chairman of the sprawling conglomerate Vingroup, started out in business in Ukraine, where he created a successful instant noodle company in the 1990s. 

Only last month, a ceremony took place in Hanoi to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Ukraine, which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. According to media reports, there are more than 1,400 Vietnamese students and some 10,000 Vietnamese nationals living in Ukraine. 

Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on February 23 that the country’s embassy in Kiev was working to secure the safety of these Vietnamese nationals.

Three days later, Vietnamese prime minister Pham Minh Chinh signed an official order for different ministers and Communist Party apparatus to cooperate on plans for protecting Vietnamese citizens and legal entities in Ukraine.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, right, with European Council President Donald Tusk at an EU ASEAN leaders meeting at the European Council in Brussels on October 19, 2018. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

Singapore’s surprise move

On February 28, Singapore made the surprise move of announcing its own sanctions on Russia, including financial measures and export controls. 

Although the city-state and Indonesia are the only two Southeast Asian nations that have openly condemned Putin’s military assault against Ukraine, Singapore rarely issues its own punitive measures against other states. 

“Singapore intends to act in concert with many other like-minded countries to impose appropriate sanctions and restrictions against Russia,” Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told parliament.

With Singapore and Indonesia outliers in the region, the rest of the ASEAN bloc is expected to keep its head down and avoid taking any stance on the Ukraine war. But Vietnam in particular is under Western pressure to respond.  

“I hope Vietnam can join international condemnation of this unprovoked attack,” UK ambassador to Hanoi Gareth Ward tweeted on the morning of the Russian invasion last week.

But that’s improbable, analysts say.  

“Vietnam is likely to take a neutral and low-key position on this issue to avoid hurting its relationships with both Russia and Western countries,” says Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Vietnam Studies Programme. 

However, Hiep said, “Vietnam will likely continue to emphasize the need to respect international law and the UN Charter.”

On February 23, Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that Vietnam “respects the Charter of the United Nations and basic principles of international law, contributing to ensuring peace, security and stability in the region and around the world.”

Vietnamese state-run media has also been split over the Ukraine war, Radio Free Asia noted in a recent report. Communist Party-run newspapers have quoted both sides of the conflict, whereas in the past they have tended to side with Moscow in blaming crises on the West, including after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

Vietnam hedging its bets

A recent opinion piece in Vietnam News Agency’s online newspaper Bao Tin Tuc even described Putin’s actions as having “destroyed the hope for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.” 

Analysts are unsure if Hanoi will now try to stay as silent as possible on the Ukraine war, not wanting to frustrate Moscow or Vietnam’s Western partners. But the Vietnamese government will be keenly aware that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have geopolitical ramifications far away from Eastern Europe, they say. 

Despite fears of a breakdown of solidarity between Western democracies on the eve of the Russian invasion, so far most analysts believe the US, European states and others have shown strong cooperation and determination in opposing Putin’s war. 

Chinese frigates in formation during a maritime training exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA / Zhang Bin

Further afield, however, there are concerns that with the West’s attention focused on Ukraine, the Chinese government could see it as an opportune moment to be even more assertive, including with its territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

“A valid concern for Vietnam is that Russia’s invasion will set a precedent for China to resort to violence to resolve disputes, especially in the South China Sea,” said Hiep. 

So far, though, that appears unlikely. Beijing has seemingly taken a dim view of Russia’s invasion, seen in its abstention during a UN Security Council vote on the matter, rather than joining Russia in vetoing the motion. 

Hiep, of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, reckons the Ukraine war could also “encourage Vietnam to review its Russia policy, especially in order to become less reliant on arms imports from Moscow.”

Regardless of its military success or failure in Ukraine, Russia could be a pariah state for a long time to come. Far-ranging sanctions are likely to remain in place on Russia for months if not years, and already they have slammed the country’s economy, with the rouble now in free-fall and runs on banks.  

The United States, an increasingly important security partner of Vietnam, might also use this moment of crisis to pressure Hanoi to swap its military imports from Russia to the US, something the Vietnamese government has seemingly been more open to in recent years.  

A Vietnamese defense white paper published in 2020 stated the country “will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries … for mutual benefits and common interests of the region and international community.” 

Nile Bowie reported from Singapore while David Hutt reported from Prague. They can be followed on Twitter respectively at @NileBowie and @davidhuttjourno