3 Takeaways From Putin’s Trip to Vietnam

President Vladimir V. Putin’s state visit to North Korea appeared to have a singular focus on military matters: The two sides dramatically revived a Cold War-era mutual defense agreement. A day later, in Vietnam, the Russian leader was far less provocative.

Vietnam values its relations with the United States, which would be jeopardized if Mr. Putin were to make fiery statements about Washington on its soil. So even though Vietnam and Russia have deep military relations and a shared communist history, leaders in Hanoi instead focused talks with Mr. Putin on boosting ties in areas like trade, education, energy, and science and technology. The Russian leader kept his formal remarks muted.

There were no major breakthroughs, but the show of unity with Vietnam was designed to give Mr. Putin a veneer of international legitimacy at a time of increasing isolation in the West.

Here are three key takeaways from his visit.

Unlike North Korea, which is a pariah in the West, Vietnam has been courted by the United States in its effort to contain China’s growing global influence. Within the past year alone, Hanoi has also hosted President Biden and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

Mr. Putin’s visit to Vietnam is part of an effort by the Russian leader to show that despite Western attempts at isolating him over his invasion of Ukraine, he is still accepted by world leaders. His trip late last year to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two key American partners in the Middle East, underscored the point.

He was given a 21-gun salute at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, an important historical site in the center of the capital. In typical scripted fashion, Vietnamese schoolchildren — waving both Russian and Vietnamese flags — lined streets in Hanoi as Mr. Putin’s motorcade drove by. It was Mr. Putin’s fifth trip to the country since 2001 but his first since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Vietnam and Russia share a long history bound by ideology. In 1950, the Soviet Union was among the first countries to give diplomatic recognition to what was then the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam.

Nguyen Phu Trong, the powerful head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, told Mr. Putin that as someone who had lived and studied in Russia, he still recalls fondly “this great and beautiful country of Russia with warm feelings,” according to Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre newspaper.

For decades, Moscow became Vietnam’s biggest donor, providing military aid when Hanoi was fighting its wars against France and the United States — a fact that Mr. Putin took pains to remind the Vietnamese on Thursday.

“The Soviet Union, as you noted, provided effective assistance in the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people against the French and then American invaders, and subsequently contributed to the peaceful construction of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Mr. Putin said, as Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh stood at his side.

Vietnam has stopped short of voicing support for Russia’s war on Ukraine but has also been careful not to alienate Moscow.

Last weekend, Hanoi skipped the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland. It has also abstained on four United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine and voted against the motion to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Unlike in his meeting a day earlier with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Putin, in public, held back on the fiery rhetoric against the United States.

On Wednesday, sitting across from Mr. Kim, he railed against Washington as a hegemonic and imperial power trying to force its will on the world through its satellite countries. He signed a defense pact vowing to aid North Korea in the event of a war and threatened deeper cooperation with Mr. Kim’s military.

In Vietnam, the Russian leader stuck to uncontroversial statements about trade and historical relations. The messaging appeared to be calibrated with his Vietnamese counterparts in mind.

Vietnam, which upgraded ties with the United States last year, has been careful with the optics of Mr. Putin’s visit. Ahead of his trip, officials in Washington made it clear that they were not happy, saying that no country “should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities.”

Vietnamese media has focused the visit on the bilateral relationship and their long historical past as friends during the Cold War era.

“Whatever Russia can offer, I don’t think Vietnam would jump at it and give any impression or appearance that we are aligned with Russia in an anti-Western front,” said Hoang Thi Ha, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Although Russia has long supplied weapons to Vietnam, there was little public talk of arms procurement or defense. Mr. Putin’s new defense minister, Andrei R. Belousov, accompanied the Russian leader in North Korea but then seemed to drop off the trip, with Russia’s defense ministry publishing images of him touring a military health complex back in Russia on Thursday.

Hanoi says its highest level of bilateral ties are with seven countries: Russia, China, the United States, India, South Korea and Australia. Maintaining ties with one allows it to counterbalance the others.

Both Russia and Vietnam have profited greatly from exploiting Vietnam’s oil and gas deposits in the South China Sea. Mr. Putin pledged to supply oil and gas products to Vietnam for the long term.

Huong Le Thu, deputy director for Asia at the International Crisis Group, said Mr. Putin’s visit was a showcase of Vietnam’s ability to “sustain a relationship with all actors, despite the mutual great power rivalry and competition.”

Mr. Trong, the party chief, calls this approach “bamboo diplomacy,” in which, displaying the flexibility of bamboo branches, the country is able to balance multiple relationships with major powers.

“It is centered around Hanoi’s interests, rather than anyone else’s,” Ms. Huong said.

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