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Vietnam: Is turmoil in Hanoi keeping Vladimir Putin away?

David Hutt
May 18, 2024

With Vladimir Putin visiting China, some reports had indicated that the Russian president would also make a stop in Vietnam. But Hanoi seems preoccupied by political infighting.

Putin waves after arriving to a summit in Vietnam's Danang
Vladimir Putin last visited Vietnam in 2017Image: YE AUNG THU/AFP

With Vietnam's ruling Communist Party (VCP) in turmoil, and the EU irritated by Hanoi flirting with Moscow, the expected visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely not materialize this weekend.

The Russian leader on Friday capped off a two-day state visit to China in a conspicuous show of friendship between Moscow and Beijing.

Rumors ahead of the trip indicated Putin would make a stop in Hanoi before flying back to Moscow.

China and Russia — true friends or marriage of convenience?

However, this scenario seems unlikely. This week, Russia's ambassador to Vietnam, Gennady Stepanovich Bezdetko, told Vietnamese state media that Putin would travel to Vietnam in the "near future" but that a date hasn't been set.

How close is Hanoi to Moscow?

Vietnam has abstained on most UN votes to reprimand Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and has maintained cooperation with Moscow. Vietnam has long seen Russia as a partner on oil exploration and a major arms supplier.

Last October, now-former Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong met Putin in Beijing during an economic forum. In March, VCP chief Nguyen Phu Trong invited Putin to make a state visit.

At the same time, the ruling Communist Party was careful to maintain a neutral foreign policy towards major world powers — US President Joe Biden and China's leader Xi Jinping have visited Hanoi in recent months, and Vietnam has also been reinforcing ties with the EU, with which it ratified a free trade agreement in 2020.

US, Vietnam upgrade relations

EU representative kept out

The US and the EU are attempting to strengthen their sanctions regime on Russia and to crack down on third countries that circumvent the punishments, especially those that re-export military or technical equipment to Russia.

That may include Vietnam. However, a European diplomatic source told DW it is difficult for Western countries to assess whether Hanoi has provided any assistance to Russia. 

David O'Sullivan, the EU's special envoy for the enforcement of sanctions, was supposed to meet Vietnamese officials on May 13 but the event was postponed by Hanoi just days beforehand.

"We are disappointed that the visit could not take place this time and are discussing with Vietnam authorities about a convenient date in the near future," an EU spokesperson told DW.

Earlier this month, Reuters news agency quoted several diplomats who claimed that O'Sullivan's expected meeting was canceled because it might have "spoiled" the rumored visit by Putin. It is now expected to happen in July.

Political power struggle in Hanoi

The delay in Putin's visit and the talks with O'Sullivan could be seen as Vietnam responding to pressure from abroad.

Vietnam could very well be hesitant about the diplomatic fallout it would incur from the West, the main importers of Vietnamese goods. 

However, both EU and Vietnamese sources told DW that the diplomacy misfires were more likely due to ongoing political instability in Hanoi.

The ruling VCP has now lost three senior officials in the space of two months.

Vo Van Thuong resigned as president in March, just a year after taking over. Vuong Dinh Hue stepped down as chair of the National Assembly earlier this month, and Truong Thi Mai, the fifth-ranking member of the VCP elite body Politburo resigned as Standing Secretary of the Secretariat on May 16.

This political turmoil has been sparked by a near decade-long anti-corruption campaign that has escalated into senior-level infighting.

Party chief Trong is expected to retire at a major party congress in 2026, and the party leadership is currently attempting to work out the issue of succession.

Analysts believe that senior figures within the party are trying to outmuscle rivals and competing factions in a bid to secure the top positions for themselves and their allies.

A case of bad timing?

The VCP's Central Committee, a decision-making body, started its ninth plenum on May 16 — the same day Putin arrived in Beijing. Party officials are discussing the candidates for the unoccupied seats in the Politburo and the vacant posts of house speaker and president.

"So long as the political turmoil in Hanoi continues, it is unlikely that Putin will schedule a trip to Vietnam," said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Moreover, in private, the Vietnamese government probably told the Russians that the time wasn't right because the position of state president is currently vacant, meaning uncertainty over who would have formally welcomed the Russian leader, according to a EU diplomatic source.

Is Vietnam set to replace China as the world's factory?

Brussels saving face

In any case, Vietnam not welcoming Putin will be welcome news in Brussels. The Hanoi visit would have put the EU in a difficult position, where they would either have to decry a key trading partner for welcoming Vladimir Putin — whom the Western leaders see as a dictator and war criminal — or look the other way as Russia's attempts to expand its legitimacy in the developing world.

"Vietnam, like all other countries, has the right to develop its foreign policy according to its own interests," an EU spokesperson told DW.

At the same time, the spokesperson said it was "worth recalling that there is an arrest warrant against Putin by [the court] for the war crimes" over the Ukraine invasion before the International Criminal Court.

If Putin were to add another state visit while he is in Asia, it would be to North Korea, said Storey.

"But most likely he will simply return to Moscow, satisfied that his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was a success," he added.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic