While Socialist Republic of Vietnam has remained the Russian Federation’s most important partner in Southeast Asia in the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin no longer has the outsized voice in Hanoi that it enjoyed in the 1980s. With Vietnam courting the United States as a security patron and the People’s Republic of China simultaneously its largest trading partner and main strategic rival, Moscow’s relevance in Hanoi lags far behind either Washington or Beijing’s.
Nonetheless, Vietnam is using Russia in its broad foreign policy strategy of playing greater powers down the middle. As the U.S. cries foul in lockstep with Vietnam over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, Russian state energy firms quietly extract oil and gas in the sea alongside Vietnam under China’s nose. And while Russia refuses to publicly side with Vietnam in its maritime disputes with China and considers U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to be a form of meddling, it was not Washington but the Kremlin that recently outfitted Vietnam with Southeast Asia’s largest fleet of attack submarines.
The Russian Federation, having devoted little attention to Southeast Asia since 1991, is also keen on using Vietnam as a gateway for renewed relations with the rest of the region and its rapidly growing economies. It would also like to re-establish its military presence in Vietnam to augment its strategic presence in the Pacific. But while Vietnam is happy to let Russia sell it weapons and drill for fossil fuels in its territory, it is wary of letting its old friend get too close lest it damper its increasingly warm and crucial ties with the U.S. Russia has far to go to convince Vietnam that the Kremlin will do more than play third fiddle to China and the U.S.