Legal Initiatives for VIETNAM director, Trinh Huu Long lends his voice to Southeast Asia Globe as they examine the distinct relationship between Vietnam and Russia, and how the former's abstention from the UN resolution vote to denounce Russia's aggression against Ukraine could affect Vietnam's economy, energy sector, defense capabilities and even the future of activism in the country.

Title: Vietnam and the Russian ties that bind them
Publish Date: March 17, 2022
Publisher: Southeast Asia Globe


Trinh Huu Long woke up on 24 February angry to see the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He was angered not only by Putin’s aggression but worried over what this war will mean for Vietnam.

“This could be a start of something worse, not only for Europe but for Asia,” said Long, the Taiwan-based co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, a nonprofit promoting democracy.

“This has everything to do with Vietnam as a small country living next to a giant power,” Long said of Vietnam’s 1,297-kilometre (806-mile) border with China. “We are very vulnerable. We need to rely on a rules-based international order.”

But Vietnam has a distinct allyship with Russia and has not issued an outright condemnation of the invasion. The Soviet Union backed northern Vietnam during its decades-long war with the U.S. and the aid continued after 1975.

The United Nations General Assembly gathered in New York City on 2 March to vote on a resolution condemning Moscow for invading Ukraine and demanding withdrawal of military forces. The room erupted in applause when two large screens showed the majority of nations voted for the resolution.

While 141 countries voted in favour and five countries opposed the resolution, Vietnam was one of 35 nations to abstain from voting.

Long said his country’s UN action did not accurately reflect the will of citizens, noting that Dang Hoang Giang essentially “agreed that this was unlawful but they voted otherwise.”

“I think that the majority of Vietnamese people voted with the 141 countries that voted yes for the resolution,” Long said. “The Vietnamese government does not represent the Vietnamese people’s public opinion on this Ukraine issue. It is so clear that it is a grave violation of international law.”

Long said Vietnam’s citizens should expect more from their representation on the international stage: “This is irresponsible. We are on the wrong side of history on this issue.”

He added that a delegation of Vietnamese civil society organisations met with the Ukrainian ambassador at its embassy in Vietnam with a letter of support from more than 200 organisations and individuals.

“[The Vietnamese population] is divided but I believe that the majority is on Ukraine’s side, not Russia’s,” Long said.

Vietnam’s economy, energy sector, defence capabilities and the future of activism could all be impacted by Russia’s military campaign.

Long noted Vietnam’s media outlets are not allowed to use the word ‘invasion’ in reference to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and critical statements in local news sources are suppressed.

Most of the Vietnam army’s military equipment is purchased from Russia, which could be halted as a result of sanctions by Western nations, Giang said, although the country has been able to purchase military items from Israel and the U.S. since 2015.

A 2019 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found Vietnam imported 84% of its total arms from Russia between 1995 and 2019. The submarines, tanks, fighter jets and assorted weaponry totaled $7.4 billion during the time period.

Hop concurred that sanctions against Russia could hurt its Southeast Asia ally and business partner.

“Sanctions to Russia have been affecting Vietnam negatively from 2014. New Western sanctions will further impact Vietnam,” he said, adding that Russia’s supply of weapons and military equipment maintenance to Vietnam has provided conventional deterrence to an invasion.

Long said Vietnam “cannot survive in a might-equals-right international order.”

“I just hope that a small country like Vietnam would be more supportive of a rules-based international order,” he said. “This is not about choosing sides between Russia or Ukraine. You are choosing principles.”