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Russia-Vietnam Relations

Relations with Russia occupy an important, but by no means central place in Vietnam's foreign policy. An influential generation of policymakers continues to hold surprisingly warm feelings toward Russia, and ties have improved steadily since the Yeltsin years. In addition to their formal biannual strategic dialogue, the two sides consult regularly at the UN Security Council and through the ASEAN Regional Forum and APEC. But long gone are the days when Vietnam was forced to rely on the Soviet Union as its sole international benefactor.

Even as it seeks to deepen its relations with Russia, particularly in the areas of trade and investment, Vietnam does so in the context of an overall foreign policy that seeks to diversify bilateral relationships and to enmesh these in a framework of multilateral engagement. There are few illusions that Vietnam can "balance" China with Russia. Similarly, while many in Vietnam's foreign policy establishment might sympathize with Russian positions, say, on Kosovo and Georgia, Hanoi's decision-making remains grounded in an unsentimental calculus of national interest.

At the peak of ideological ties between Hanoi and Moscow, the three-and-a-half decades between the mid-1950s and 1990, the former Soviet Union flooded Vietnam with concessionary loans and arms shipments. The USSR supplied North, and later unified, Vietnam with 2,000 tanks, 1,700 armored vehicles, 7,000 pieces of artillery and mortars, 5,000 pieces of artillery, 158 missile complexes, 700 warplanes, 120 helicopters, and more than 100 naval vessels.

Some three quarters of the weaponry now used by the Vietnamese army is Russian. After the Soviet Union's collapse, its military aid was replaced by Russian commercial armament sales because Vietnam's 450,000-strong army still needs Russian arms and spare parts. In 1995, Vietnam bought six Su-27 Flanker fighter jets for $150 million and in 1997 signed a contract for six more planes and spare parts. Since then, Vietnam has taken delivery of 12 Russian-built Su-30 multirole jet fighters, and the recent purchase will bring that total to 24. Russia has also helped Vietnam beef up its navy by providing it with corvettes and guided-missile frigates. With the 2009 submarine and aircraft contracts, Vietnam became one of Russia's five largest arms clients, alongside India, Algeria, Venezuela and China.

Many Vietnamese maintain warm personal feelings toward Russia, dating from Vietnam's years as a stalwart member of the Soviet bloc. This is particularly true for an influential generation of officials, mostly northerners, who received training in Moscow or elsewhere in the Soviet Union and occupy senior positions throughout the Party and state apparatus. Topping the list [as of 2008] were CPV General Secretary Nong Duc Manh, who studied Forestry at Leningrad from 1966 to 1971; Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, who attended the Voroshilov Military Academy in 1989; and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong and Hanoi Party Chief Pham Quang Nghi, who did post-graduate work at the Soviet Academy of Social Sciences in the 1980s. But the influence goes much deeper, extending beyond the Party and state ministries, to local administration, the arts, and academia. While few would want to relive the international isolation and economic hardship that marked that period in Vietnam's history, to this day many middle-aged Hanoians profess appreciation for Soviet support and a surprising degree of nostalgia for their student days.

Sentimentalism toward Russia is largely a northern phenomenon, characteristic of an aging generation. Even the most ardent proponents of Vietnam-Russian ties recognize that English is now the second language of choice for most young Vietnamese, followed by Chinese. Market economics and an increasingly globalized culture have significantly diminished Russia's appeal.The two countries' USD one billion in bilateral trade is dwarfed by Vietnam's trade with the United States, the EU, and China.

The Soviet Union

Since the earliest days of the VCP, when the party's primary mentor was the Comintern, the Soviet Union has played a complex role in VCP affairs. Many of Vietnam's leaders had trained in the Soviet Union and had formed personal ties with their Soviet contemporaries. Historically, however, the relationship between the two nations has been characterized by strain, particularly on the Vietnamese side, and the record suggests several instances of Soviet neglect or betrayal of Vietnamese interests. These included Moscow's indifference to the founding of the VCP in 1930; failure to support materially or otherwise the Vietnamese resistance war against the French in the 1930s and early 1940s; failure to recognize North Vietnam until five years after its founding; failure to support Vietnam's application for membership in the UN in 1948 and 1951; support for the partitioning of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference in 1954; and sponsorship of a proposal to admit both North and South Vietnam to the UN in 1956. These examples of Soviet policy reminded the Vietnamese of the peril inherent in placing too much trust in a foreign ally.

The Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s favorably altered the Soviet attitude toward Vietnam. Beginning in 1965, the Soviets initiated a program of military assistance to Hanoi that proved invaluable in carrying on the Second Indochina War. Hanoi, however, continued to suspect Soviet motives and perceived that Soviet aid, when offered, was insufficient and given only grudgingly after repeated appeals.

Following the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, Hanoi sought to retain the equilibrium of its wartime relations with both China and the Soviet Union, but mounting tensions with Beijing, culminating in the loss of Chinese aid in 1978, compelled Hanoi to look increasingly to Moscow for economic and military assistance. Beginning in late 1975, a number of significant agreements were signed between the two countries. One coordinated the national economic development plans of the two countries, and another called for the Soviet Union to underwrite Vietnam's first post-reunification Five-Year Plan. The first formal alliance was achieved in June 1978 when Vietnam joined Comecon. That organization, which facilitated the economic integration of the Soviet Union, six East European countries, Cuba, and Mongolia, was able to offer economic assistance for some of the projects abandoned by China.

Vietnam's decision to invade Cambodia, which the leadership apparently made shortly after joining Comecon, required more than economic assistance from the Soviets. The possibility of a formal alliance between Hanoi and Moscow had apparently been discussed since 1975, but the Vietnamese had rejected the idea in order to protect their relationship with China. In 1978 that relationship had deteriorated to the point where protecting it was no longer a consideration, and circumstances in Cambodia confirmed the need for Vietnamese-Soviet military cooperation. In spite of Vietnam's needs, it is likely that the November 1978 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was imposed by the Soviets as a condition for military assistance. As a result of the treaty, the Vietnamese granted the Soviets access to the facilities at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay. Use of the bases represented a substantial regional strategic gain for Moscow, whose naval bases in the Pacific Ocean, until then, had been limited to the Soviet Far East.

Soviet support sustained Vietnamese operations in Cambodia. Military aid in 1978 approached US$800 million annually, but after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the Chinese attack on Vietnam in February 1979, the figure rose to almost US$1.4 billion. The sharp increase, reflecting the Soviet effort to replace quickly Vietnamese equipment losses on the SinoVietnamese border, was subsequently reduced to between US$800 and 900 million in 1980 and between US$900 million and 1 billion in 1981. Military aid increased to 1.7 billion annually in the 1982- 85 period, and decreased to an estimated US$1.5 billion in 1985. Reported Soviet dissatisfaction with Hanoi's handling of Cambodia, stemming from the stalemated battlefield situation and its high costs, did not appear to affect Moscow's decision to continue to provide assistance for the war. At the end of 1987, there was no indication that the Soviets were pressing Vietnam to resolve the conflict.

In addition to its role as Vietnam's exclusive donor of military aid, the Soviet Union in 1987 was also Vietnam's largest contributor of economic aid and its biggest trade partner. During the Third Five-Year Plan (1981-85), the Soviets provided some US$5.4 billion in balance-of-payments aid, project assistance, and oil price subsidies. Total economic aid for 1986 was an estimated US$1.8 billion. The Soviets also have been a major supplier of food and commodity aid on a mostly grant-aid or softcurrency basis. By 1983 they were supplying 90 percent of Vietnam's petroleum, iron and steel, fertilizer, and cotton imports and 70 percent of its grain imports.

Soviet-Vietnamese ties in the mid-1980s were sound, although troubled by some underlying strain. The Vietnamese distrusted Soviet intentions and resented Hanoi's dependent role; the Soviets in turn distrusted the Vietnamese for not confiding in them. Reportedly, on a number of occasions Moscow learned of major Vietnamese policy plans and changes only after the fact. According to some foreign observers, the Soviets were not entirely prepared for the sudden deterioration in Sino-Vietnamese relations in 1978, and they may not have been aware of the full extent of Vietnamese plans in Cambodia. Others believe the Soviet Union was aware of the deterioration and was allowing Vietnam to play the role of proxy in Moscow's own dispute with Beijing.

Friction was particularly evident in economic relations. The Soviets resented the enormous burden of their aid program to Vietnam and felt that much of it was wasted because of Vietnamese inefficiency. In turn, the Vietnamese were offended by Moscow's 1980 decision to reduce aid in the face of severe economic hardships in Vietnam. In the mid-1980s, aid continued at a reduced rate although Vietnam's economic situation had worsened.

The prospect of an improvement in the state of Sino-Soviet relations in the mid-1980s did not appear to threaten the Soviet Union's ties with Vietnam. Although China demanded that Moscow ensure Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia as a condition to normalizing the Sino-Soviet relationship, Vietnamese leaders proceeded as if they were sure their existing policy in Cambodia would not be threatened. The Soviets even went so far as to promote improved relations between Hanoi and Beijing. At Vietnam's Sixth Party Congress in December 1986, the senior member of the Soviet delegation suggested that the normalization of relations between Vietnam and China would improve the situation in Asia and the world as a whole. The Vietnamese agreed with this premise but were unwilling to seek improved ties at the expense of weakening their position in Cambodia.

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