Russia-Vietnam ties that seemed to be cooling after the end of the Cold War are warming up all over again. More than 20 years after Moscow abandoned its largest foreign base, Russian military aircraft are once again welcome visitors at Cam Ranh Bay.
The renewed Russian presence in Vietnam has predictably set the alarm bells ringing in the Pentagon, with the Commander of the US Army in the Pacific confirming that Russian strategic bombers circling the massive American military base in Guam are being refueled at Cam Ranh Bay.
On March 11 Washington wrote to Hanoi, requesting that the Vietnamese authorities not assist Russian bomber flights in the Asia-Pacific. The Vietnamese reaction was to remain publicly silent. According to Phuong Nguyen of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, “From the perspective of many Vietnamese officials who fought against the United States during the war, Moscow helped train generations of Vietnamese leaders and supported Hanoi during its decades of international isolation.”
Nguyen adds: “Few things are more vital to Vietnam than an independent foreign policy. Given Vietnam’s complex history, its leaders do not want their country to be caught between major powers again. Anything that resembles U.S. interference in Vietnam’s dealings with Russia could unnecessarily aggravate this fear.”
Although the Vietnamese consider the US an increasingly important partner in Southeast Asia, it’s Russia that tops the pecking order. A per an agreement inked in November 2014, Russian warships visiting the deep water port of Cam Ranh only have to give prior notice to the Vietnamese authorities before steaming in whereas all other foreign navies are limited to just one annual ship visit to Vietnamese ports.
Why Vietnam matters
Located at the gateway to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Vietnam is of critical importance to Russia. Permanent basing of air and naval assets in Vietnam helps the Russian Pacific Fleet solve its problem of having to pass through the narrow straits of the Sea of Japan to gain access to the Pacific.
To be sure, the current Russian presence is minimal compared with the firepower of the 1980s, when Moscow’s Pacific fleet consisted of an incredible 826 ships, including 133 submarines, 190 naval bomber jets and 150 anti-submarine aircraft. Even back then, Moscow’s buildup was hardly aggressive. According to Alvin H. Bernstein of the US Naval War College, it was “unlikely to have a specific, aggressive, regional intent since that would be quite out of character for a power” that has revealed itself as “cautious and non-confrontational”.
Three decades on, Moscow under President Vladimir Putin is once again seeking to enhance its role as both an Asian and global power, and as Bernstein noted, the country wants to be “prepared for all contingencies and opportunities”.
It’s also part of Vietnam’s Look East policy. In fact, much before US President Barack Obama announced its pivot to Asia, Russia was already pivoting East, making inroads into once pro-American countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
However, it is in Vietnam where Russian diplomacy is in overdrive. But first a quick flashback.
Vietnam is a small country with a military that punches way above its weight. For those with short memories, the Southeast Asia country handed out resounding defeats to France and the U.S. in back to back wars. Stupendous bravery, clever battle tactics and a never-say-die spirit were decisive in winning those wars, but a key factor was that the Vietnamese had powerful friends.
During the Vietnam War, Russia played a critical role in Vietnam’s defence, supplying a massive quantity of weapons. Over the course of the 21-year war Russian assistance was worth $2 million a day. In return, Vietnam offered Russia free use of the Cam Ranh Bay base. As part of this agreement, the Russians stationed MiG-23 fighters, Tu-16 tankers, Tu-95 long range bombers and Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft at the base.
Cam Ranh became Moscow’s largest naval base for forward deployment outside Europe. Some 20 ships were berthed daily at the base, along with six nuclear attack submarines. The base played a pivotal role in helping Russia in its Cold War faceoff against American-led forces in Asia and the Pacific. For instance, when the U.S. Seventh Fleet sailed up the Bay of Bengal to put pressure on India during the 1971 India Pakistan War, the Russian Pacific Fleet was quickly able to dispatch nuclear-armed submarines and warships to defend India.
Despite Cam Ranh Bay’s importance to Moscow geopolitically and its value as an intelligence gathering post, the Russian presence practically evaporated after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Military bases of the scale of Cam Ranh Bay cost an insane amount of money to operate and Russia no longer had cash to burn. In 2001, even the listening station was abandoned.
China gets Klubbed
Although the Russian military presence declined, strong ties continued to bind Russia and Vietnam. In the backdrop of Vietnam’s high-decibel spat with China for control of the oil-rich Spratly Islands, Hanoi went on a high-octane hardware hunt. Vietnam’s legendary air force acquired 24 Su-30 combat jets from Russia, and by the end of 2015, it will operate 36 Sukhois, becoming the third largest operator of this advanced super-maneuverable aircraft.
However, it is the Vietnam People’s Army Navy (VPAN) that is really beefing up. In 2009, Vietnam signed a $3.2 billion deal with Russia that includes six Kilo class submarines and construction of a submarine facility at Cam Ranh Bay.
Another big-ticket acquisition is that of 50 Klub supersonic cruise missiles for its Kilos, making Vietnam the first Southeast Asian nation to arm its submarine fleet with a land attack missile.
Weighing two tons, the Klub has a 200 kg warhead. The anti-ship version has a range of 300 km, but speeds up to 3,000 km an hour during its last minute or so of flight. According to Strategy Page, the land attack version does away with the high speed final approach feature and that makes possible a larger 400 kg warhead.
“What makes the Klub particularly dangerous when attacking ships is that during its final approach, which begins when the missile is about 15 km from its target, the missile speeds up,” reports Strategy Page. “Up to that point, the missile travels at an altitude of about a hundred feet. This makes the missile more difficult to detect. That plus the high speed final approach means that it covers that last 15 km in less than 20 seconds. This makes it more difficult for current anti-missile weapons to take it down.”
Russian built submarines armed with the potent Klubs are expected to play a critical role in any conflict in the South China Sea. According to one analyst, the land-attack cruise missiles mark a “massive shift” advancing Vietnam’s naval capabilities. “They’ve given themselves a much more powerful deterrent that complicates China’s strategic calculations.”
It is believed Chinese warships have no effective defense against missile like Klub, which why they have gone ballistic about Russia selling them to Vietnam.
While the Kilos are being built, Russia and India are currently in charge of training Vietnamese officers who will work in the submarines.
Further Russian firepower
Plus, in 2011 the VPAN acquired two Gepard-class guided missile stealth frigates from Russia at a cost of $300 million, with the Gepard fleet set to increase to six by 2017. These versatile ships are equipped for surface attacks, anti-submarine warfare and air defense.
The VPAN’s other acquisitions include four Svetlyak-class fast patrol boats with anti-ship missiles; 12 frigates and corvettes of Russian origin; and two Molniya-class missile fast attack ships built with Russian assistance, with four more expected by 2016.
Vietnam has also acquired advanced radars; 40 Yakhont and 400 Kh-35 Uran anti-ship missiles; Kh-59MK anti-ship cruise missiles; R-73 (AA-11 Archer) short-range air-to-air missiles; 200 SA-19 Grison surface-to-air missiles; two batteries of the legendary S-300 surface-to-air systems; VERA passive radio locators; and two batteries of the K-300P Bastion coastal defense missiles.
According to a research paper by Portugal-based academics Phuc Thi Tran, Alena Vysotskaya G. Vieira and Laura C. Ferreira-Pereira, “The acquisition of military capabilities is critical, not only purely for the sake of defense and strategic calculations, but also for the important function it plays in the safeguarding of both economic interests and the security of oil field explorations in the South China Sea. This latter aspect is particularly critical given the role that Russia has been playing herein. Indeed, the lion’s share of these exploitation projects has being undertaken by Vietnam jointly with Russia.”
While defense gets more traction in the media, it is energy that’s the single biggest area of cooperation between Moscow and Hanoi. The Russia-Vietnam joint venture Vietsovpetro has generated big dividends for both countries. The company has produced more than 185 million tons of crude oil and more than 21 billion cubic meters of gas from oilfields in the South China Sea. Nearly 80 per cent of Vietnamese oil and gas comes from Vietsovpetro, and the income corresponds to around 25 per cent of GDP.
Russia has also made considerable investments in Vietnam’s heavy and light industries, transportation, post, aquatic culture and fishing. These projects have led to other spinoffs – impressed by the profits generated by Russian corporations, a slew of other companies such as Mobil, BP and TOTAL have ramped up investments in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s strategic hedging towards Russia is closely connected to its economic cooperation in oil exploration, which brings significant economic benefits to both sides. Strong defense ties between the two countries has enabled Vietnam to acquire modern military equipment, providing the country with the ability to advance joint explorations of oil and gas despite growing Chinese opposition towards these projects.
At the same time, Russia is returning to reclaim its great power legacy. It offers Moscow a myriad of opportunities to secure political and economic influence with the various emerging powers in the heart of the most dynamic region on the planet.
Relegating the “Russia Problem” to Turkey
Turkey’s foreign policy is at a crossroads. Its Eurasianist twist is gaining momentum and looking east is becoming a new norm. Expanding its reach into Central Asia, in the hope of forming an alliance of sorts with the Turkic-speaking countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — is beginning to look more realistic. In the north, the north-east, in Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, there is an identifiable geopolitical arc where Turkey is increasingly able to puncture Russia’s underbelly.
Take Azerbaijan’s victory in Second Karabakh War. It is rarely noticed that the military triumph has also transformed the country into a springboard for Turkey’s energy, cultural and geopolitical interests in the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia. Just two months after the November ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey signed a new trade deal with Azerbaijan. Turkey also sees benefits from January’s Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan agreement which aims to jointly develop the Dostluk (Friendship) gas field under the Caspian Sea, and it recently hosted a trilateral meeting with the Azerbaijani and Turkmen foreign ministers. The progress around Dostlug removes a significant roadblock on the implementation of the much-touted Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) which would allow gas to flow through the South Caucasus to Europe. Neither Russia nor Iran welcome this — both oppose Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy hub and finding new sources of energy.
Official visits followed. On March 6-9, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Defense cooperation, preferential trade deals, and a free trade agreement were discussed in Tashkent. Turkey also resurrected a regional trade agreement during a March 4 virtual meeting of the so-called Economic Cooperation Organization which was formed in 1985 to facilitate trade between Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Though it has been largely moribund, the timing of its re-emergence is important as it is designed to be a piece in the new Turkish jigsaw.
Turkey is slowly trying to build an economic and cultural basis for cooperation based on the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency founded in 1991 and the Turkic Council in 2009. Although Turkey’s economic presence in the region remains overshadowed by China and Russia, there is a potential to exploit. Regional dependence on Russia and China is not always welcome and Central Asian states looking for alternatives to re-balance see Turkey as a good candidate. Furthermore, states such as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are also cash-strapped, which increases the potential for Turkish involvement.
There is also another dimension to the eastward push. Turkey increasingly views Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as parts of an emerging geopolitical area that can help it balance Russia’s growing military presence in the Black Sea and in the South Caucasus. With this in mind, Turkey is stepping up its military cooperation not only with Azerbaijan, but also with Georgia and Ukraine. The recent visit of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Turkey highlighted the defense and economic spheres. This builds upon ongoing work of joint drone production, increasing arms trade, and naval cooperation between the two Black Sea states.
The trilateral Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey partnership works in support of Georgia’s push to join NATO. Joint military drills are also taking place involving scenarios of repelling enemy attacks targeting the regional infrastructure.
Even though Turkey and Russia have shown that they are able to cooperate in different theaters, notably in Syria, they nonetheless remain geopolitical competitors with diverging visions. There is an emerging two-pronged strategy Turkey is now pursuing to address what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees as a geopolitical imbalance. Cooperate with Vladimir Putin where possible, but cooperate with regional powers hostile to Russia where necessary.
There is one final theme for Turkey to exploit. The West knows its limits. The Caspian Sea is too far, while an over-close relationship with Ukraine and Georgia seems too risky. This creates a potential for cooperation between Turkey and the collective West. Delegating the “Russia problem” to Turkey could be beneficial, though it cannot change the balance of power overnight and there will be setbacks down the road.
The Future of the Arctic
The harsh ecological conditions of the Arctic in the past have sustained economic activity in the region. Climate change, new technologies and innovations open new perspectives for the development of these territories. The Arctic has turned into one of the hotspots of geopolitics: global and regional players are striving to expand their borders. Watching the Arctic is a complex problem, so the solution can only be secured by integrating the forces of all parties in the Arctic.
It is impossible to discuss the development of the Arctic from the standpoint “whether we are going to exploit it or not”, as the industrial development of the Arctic started about 100 years ago. Today 10 million people live around Arctic, only about 10% of them are indigenous peoples. The main question is how we can make this development responsible and sustainable to ensure all three aspects – economic, social and environmental – in the long term and who should be a stakeholder in this activity.
Scientists from Russia, Norway and Iceland, despite the difficulties and deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, are conducting an active dialogue on the future of the Arctic. They call for enhanced cooperation and joint development of the Arctic for the benefit of humanity, not for geopolitical confrontation, because “Together we are stronger.” Scientists have also called for attracting the capabilities of space satellites to conquer the Arctic and solve various tasks and problems. They hope to strengthen public and private investment in human capital, for better education, to attract more talented people, to create high-paying jobs for young people, to create and develop smart cities. The Arctic is an excellent opportunity for a clean and green economy, for Industry 4.0 and for the creation of new industries.
As part of the High North Dialogue Arctic 2050: Mapping the future, a panel discussion was held on April 23, 2021. The umbrella theme of all Arctic 2050 presentations: Mapping The Future of the Arctic and exhibitors tried to give their views on development and change in the Arctic over the next few decades from the standpoint of economy, trade and maritime transport, energy, ecology and social trends. During the panel Russian scientists from the Skolkovo School of Management, one of the leading research centers in Russia and their Norwegian colleagues discussed possible scenarios for the development of the Arctic in the next 30 years
Although almost all exhibitors were wary of more accurate predictions given the many factors that potentially determine the course of events in this area, the general impression that could be gained from different presentations is that greater importance is expected in this area in world economic and traffic flows. Development opportunities in mining, energy and maritime transport are great, but there are also great unknowns and potential temptations regarding the mutual rivalry of countries in this area, regulating legal and policy frameworks for the implementation of development policies and finally regarding climate change and risk environment.
The ability to think long-term, and to maintain a balance between all three dimensions, is what is called a ‘sustainable mindset’ and this is exactly what the Arctic needs from leaders now and in the future. A new leadership agenda emerges in each and every sector, reflecting the paradigm shift: policymakers will have to work towards creating an enabling environment, incentivizing more responsible investment in the Arctic, instead of trying to find a balance between economic activity and environmental footprint business needs to turn away from the cost reduction imperative and concentrate on creating innovation in technology and business models that together will make it possible to do business in the Arctic sustainably, which means both at the new level of productivity as well as in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. NGOs must concentrate on facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogs aimed at finding a balance of interests, rather than lobbying for limiting policies and challenging business activity in the region. What is more important, is that, just as with the triple bottom line, these paradigm shifts should be synchronized and synergetic. The sustainable future of the Arctic tarts with the sustainable thinking of the leaders of today.
Disagreements between States Should Be Resolved in a Peaceful Manner Based on International Law
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has appreciated the role of Pakistan in the peace process of Afghanistan. He said that Russia expects that the meeting of the extended ‘Troika’ will give a necessary impetus to the Intra-Afghan negotiation and active role of Pakistan in the preparation of this event is appreciable.
Visiting Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed these views during in an interview and its important points are shared below:
Q1.: Recently, another round of consultations took place in Moscow as part of the extended “Troika” on Afghanistan, which will likely to be followed by a session of talks in Doha. What are the prospects for an intra-Afghan dialogue given that the government of President Ashraf Ghani avoids such negotiations? How will peace and security in South Asia be affected by India’s unilateral actions in Kashmir, its active participation in the “Quad” (USA-India-Japan-Australia) and its dispute over the border areas with China?
Answer: We expect that the meeting of the extended “Troika” of March 18, 2021 will give a necessary impetus to the intra-Afghan negotiations. We note the active role of the Pakistani side in the preparation of this event. Moscow also hosted separate meetings between the Afghan delegation (headed by the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah) and representatives of the Taliban. We consider it important that both sides speak in favour of intensifying the intra-Afghan negotiation process.
As for New Delhi’s participation in the “Quad”, we proceed from the fact that India as a responsible world power determines its foreign policy priorities by itself. At the same time we are convinced that disagreements between states in any region of the world including, of course, South Asia, should be resolved in a peaceful, civilized manner based on international law. Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is ready to assist this in every possible way.
In principle we do not support the creation of divisive geopolitical structures in the spirit of the cold war. In modern conditions there is demand for such multilateral associations, initiatives and concepts which are based on the principles of inclusiveness, collegiality and equality. It is this philosophy that underlies the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Moscow, Islamabad and New Delhi are members, he said.
Russia is interested in building up cooperation with the Pakistani, Indian and other partners in Eurasia. We have common interests, above all, ensuring security and improving the quality of life of the peoples of our countries. A unifying agenda is being promoted by the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin to develop Greater Eurasian Partnership. Participation in it is open to all states of the continent, including the members of the EAEU, SCO, ASEAN, as well as, in case there is such interest, the European Union. Systematic implementation of the initiative will not only strengthen positive connectivity and improve the competitiveness of all participants but will also be a solid foundation in building a common continental space of peace and stability, he said.
Q2.: Your comments on the global multilateral response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the issue of equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines. What role could the UN and other multilateral organizations play in resolving conflicts and ensuring the rule of law in relations between states?
Answer: Despite efforts to curb the coronavirus infection, unfortunately, the international community has not fully coped with this dangerous challenge. The current crisis not only reminds of the enduring value of a human life but also shows again that sooner or later most of the problems of our time become common. To tackle them efficiently we need to unite. Therefore from the very beginning we urged our partners to take joint steps. Now it is especially important to suspend trade barriers, illegitimate sanctions and restrictions in the financial, technological and information spheres.
The epidemic has demythologized the idea of superiority of the ultra-liberal model of development. It is obvious that self-sufficient countries with clearly formulated national interests demonstrate greater stress resistance. Those who took the path of ceding their independence, part of national sovereignty to others lost. We regard WHO as the main international platform for coordinating global efforts in the fight against the pandemic. We presume that, on the whole, the Organization is coping with its functions. We will continue to provide multifaceted support to it.
Russia is one of the leaders in the field of global health care. We will continue to contribute to international efforts to combat COVID-19. We will continue to help the affected states both in bilateral formats and within multilateral structures. Our accumulated potential for countering infections allowed us to develop and launch the production of the Sputnik V vaccine in a short space of time. To date two more Russian vaccines against the new coronavirus infection have been registered.
Now the priority is vaccination of the population. Of course, the issue of an equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines is very sensitive, especially for the poorest countries. In this regard we are ready to deliver safe and efficient Russian vaccines on a transparent basis. A lot of work is being done on this track. We have agreements on the supply of our vaccines with more than 50 states. A number of countries have launched the production of Sputnik V.
As for the second part of the question, the subjunctive mood is not entirely appropriate here. Same as 75 years ago, the UN is the “cornerstone” of the international legal architecture and its Security Council bears the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.
Despite the growing challenges, the UN on the whole successfully copes with its responsibilities to resolve conflicts. As an example, I can mention more than ten peacekeeping operations currently deployed in various parts of the world. Even amid the difficulties caused by the pandemic, the Blue Helmets continue to fulfill their duty with dignity.
Russia as a founding member of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council advocates strengthening the central role of the Organization in the world affairs. Our constant priority is to contribute to the formation of a more just and democratic, multipolar world order. It should be based on the UN Charter and not on dubious concepts such as the “rules-based order” promoted by Washington and its allies.
Q3.: How close are the views of Russia and Pakistan on the various regional and international issues such as Afghanistan, peace and prosperity in South Asia and the Middle East? What are the plans for the development of trade and economic cooperation between the two countries especially in energy and other sectors as well as in defense?
Answer: Moscow and Islamabad enjoy friendly, constructive relations which are based on the concurrence or similarity of approaches to the majority of topical issues of the international and regional agenda. Among them are the issues of strategic stability and of course Afghanistan. Suffice it to say that during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly the Pakistani partners supported all draft resolutions submitted by Russia and co-sponsored most of them. And, of course, we appreciate the contribution of Islamabad to the advancement of national reconciliation in Afghanistan, including through the mechanism of the extended “Troika” as mentioned above. I would like to note that our states are consistent proponents of settling conflicts including in the Middle East and North Africa solely by political and diplomatic means in compliance with the principles of the UN Charter.
In the area of bilateral relations our priorities are well known. These are, above all, cooperation in combatting terrorism as well as trade and economic ties. We will continue to provide assistance in strengthening the anti-terrorist potential of the Pakistani law enforcement agencies through joint exercises including “Druzhba” (Friendship) and the “Arabian Monsoon”.
In the field of practical cooperation we also have a lot to be proud of. The past year saw a record volume of bilateral trade: it grew by 46% and reached $790 million. We are making necessary efforts to start the construction of the North-South gas pipeline – the flagship project in the energy sector. We hope that all remaining technical issues will be agreed upon in the very near future. Russian companies are ready to participate in the modernization of the energy sector and the railroad system of Pakistan.
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