Putin in Asia: Setting a cat among the pigeons

Ian Hill




This article first appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute

240627 Vladimir Putin and President of Vietnam To Lams statements to the media 2024
Ever a pragmatist, the Russian leader’s calculated alignments are purely based on needs and interests

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit last week to Pyongyang and Hanoi captured headlines around the world. But it was hardly unexpected – indeed, a logical step in Russia’s post-Ukraine invasion tilt to Asia seeking friends and markets.

Hitherto, the focus of Russia’s Asia diplomacy has been on China.

Moscow’s estrangement from the West after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has pushed it closer to Beijing for compelling political, security and economic reasons.

It’s increasingly an asymmetric partnership, with Russia very much the dependent partner, but nonetheless a strategic necessity for Moscow. Russia and China share political alignment, economic complementarity, and foreign policy convergence, especially hostility to US primacy.

While it has strong historical connections dating back to Soviet times, Russia’s high-level re-engagement with North Korea and Vietnam is similarly a pragmatic calculation.

Essentially, the Russia–North Korea “bromance” is a hard-nosed transactional deal reflecting mutual needs and interests: Moscow needs North Korean munitions, while Pyongyang wants Russian military know-how and economic assistance (especially food and oil). And it offers strategic advantages for both sides.

Moscow is already getting North Korean military supplies. According to South Korea, North Korea has supplied potentially five million artillery shells to Russia, while North Korean missile debris has been identified on the battlefield in Ukraine.

The comprehensive strategic partnership signed on 19 June by Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is most notable for the mutual defence pledge (echoing the 1962 USSR–North Korea treaty), but is otherwise vague on specifics. It mentions “joint activities to strengthen defence capabilities”, while Putin added he would not rule out sending weapons to North Korea – linking this to the West’s support for Ukraine.

Exactly what the impoverished pariah state will get from its new best friend remains unclear. Kim will naturally have exacted a price. North Korea’s economy, and its citizens, are ailing (by Kim’s own admission) and Kim badly needs whatever help he can get.

But how much military know-how Russia is willing to share with North Korea is uncertain. This is not a trust-based relationship, and it’s fair to assume a wary Moscow will give Pyongyang no more than necessary.

Nonetheless, the geopolitical significance of closer Russia–North Korea ties is clear. For both, it undercuts their diplomatic isolation and demonstrates – not least to China – that they have agency and options to act internationally.

Russia and Vietnam go back a long way, too.

Welcoming Putin, President To Lam spoke of Vietnam’s “loyalty and gratitude”, referring to the extensive political, economic and military assistance Moscow provided to Hanoi from the 1950s to 1980s. Vietnam’s armed forces still depend heavily on Russian equipment. And Russia is a key partner in Vietnam’s off-shore oil and gas production. The nuclear cooperation agreement Putin signed in Hanoi this month suggests Russia’s intention to remain an important energy partner.

But Putin’s visit to Hanoi was as much symbolic as substantive. It allowed Russia and Vietnam to demonstrate their autonomy and agency to act internationally. For Hanoi, this exemplifies their “bamboo diplomacy”: flexibly balancing relations with major powers, not taking sides, and guided by Vietnam’s own interests.

Russian statements in Hanoi and Pyongyang about the need for a new multipolar security architecture, free of “closed military-security blocs” reflects a longstanding Moscow aspiration – to break up the United States’ network of alliance relationships in East Asia.

Putin will have returned home satisfied with his trip.

He likely secured Pyongyang’s commitment to ongoing supplies of North Korean military materiel. While Moscow is working overtime to ramp up domestic military production to make good its heavy losses in Ukraine, the North Korean munitions buy Russia valuable time.

And geopolitically, Putin has set the cat among the pigeons.

For Washington, Russia’s defence partnership with Pyongyang worsens an already troubling and complex North Asian security equation. Not knowing exactly what it involves – especially how far Russian assistance for North Korea’s weapons programs might go – merely compounds the uncertainty. The risk is that an emboldened Kim Jong-un, sensing Moscow has his back, steps up aggressive and provocative confrontation with his neighbours, South Korea and Japan, and their ally, the United States.

China will be watching cautiously.

Beijing values stability on the Korean Peninsula, and wants to remain the dominant influence over Pyongyang. While happy to see Washington discomforted, China will be concerned if North Korean bellicosity drives Seoul, Tokyo and Washington closer together. Putin’s visit to Pyongyang represented a worrying further departure from international norms by Russia: a show of defiance, flagrantly breaching longstanding UN sanctions, and showing contempt for the multilateral order Russia is committed to uphold as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.

Depending on the kind of assistance Russia might provide for North Korea’s weapons programs, it may also undermine the already-beleaguered global non-proliferation regime.

Sadly, this is perpetuating a negative trend.

Moscow seems increasingly to relish the role of international spoiler, and is nowadays mostly a disruptive actor on the global stage – whether it be on climate change (witness its unhelpful stance at COP 28), non-proliferation (to whit, its blocking of a hard-fought consensus at the 2022 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), or Antarctica.

Through geography and history, Russia has always been part of East Asian power dynamics. Since the demise of the USSR, its role has been more muted. But Moscow’s post-Ukraine shift away from Europe and towards reburnishing old friends and partners in Asia has rebooted Russia’s interests and stake in the region – and not helpfully from the West’s standpoint.




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