Russia and Vietnam vowed Thursday to strengthen bilateral ties as President Vladimir Putin made a state visit, seeking to bolster alliances amid Moscow’s increasing isolation due to the war in Ukraine.

Putin traveled to Vietnam, a close ally of Moscow since the days of the Cold War, from a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un where he won a pledge of “full support” on Ukraine and signed a mutual defense pact.

The Russian leader did not receive such a clear public declaration of support in Hanoi, but Vietnamese President To Lam indicated a desire to boost defense cooperation.

“The two sides want to push up cooperation in defense and security, how to deal with non-traditional security challenges based on international law, for peace and security in the region and the world,” Lam told reporters after talks with Putin.

Russia has been Vietnam’s main arms supplier for decades, accounting for more than 80% of imports between 1995 and 2023 but orders have dropped off in recent years as international sanctions related to the Ukraine conflict have intensified.

The two sides said in a joint statement that their defense and security cooperation was “not directed against any third country” and contributed to “peace, stability and sustainable development” in the region.

Lam and Putin signed around a dozen cooperation agreements ranging from education to justice and civil nuclear projects.

Putin told reporters the talks were constructive and that both sides had “identical or very close” positions on key international issues.

Putin later held talks with Nguyen Phu Trong, the powerful general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, and laid a wreath at the memorial to independence leader Ho Chi Minh.

Drumming up support

Putin’s Asia tour came as Western powers stepped up sanctions aimed at constraining Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The United States, Britain and the European Union all announced new sanctions over the past week, while the G-7 agreed to use profits from frozen Russian assets to provide a new $50-billion loan to Kyiv.

Making his first visit to isolated North Korea in 24 years Wednesday, Putin signed a strategic treaty with Kim that included a commitment to come to each other’s aid if attacked.

Washington and its allies accuse North Korea of supplying ammunition and missiles to Russia for its war in Ukraine, and the new treaty has fueled fears of more deliveries.

The U.S. State Department said deepening Russia-North Korea ties were “of great concern,” while a top Ukrainian official accused Pyongyang of abetting Moscow’s “mass murder of Ukrainians.”

The two countries have been allies since North Korea’s founding after World War II and have drawn even closer since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 isolated Putin on the global stage.

Kim vowed his “full support and solidarity” over the war in Ukraine, which has also triggered rafts of UN sanctions on Moscow.

Putin called for a review of UN sanctions on North Korea and said the two countries would not submit to Western “blackmail”.

Trade and arms

Putin received a rapturous reception in the North Korean capital, embraced by Kim as he stepped off his plane and greeted by cheering crowds, synchronized dancers and flag-waving children.

His reception was more reserved in Vietnam, a major global manufacturing hub that has carefully hedged its foreign policy position for years, seeking to be friends with all but beholden to none.

It has particularly sought to avoid picking sides in the growing U.S.-China rivalry as both superpowers look to boost their influence in Southeast Asia.

U.S. President Joe Biden visited Hanoi in September to promote ties as his administration seeks to build up Vietnam as an alternative supplier of key high-tech components to reduce American dependence on China.

Beijing swiftly followed suit, with President Xi Jinping making his own state visit barely three months later.

Vietnam has abstained in U.N. votes condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, in an op-ed in the Communist Party mouthpiece Nhan Dan newspaper, Putin thanked Hanoi for its “balanced stance on the Ukraine crisis.”

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