Strategic Defiance: Putin’s Recent Asia Tour Amid International Sanctions


Russian President Vladimir Putin recently visited North Korea and Vietnam during his Asia tour, where he signed several significant agreements. These visits came at a time of heightened sanctions on Russia and Moscow’s attempts to assert its influence in Asia. Putin intends to demonstrate solidarity and bolster ties with countries like North Korea and Vietnam, thereby maintaining a strategic presence in the region and enhancing economic and military cooperation despite the sanctions.

During his visit to Pyongyang, Putin signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with the country. The new agreement replaces the Friendship, Cooperation, and Good Neighborliness Treaty signed in 2000 during Putin’s initial presidency and Kim Jong Il’s leadership. The new defense pact stipulates mutual assistance in the event of an attack on either party. Deepening military partnership with Russia will also help North Korea modernize its weapons which has been a priority for President Kim Jong Un.

In 2017, Putin stated that he did not recognize North Korea’s nuclear status and had urged the United States to not provoke, calling for a peaceful resolution. However, as Russia faces increased isolation, its stance has changed now. Passing resolutions against North Korea has become increasingly difficult due to recent Russian interventions. For instance, in May 2022, Russia, alongside China, vetoed a US-sponsored resolution that sought to impose new sanctions on North Korea following a series of intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Earlier this year, Russia vetoed a US-proposed resolution to extend the mandate of a UN expert panel responsible for monitoring sanctions on North Korea.

Putin’s visit to North Korea, the most isolated nation, appears to be a particularly desperate move. The United States and South Korea allege that North Korea supplies weapons to aid Russia in its conflict in Ukraine, with reports of Pyongyang transferring ballistic missiles and munitions. Kim conveyed to Putin that North Korea fully supports and stands in solidarity with the Russian government, army and people in their special military operation in Ukraine.

The defense pact between the two countries is likely to facilitate increased weapons transfers to Russia. As Russia ramps up its weapons production, securing cheaper supplies from North Korea will help alleviate some of its burdens. The bonhomie between both countries is shaped by their shared anti-US stance and a desire to challenge US dominance which remains the fulcrum of their alliance.

For North Korea, this partnership bolsters domestic propaganda amid rising border tensions with South Korea and the United States. Kim has capitalized on this opportunity to highlight North Korea’s strong alliance with Russia. Additionally, this cooperation could assist North Korea in addressing its energy deficit. North Korea requires food, industrial materials, machinery, weapons and other essentials, and in return, it could provide cheap ammunition and labor to bolster Russia’s war-depleted workforce.

In terms of broader implications, Russia’s growing cooperation with Pyongyang could pose a challenge for China, which has long held a dominant influence over North Korea. Pyongyang’s ability to diversify its partnerships could eventually enable it to act more independently, creating a strategic headache for China. North Korea aims to avoid excessive dependence on Beijing despite conducting 80%-90% of its foreign trade with China. This strategic approach reflects North Korea’s efforts to increase diplomatic and economic autonomy while managing its crucial economic ties with China.

South Korea’s recent responses also reflect the broader regional implications of deepening ties between Moscow and Pyongyang. South Korea announced it was contemplating sending weapons to Ukraine, marking a significant policy shift prompted by the defense pact between Russia and North Korea, which has raised regional and global concerns. Russia considers it crucial to dissuade South Korea from providing weapons to Ukraine, as evidenced in recent statements.

During Putin’s visit to Vietnam, he met Vietnamese President To Lam and oversaw the signing of 11 cooperation agreements covering diverse sectors like higher education, justice, and nuclear research. The agreements also cover scientific exchange, epidemic prevention, and energy cooperation. It is important to note that Russia was the first country to sign a strategic partnership with Vietnam in 2001 and nearly 80% of Vietnam’s arms imports come from Russia. Through this visit, Putin also sought to increase the bandwidth of Moscow’s engagement in the region across different fields, especially as Vietnam has emerged as a leader in manufacturing and agriculture, significantly strengthening its economy.

However, Vietnam’s approach toward Russia is different from North Korea despite its historic ties with Russia. Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy” demonstrates its ability to be flexible while preserving essential ties with the United States, a strategic move to counterbalance China’s influence amid longstanding South China Sea disputes​. Moreover, Vietnam has maintained neutrality regarding the Russia-Ukraine war, although navigating this stance is becoming increasingly complex. Vietnam seeks US support to advance its economic goals and broaden its defense partnerships. In 2023, bilateral trade between Russia and Vietnam amounted to $3.6 billion, contrasting with $171 billion with China and $111 billion with the United States.

In the current context, Russia recognizes the need to navigate and reinforce relationships with nations that maintain longstanding military alliances with Moscow, which cannot be abruptly altered. Russia also aims to position itself as a leader of the Global South, expressing shared concerns about the Western-dominated global order. Amid global discontent and pressure on the United States in the context of its stance on issues such as the Gaza war, Russia might attempt to exploit the opportunity to exert further pressure on the US administration by threatening to share nuclear technology and transfer critical weapons to North Korea. However, it is unlikely that Russia would follow through with such actions, as in the short term, Moscow does not want to escalate tensions further with the United States. 

Editorial Team