Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc during their meeting in Moscow, on 30 November 2021. (Photo: Mikhail KLIMENTYEV /AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc during their meeting in Moscow, on 30 November 2021. (Photo: Mikhail KLIMENTYEV /AFP)

Long Reads

The Russia-Ukraine War: Unpacking Online Pro-Russia Narratives in Vietnam

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Pro-Russia narratives in Vietnam’s cyberspace are the result of cross-pollination between sentimental attachment since the Soviet era, psychological bias towards Russia embedded in Vietnam’s education and propaganda system, and the overriding imperative to preserve the Vietnamese state’s political and ideological interests.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war following Moscow’s invasion on 24 February has sparked intense public debates on Vietnam’s social media. For Vietnam, the ramifications of the war are felt beyond the economic and diplomatic realms. It has become an online hotbed of conflicting and confounding narratives that demonstrate different worldviews and political leanings among Vietnamese netizens. Of note, those who support Russia and Putin have been as energised and engaged as those who are against the war and sympathetic towards Ukraine.

Using discourse analysis, this article examines Vietnamese netizens’ pro-Russia posts and conversations between 24 February and 10 April on Facebook – the dominant social media platform in Vietnam with 68 million users. It looks into 28 pro-Russia Facebook pages/groups with strong followings so as to profile these Russia-sympathisers and the narratives they engage with. The article also seeks to understand why these pro-Russia netizens are so intimately impacted and actively engaged on a supposedly remote international conflict. It argues that their pro-Russia posturing is the result of cross-pollination between sentimental, psychological, ideological and political factors that are quite unique to Vietnam, given the country’s historical links to Moscow.

PROFILING OF VIETNAM’S PRO-RUSSIA NETIZENS

This section analyses the content of posts and comments on 28 Facebook pages/groups which have been most active in trending pro-Russia narratives online. These are divided into three categories:

  • Category I – 8 Russia-nostalgia groups show a strong attachment to Russia and Putin. These groups have been very active in propagating the Russian stance on the invasion. They have built up a solid base of followers, ranging from around 6,600 to some 90,000.
  • Category II – 18 self-proclaimed patriotic or conservative pages/groups explicitly adopt a pro-regime stance. Amassing a strong base of followers of between 21,000 and 570,000, they have been very active in defending Vietnam’s position on the war in Ukraine.
  • Category III – 2 pages provide news about the conflict. With a following of approximately 27,000 and 30,000 respectively, they appear to be set up just recently and seek to keep viewers abreast of the war’s developments. These pages also adopt an explicitly pro-Russia stance.

What are their news feeds?

The news feeds of these pro-Russia netizens are typical of the ‘echo chamber’ phenomenon in which people only interact with information from or opinions of like-minded peers that reflect and reinforce their existing beliefs. They actively disseminate positive information about Russia from various Russian sources, including statements by Putin and his cabinet members, the ministry of defence (mil.ru), Russian News Agency (TASS), RIA Novosti, Channel One Russia, RT and Russia-1. The Russian proficiency of some Vietnamese – mostly the older generation – has been instrumental for their access to and dissemination of Russian language materials, including many images and videos to create an impression of authenticity. This also means that they are more directly exposed to Moscow’s information warfare.

Occasionally, these pro-Russia netizens would interact with mainstream Vietnamese news outlets when there are commentaries that are seen as favourable to Russia and negative to Ukraine and the West. They also rely on Chinese sources, which are generally friendlier towards Moscow and critical of the West, including quoting comments of Chinese analysts and the spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry. There are other dubious references or unidentified sources that cannot be verified. Additionally, perhaps unique to Vietnam, there is a large number of Vietnamese in Russia – ranging from 26,000 to 100,000 according to various sources, some of whom actively propagate favourable narratives about Russia on these groups.

Vietnam is perhaps the only outlier in Southeast Asia where Russia’s soft power still holds some appeal, with many Vietnamese professionals and intellectuals growing up immersed in Russian/Soviet ideology, literature, music and culture during the Cold War.

They also look out for pro-Russia or anti-Western voices from the West as long as the narratives serve their confirmation bias. Notable figures in this respect include Chris Hedges – a former New York Times reporter and currently host of RT’s On Contact programme, and retired US Marine Corps officer Scott Ritter, both of whom were opponents of America’s war in Iraq. Hedges believes that the war in Ukraine serves American strategic and ideological interests by ‘making Russia bleed through Ukrainian blood’ whereas Ritter questions the authenticity of the evidence regarding Russian soldiers’ Bucha massacre. Notably, Vietnamese netizens’ access to these Western voices is also channelled through Russian outlets, especially the RT.

The zeal of defending and glorifying Moscow also drive these netizens to a range of Western media of different genres and political directions – including The Economist, The Hill, Die Zeit to the tabloid Daily Mail and Junglewelt (a left-wing and Marxist German daily), to pick and choose opinions and information that they consider positive for Russia and negative for Ukraine and the West. Such information mainly focuses on the energy crunch in Europe and Europeans’ grievances over spikes in energy and food prices. They also actively seek to debunk what they see as ‘fake news’ and ‘fake images’ from Ukrainian and Western sources about Russia’s atrocities and military losses in Ukraine or about the dire economic situation and anti-war sentiments in Russia.

What are their pro-Russia narratives?

Based on the analysis of these Facebook pages/groups, the following most salient pro-Russia narratives are distilled:

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is justified.

These netizens rationalise Russia’s incursion in Ukraine as a necessary step to respond to Western (mainly American) political, ideological and military antagonism against Moscow. According to this narrative, the US and its Western allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have cornered Russia into this war because they have never abandoned their containment strategy against Russia since the end of the Cold War. By expanding NATO further eastward, they have disregarded Russia’s legitimate security interests in its own neighbourhood while at the same time sowing widespread hatred and hostility towards Moscow. Additionally, buying into Putin’s ‘manufactured’ history that Ukraine is a historical part of Russia, this narrative justifies the invasion as Moscow’s timely intervention to stop Kyiv’s genocide, fascism and racism against Russian-speaking communities in Ukraine. In sum, they view the Russian act as a legitimate response to a ‘neo-Nazi’ Ukrainian government kowtowing to the US and the West.

  • Pro-Russia posturing is a veil for underlying anti-America and anti-imperialist worldviews.

Pro-Russia sentiments, chiefly by pro-regime Facebook pages/groups, are tinged with anti-American imperialism among Vietnamese whose hatred of American involvement in the Vietnam War remains strong. They castigate America and the West for lulling Ukraine into this conflict by the promise of NATO admission, and ridicule Western countries for not rendering Kyiv the scale of military support that President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for. This anti-imperialist narrative points the finger at America’s ulterior motives in pushing Ukraine to go to war with Russia: a weakened Russia and a Europe more dependent on American security guarantees and energy supply. A Vietnamese military-linked commentator encapsulated the tenor of this narrative: “Russia and Ukraine must go to war and Ukraine must fight the Russians until the last Ukrainian soldier, for the sake of America.” They also criticise Western sanctions and media coverage against Russia, which they view as emblematic of the West’s hegemony over the global financial system and information sphere. Notably, ‘whataboutism’, or the highlighting of double-standards on the part of the US and the West, has also been used to lay bare what is perceived to be American and Western hypocrisy in criticising the Russian invasion but waging catastrophic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.

  • Russia is lionised and Ukraine demonised.

This narrative holds that Russia is surely winning on the battlefield given its military might and strategic mastery. Unverified video clips of ‘Ukrainians’ welcoming Russian soldiers are widely circulated among these pages/groups, which heap fulsome praise on Russian soldiers as ‘liberators’. This narrative also lauds Putin’s high approval ratings and Russia’s economic resilience despite Western sanctions. On the other side of the spectrum, Ukraine is belittled as a ‘small state’ that should know its place. President Zelensky is written off as a ‘clown’ who dabbles in politics and who has become a ‘puppet’ of the West. A content analysis of 10 Facebook pages representative of the two categories finds that of thousands of posts between 24 February and 10 April, the most engaged one is a video on Zelensky’s profession as a comedian prior to his entry into politics. It ridicules Zelensky’s handling of the conflict as well as Ukraine’s relations with Russia and the West, dovetailing with the dominant pro-Russia narratives. The video is widely circulated across various Facebook pages/groups, with 1.1 million views, 2,400 shares, 28,000 reactions and 4,600 comments, a vast majority of which are supportive of the video’s messages. Netizens also dig into what is perceived to be a shameful record of Ukraine in its relations with Vietnam, for example: Ukrainians once toppled the statue of Lenin; Ukraine sold the aircraft carrier Liaoning to China, which has a longstanding South China Sea dispute with Vietnam; and Ukrainian media defamed Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s most iconic liberation hero.

To what extent are they linked to the government’s position on the conflict?

Vietnam’s state-controlled news outlets generally adopt a neutral tone and refrain from editorialising the Ukraine crisis. Their main messages revolved around reiterating Vietnam’s desire to stay strategically neutral. But there have been some outliers. One notable example is a YouTube video by TV24h owned by VTC, a cable firm that is labelled as being ‘funded in whole or in part by the Vietnamese government.’ The video was broadcast on 3 April with the title ‘The Russia-Ukraine war lays bare the West’s true colors’.  It quoted Chris Hedges as saying that it is hypocritical for US President Biden, an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, to brand Vladimir Putin as a war criminal. According to Hedges, such double standards have permeated American politics. As of this writing, the video has been viewed nearly 890,000 times and attracted over 6,800 likes. Of around 2,600 comments in response to the video, an overwhelming majority threw strong support behind Hedges’ position, saying it helped enlighten the broader public on the true nature of the US and the West.

Of note, robust defence of Russia and fervent criticism of Ukraine/NATO/the US/the West are also found among public figures whose profiles indicate former affiliations with the military and public security sector.

In a country where the authorities have strictly controlled all news outlets and obliged them to censor readers’ comments even on social media platforms, any coverage of such a major issue like the war in Ukraine is unlikely to escape censors’ gaze if they have strayed away from the party line. Meanwhile, whether these pro-regime Facebook pages/groups have the backing of the Vietnamese state is perhaps an evergreen question. But even if some of these pages/groups were state sponsored, not explicitly admitting it seems to be the strategy of choice; that ambivalence gives the authorities both the deniability and the flexibility to shape public opinion and play the nationalist card when deemed necessary. Arguably, pro-Russia narratives on these pro-regime Facebook pages/groups do not clash with the party’s classical orthodox discourse about anti-imperialism, anti-Western hegemony, and its view that Russia as a traditional friend and benevolent power. Therefore, these platforms are likely to shape a propaganda environment for the Vietnamese state – especially the more conservative segment in it – within which there is adequate space for pro-Russia sentiments and narratives, so that anti-Russia, pro-Ukraine sentiments will not become predominant in the public discourse.

EMOTIONAL AND POLITICAL UNDERCURRENTS OF PRO-RUSSIA NARRATIVES

The salience of pro-Russia narratives in Vietnam is the result of many factors that are simultaneously sentimental, psychological, historical, ideological and political.

Sentimental attachment

The fervent support for Russia’s war against Ukraine among a significant number of Vietnamese brings to the fore latent pro-Russia sentiments in the country. Such sentiments are strongly felt among older generations, many of whom used to study, work and live in Russia and have kept fond memories and sentimental attachments since the Soviet era. Vietnam is perhaps the only outlier in Southeast Asia where Russia’s soft power still holds some appeal, with many Vietnamese professionals and intellectuals growing up immersed in Russian/Soviet ideology, literature, music and culture during the Cold War. Their feelings towards Russia are a mix of admiration, nostalgia and gratitude, given the Soviet’s invaluable assistance to Vietnam’s national liberation and reunification during the wars against France and America. Therefore, they tend to frame other Vietnamese fellows who denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as ‘disloyal’ and ‘ungrateful’ to Russia, a longstanding and trusted friend of Vietnam.

Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R) follows the honour guards during a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow on December 1, 2021. (Photo: Alexander NEMENOV/ AFP)

This attachment has been nurtured by decades of government indoctrination lauding Soviet revolutionary heroism through multiple wars in the 20th century. The adulation and admiration of Russia/the Soviet Union is embedded in Vietnam’s education and propaganda system, especially in literature and history textbooks. For many Vietnamese sympathisers, Russia commands respect and admiration because of its contributions and sacrifices in the First and Second World War. Meanwhile, there is little talk about the darker sides of the relationship – for example the Soviet Union’s inaction during Vietnam’s 1988 naval clash with China in the Spratlys or anti-Vietnamese violence and racism in Russia. This has resulted in a romanticised idea of Russia among a number of Vietnamese, which shutters their ability to perceive the country with a dose of objectivity and realism. They are therefore most susceptible to the narrative that the Russian offensive in the Ukraine is a ‘salvation mission’ for its Russian-speaking population; it fits their worldview that Russia is a magnanimous and benevolent power.

Ideological and political concerns

Beneath the waves of pro-Russia sentiments on Vietnam’s social media are deep-rooted ideological and political undercurrents. Strong pro-Russia sentiments are prevalent on conservative, pro-regime and orthodox-nationalist Facebook pages, and although it is difficult to prove that these pages are state-sponsored or whether they are peppered with pro-government trolls to influence and direct the conversation, this possibility is not entirely ruled out. Of note, robust defence of Russia and fervent criticism of Ukraine/NATO/the US/the West are also found among public figures whose profiles indicate former affiliations with the military and public security sector. Many posts and comments on these pages associate anti-Russia and pro-Ukraine sentiments with anti-regime and pro-democracy conspiracies. While it is true that a pro-Ukraine stance is more prevalent among liberal-leaning segments of society, not all of them advocate for regime change. However, conservative pages tend to see any criticism levelled at the government’s position on the war in Ukraine or any negative parallels – i.e. between Russia under Putin’s authoritarianism and Vietnam under the ruling communist party – as hostility towards the government.

There is also an almost instinctive refutation of negative information about Russia on these pages/groups, especially concerning Russia’s reported military setbacks in Ukraine. The reason for this uncritical defence – as well as efforts to amplify and glorify Russian military advance in Ukraine – can be both psychological and political. Given the length, breadth and depth of Vietnam’s reliance on Russian military equipment and technical assistance, the image of a beaten and battered Russia in Ukraine would not reflect well on the strategic choice of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) to rely on Moscow as its major arms supplier and its all-weather trusted partner.

At this, pro-Russia netizens in Vietnam widely share sanguine assessments about Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine by some Vietnamese retired military/public security figures, most notably Colonel Le The Mau, Colonel Le Ngoc Thong and Major General Le Van Cuong who was former director of the Strategic Studies Institute of the Ministry of Public Security. While the Western media said that Russia had not secured a swift and decisive victory as originally planned, Mau counter-argued that Russia was actually engaged in a ‘steady and phased advance’ strategy to simultaneously achieve three objectives of protecting civilians; destroying Ukraine’s military power; and annihilating neo-Nazis in Ukraine. In the same vein, Cuong believed that Russia will not be bogged down in a protracted war in Ukraine and that “Putin is appropriate in and faithful to his statement that Russia does not invade Ukraine and does not attack Ukrainian civilians since Ukrainians and Russians share the same race, ancestors and blood”. Similarly, some Russia-sympathisers did not see Russia’s withdrawal from the Kyiv region as a setback but a masterful diversion tactic to seize control of Mariupol.

Russia’s footprint in Vietnam is arguably both military and political. Although Russia’s position in Vietnam’s foreign policy post-Cold War has been relegated to it being only one among other peer powers, Moscow enjoys a deep reservoir of strategic trust within the Vietnamese defence-security establishment. The confluence of military-political interests between Russia and Vietnam was demonstrated in the agreement to enhance cooperation in political and ideological education, and promote collaboration in military history at a meeting in May 2021 between the General Department of Politics of the Vietnam People’s Army and the Main Directorate for Political-Military Affairs of the Russian Armed Forces. This is an intriguing development because today’s Russia – unlike the Soviet Union – no longer subscribes to the same socialist and communist ideology that Vietnam still does.

Ideological considerations could have also influenced pro-Putin sentiments among these conservative segments. Putin’s strongman leadership appeal may be strong among some Southeast Asian peoples, but his popularity in Vietnam is not attributed to his macho personality cult only. According to Vietnam’s mainstream discourse, post-Cold War Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership was a diminished great power which was ideologically adrift, economically weakened, and strategically disoriented and misled by the West. Therefore, the election of Putin as Russian president was viewed as a judicious choice of strategic significance. Of note, Putin’s re-validation of the Soviet heroic past and his restoration of Soviet symbols rendered some political comfort among Vietnamese conservatives who were apprehensive of the US ‘unipolar moment’, ‘liberal excess’ and ‘imperial overreach’ in the wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. They found gratification in Putin’s statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

Last but not least, Vietnamese conservatives cheer on Putin not only because they see him as a strongman who can restore Russia to its greatness but also because his leadership oversaw the renaissance of Vietnam-Russia relations after more than a decade of estrangement under Yeltsin. As noted by Anton Tsetov, after Putin came to power, high-level visit exchanges between Russia and Vietnam became frequent, high-value arms deals were sealed, bilateral trade increased, and the official rhetoric in bilateral documents embraced references to ‘traditional partners’, ‘historical roots’ and ‘friendship’ between the two peoples. In fact, some Vietnam netizens – in their zeal to defend Putin’s war in Ukraine – referred to his decision to write off 85 per cent of Vietnam’s debt to Russia as a demonstration of his magnanimity.

CONCLUSION

Pro-Russia narratives in Vietnam’s cyberspace bear major resemblance to their counterparts in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, particularly because they are interwoven with anti-America, anti-Western hegemony discourse as well as adulation of Putin’s ‘strongman’ leadership. But the underlying factors driving such narratives are what makes Vietnam unique. Sentimental attachment and nostalgia aside, behind the façade of those pro-Russia narratives are in fact historical, ideological and political factors that underpin the core interests of the Vietnamese state. Given the interplay of deep and powerful drivers behind pro-Russia sentiments in Vietnam, it is perhaps understandable that the Vietnamese government has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with different shades of grey, as opposed to stark pro- or anti-Russia stances.


This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2022/44 published on 27 April 2022. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.