While Vietnam’s official global perspective on the Russia-Ukraine conflict stays loyal to its principle of neutrality, the messages that the government has been sending home through state media coverage offer a more perplexing picture.
Although the Southeast Asian state abstained from criticizing or publicly supporting Moscow’s aggression, Vietnamese state media, as well as government-affiliated groups on social networks, have overall pursued a more pro-Russian version of the war.
Given the fact that Vietnam does not have independent news channels or allow free expressions regarding critically important issues, we can confidently tell where the country’s true stance is based on what government mouthpieces have been peddling on state media at home.
Prima facie, the Vietnamese media has been promulgating  the Kremlin’s manufactured disinformation in its justification for the attack. However, more recently, it has also significantly aligned with Western media coverage from time to time to report on international responses to the Kremlin’s unprovoked aggression.
Another noteworthy point is that although all state-owned news outlets in the country have to closely follow the Vietnamese propaganda department’s directives for the content they publish, and can only parrot pre-approved narratives, there seems to be a certain degree of autonomy in each news outlet’s reportage of the war based on the ratio of their pro-Russian and Western-leaning content.
Generally, newspapers owned by Vietnam’s military - the People’s Army (Quan Doi Nhan Dan) - and the Public Security Department - the People’s Police (Cong An Nhan Dan) - strike a significantly Moscow-centric tone as they report on the development of the conflict.
On the other hand, more popular mainstream news outlets in the country, such as Tuoi Tre and VnExpress, are observed to be pursuing a conspicuously more rational and nuanced approach.
According to The Vietnamese Magazine’s analysis, comparing the coverage of Tuoi Tre, a widely read, local print newspaper, with the military mouthpiece People’s Army, stories covering the conflict in both newspapers are strikingly different in terms of their tone, cited sources, and target content.
Our observations suggest that the former’s content has a more balanced adoption of information promoted by Russian state media and that of Western news channels while its main stories primarily focus on the international community’s response to the crisis.
On the other hand, the latter has been heavily reliant  on information from the Kremlin’s propaganda mouthpieces, such as RIA Novosti  or Russia Today (RT) , with a majority of its posts boasting the self-proclaimed victories of the Russian military forces.
There are plausible explanations that such attitudes might stem from the heavy dependence of Vietnam’s military and its police forces on arms and security equipment supplied by Moscow as well as the Communist Party’s special historical relationship with the now-collapsed Soviet Union.
Vietnam’s military officials have also been fervently projecting themselves as hardline supporters and propagandists of Moscow’s war machine.
In the past few weeks, the country’s social media  has been stirred up by comments from Colonel Le The Mau, who works at the Institute of Defense Strategy, for his extravagant pro-Russian rhetoric.
During an interview  with the Kremlin-controlled Sputnik News, Mau claimed that the United States was to blame for the current conflict because of its ambition to “impose a Washington-focused worldwide economic and political order” while Russia was a victim of bullying because it “stands as a bulwark against that ambition.”
The colonel also touted Moscow’s groundless accusations that “Ukrainian fascist forces” were carrying out “genocide” against the Russian people in Ukraine and that the goal of Russia’s military intervention was to “denazify the Kyiv government.”
In another interview  with the local news agency VietTimes, Colonel Mau suggested Kyiv accept the Kremlin’s conditions for ending the war, including the recognition of Crimea as Russian territory and maintaining Ukraine’s neutral status.
Meanwhile, government-affiliated groups on Vietnam’s social networks have actively defended Vietnam’s decision to abstain from condemning the invasion.
In an analysis carried out  by Dien Nguyen An Luong and Amirul Adli Rosli, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, the two researchers found that pro-regime online groups in Vietnam had largely maintained an impartial tone in their publications while seeking to maintain the need for Hanoi to stay strategically neutral.
According to the summary of the key points commonly promulgated by such groups, their main narrative usually revolves around playing down the effectiveness of a UN resolution so as to justify Hanoi’s abstention; using whataboutism to point at the atrocities committed by the U.S. and other Western countries in the Middle East and other places, and regurgitating the importance of Vietnam’s foreign policy of not playing one major power against another.
However, Dien and Rosli simultaneously pointed out that Hanoi’s obstinate attachment to the principle of impartiality also risks running at great odds with the Vietnamese public’s perception of the war.
Their research shows that Vietnamese netizens have generally been dissatisfied with and critical of Hanoi’s abstention from condemning the invasion. Although the narratives pontificated by pro-government pages seem to dominate the online discussion, the reaction of internet users on social media shows that after excluding the promoted content from pro-regime groups, the level of public criticism “clearly dwarfs that of public support,” their report stated.
The most common criticisms of the government, write the researchers, points at the inconsistency between the emotional speech made by Vietnam’s Ambassador Dang Hoang Giang at the UN General Assembly on condemning the use of force and Vietnam’s failure to publicly oppose such a move.
There are also people who worry about the fate of Vietnam should Beijing in the future launch a similar incursion into the South China Sea, in addition to the disapproval of the attitude of Hanoi’s political elites in their efforts not to offend Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine right now.
The researchers concluded their report by saying that the Vietnamese government had to keep a watchful eye both on shaping its foreign policy to deal with the major powers while also needing to pay attention to the demand of an increasingly pro-U.S. public who are wary of China’s rise. “The growing Sino-Russian nexus seems poised to exacerbate this sentiment in Vietnam,” the report writes.
As Hanoi scrupulously pursues a pseudo-objective standpoint of the war while the country’s state-owned media has been sending out even more ambiguous and confusing signals, the Vietnamese public on the other hand displays unmistakably overwhelming support for the Ukrainian people and their government on social networks.
“We Vietnamese love freedom & self-determination. We always have great sympathy [for the] people of Ukraine,” one Facebook user commented on the Ukrainian Embassy in Vietnam’s fan page. “Stay strong, Ukraine. We stand with you. The world stands with you,” another wrote.
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