Special Forum Issue

“Looking Back on Putin's "Turn to the East" over a Decade”

Mongolia: Russia’s Best Friend in Asia?

EMAIL

On September 3, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Mongolia, taking part in the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the battle of Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan), an undeclared Soviet-Japanese war along the border between the Mongolian People’s Republic and Manchukuo. Putin did his rounds in Ulaanbaatar, which included a visit to the monument of Georgii Zhukov, the Soviet general in charge of the joint Soviet-Mongolian operation. After 1939 Khalkhin Gol became one of the foundational myths of “martial” friendship between the USSR and its then-satellite, the Mongolian People’s Republic. Some of this enthusiasm withered away after the collapse of socialism but became revived in recent years. In their joint appearances, Putin and his Mongolian counterpart Khaltmaagiin Battulga invoked the spirit of the Soviet-Mongolian “militant fraternity” (Putin’s words) in ways that were quite reminiscent of the propaganda of the bygone days.1

There was more continuity than rhetoric alone suggested. Putin and Battulga signed a new treaty that officially upgraded the Russian-Mongolian relationship to “permanent comprehensive strategic partnership.” This was perhaps neither unnatural nor entirely unexpected. After all, Mongolia has maintained such a partnership with neighboring China since 2014. But there was something peculiar about the method—a treaty, and one without an expiration or a denunciation clause. The treaty superseded an earlier one, signed in 1993, of extendable 20-year duration, which modestly proclaimed “friendly relations and cooperation” between Russia and Mongolia.

A comparison between the two shows just how far the relationship has progressed since the uncertain days of the early 1990s. There is now a clause (absent in the 1993 treaty) about Russia and Mongolia “perfecting [their] ties in the defense and military-technical spheres, viewing these as an important component of maintaining regional and global security.” In contrast to the earlier treaty, Russia has now pledged (in perpetuity!) to “provide military-technical assistance” to Mongolia.2

There is also now not just the pledge by each side [read: Mongolia] “not to participate in blocs or military-political alliances, directed against one another” (with the exception of the word ‘blocs’ this was already in the 1993 treaty) but also the more all-encompassing promise to “abstain from participating in any actions or from support of such actions, directed against the other side.” Since the latter provision can be interpreted extremely widely, Mongolia could be in breach of its obligations if the Kremlin concluded at any point that Ulaanbaatar’s relations with third parties (for example, China, the United States, or Japan) were somehow directed against it. Of course, the same restrictions also apply to Russia but as the power disparity between the two is heavily in Russia’s favor, Mongolia is the one to feel the pressure from these constraints.

It remains to be seen whether these theoretical restrictions will have a practical effect on Mongolia’s international agenda. Some of its previous engagements—such as sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq (to assist the US effort there) or hosting events like the 2013 Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies (of which Mongolia is a member)—would, if pursued today, certainly give Russia cause for reproach. On the whole, then, the 2019 treaty represents a turning point. It could mark the beginning of the end of Mongolia’s famed third neighbor policy, which entailed a pro-active effort to develop close relations with Western Europe, the US, Japan, South Korea, India, and Turkey—the collective “third neighbor”—as an ostensible counterweight to overreliance on Russia and China.

This development represents an extraordinary comeback for Russia in Mongolia and a result of twenty years of the Kremlin’s unrelenting attention to the landlocked country. In the 1990s Russia for most intents and purposes abandoned Mongolia. Its troops withdrew. Its assistance dried up. Scant attention was paid by Moscow to its former satellite as Russia itself reeled from the economic crisis while seeking support in the West.

Things began to change in 2000. In November of that year Putin became the first Russian leader since Brezhnev to visit Mongolia. In 2003, Putin agreed to write off nearly 98% of Mongolia’s Soviet-era debt (some $US11.4 billion) in a gesture that was much appreciated by Mongolian public opinion. In 2006 and 2009, Moscow and Ulaanbaatar issued joint declarations on developing a strategic partnership between the two countries. In 2004, Mongolia became an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has largely served as the Sino-Russian forum for managing their complicated relationship. Ten years later, on Mongolian initiative, the leaders of Mongolia, China, and Russia met for the first time on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Dushanbe. This “trilateral” format empowered Ulaanbaatar and represented a new, more activist phase in the Mongolian government’s effort to upgrade relations with China and Russia. In 2014, Russia finally introduced a visa-free regime with Mongolia, which led to an impressive revival of tourism and border trade and, in general, improved Moscow’s standing in Mongolian public opinion.

In retrospect, many of these changes overlapped with Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj’s presidency. Elbegdorj, who received a Western education and hailed from the ostensibly more “Western-oriented” Democratic Party, pragmatically embraced China and Russia, recognizing the promise of economic integration in the context of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet it was also on Elbegdorj’s watch that Mongolia adopted its 2010 National Security Concept, which reiterated support for the third neighbor policy and even promised Mongolia’s “active participation” in EU and NATO activities.3 It was also Elbegdorj who in 2015 pushed hard for the doomed bid to proclaim Mongolia’s permanent neutrality, upsetting both Moscow and Beijing in the process.4 Elbegdorj left a mixed legacy: while some of his moves clearly frustrated his neighbors, on the whole Mongolia’s standing in Beijing and Moscow continued to improve.

Elbegdorj’s replacement in 2017 with Khaltmaagiin Battulga (also formerly of the Democratic Party) introduced interesting nuances. Battulga struck a populist note by trumpeting the Chinese threat to Mongolia’s independence, but also played up his commitment to improving Mongolian-Russian ties. For obvious pragmatic economic reasons, Battulga’s anti-Chinese views were dialed back fairly quickly when he assumed power. In fact, he began courting China, becoming the first foreign leader in February 2020 to visit Beijing since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Battulga even raised some brows when he announced assistance to China in the form of 30,000 sheep.5 In the meantime, his bromance with Putin became genuine and lasting, with Battulga consciously cultivating a tough-man image of “Mongolia’s Putin.”

Just how far Battulga was prepared to go from Elbegdorj’s now defunct ambitions of “permanent neutrality” became clear when in 2018 he began calling for Mongolia’s membership in the SCO, presenting it as one way to access much-needed funding. The idea found both ready supporters and many detractors in Mongolia. Those in favor cited economic arguments, pointed to the examples of India and Pakistan to argue that the SCO was just the “dictators’ club,” and underscored the benefits of closer relations with China and Russia. The detractors warned that joining the SCO could constrain Mongolia’s foreign policy (in particular if the organization became a de facto alliance “against the West”). Others doubted the economic benefits of participation and even questioned whether Mongolia really belonged in an organization with a primarily Central Asian emphasis.6 The Mongolian Parliament held closed hearings on the subject, and groups of experts and officials were dispatched to SCO countries to study their experience. The idea died a quiet death—for now. It is clear that Russia, for its part, keeps pushing Ulaanbaatar to join, as it is also keen to have Mongolia onboard Putin’s economic integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Russia-led military alliance—the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).7 But Ulaanbaatar has so far resisted such an intimate embrace. However, there is no denial that Battulga has brought Mongolia into a much closer alignment with the northern neighbor, the 2019 treaty being the case in point.

Another thing that happened on Battulga’s watch was the near complete obliteration of the Democratic Party, the former refuge of Mongolia’s “pro-Western” politicians. The Democratic Party was comprehensively defeated by its long-time rival the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) in the parliamentary elections of 2016 (this, however, was before Battulga’s election as president) and again in 2020.8 This defeat had little or nothing to do with foreign policy; more than anything else, it was a result of DP’s factionalism and MPP’s relative organizational strength. But this is not to say that external actors were uninterested in the outcome. Mongolian People’s Party, after all, is the successor to the socialist-era Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, and Putin had previously developed very good personal relations with key MPP players, including the former president (long since disgraced) Nambaryn Enkhbayar and the former prime minister Sanjiin Bayar. The latter, in particular, had been a forceful voice in favor of a closer Russian-Mongolian relationship, and there is certainly scope for similar closeness between the current generation of MPP leaders and Moscow. In any case, the Russians have been satisfied with the relative political stability of Mongolia under the MPP. It is political change that they dread the most, for it brings the danger of unpredictable reversals in Ulaanbaatar’s foreign policy.

This article reviews current issues in Russian-Mongolian relations by focusing in particular on the railroad, the question of natural resources, and the prospect of the construction of a gas pipeline across Mongolia. These three areas show the challenges Russia faces but also speak to Putin’s substantial track record in relation to Mongolia. After all, the relationship between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar has become much closer than anyone would have expected twenty years ago. It’s certainly good news for Russia. Whether this is necessarily good news for Mongolia remains an open question.

The Railroad

The Trans-Mongolian railroad, which spans over 2200km, connecting Russia and China, is a reminder that regional integration in this part of the world predates the BRI. The railroad was constructed between the late 1940s and the mid-1950s, and is owned jointly and equally by the Russian and Mongolian governments. The strategic link experienced serious economic problems in the 1990s—early 2000s (a consequence of Russia’s general loss of interest in Mongolia). By the latе 2000s, much of the railroad infrastructure was worn out and required repair or replacement.9

Russia’s continued ownership of 50 percent of the strategic railroad has long troubled Mongolian policy makers who have repeatedly tried to squeeze the Russians out—but so far without results. Moscow has also resisted Mongolia’s efforts to upgrade the railroad by attracting external funding. The most notable example was the 2007 row over Ulaanbaatar’s bid for the Millenium Challenge Compact (MCC) funds. The money (in total some $188 million was earmarked for the railroad) was to be dispersed by the United States, and was widely perceived to be a “reward” for Mongolia’s participation in the US-led “war on terror,” but it came with strings attached, including the opening of the railroad’s accounting books. This the Russians refused to countenance, but it was not the main problem. The bigger issue was permitting a third party—the US—to meddle with Russia’s key strategic and economic asset in Mongolia. The then-head of the Russian Railroads Vladimir Yakunin declared that “if there’s free cheese, it must be a mousetrap.”10 The upgrade fell through.

To make up for the shortfall of funds and to address the justified concern in Mongolia about such heavy-handed tactics, the Russian government proposed to set up a new company, “Razvitie Infrastruktury,” with the mandate to oversee an overhaul of the aging railroad. In 2010 Moscow proposed to add $250 million to the coffers of the joint enterprise. The same year, not without Yakunin’s involvement, the trans-Mongolian railroad purchased 35 locomotives from a factory in Luhansk, Ukraine. The cash was provided by a Russian bank without tenders or much transparency, leading some Mongolian commentators to suspect that Russia-led “modernization” of the railroad would in the long run cost much more than it really had to.11

One of the most interesting developments surrounding the trans-Mongolian railroad has had to do with the railroad gauge. Russia’s ability to keep Mongolia tied to the Russian gauge (1520mm) despite the arguable economic advantage of shifting to the narrower Chinese gauge (1435mm) is a case study in how technical standards translate into geopolitical influence. There has been a long back-and-forth debate on the issue in Mongolian politics. In 2010 the Mongolian Parliament approved a policy document concerning Mongolian railroads, which resolved to maintain the existing (Russian) gauge.12 The person who pushed for this decision was the Minister of Road, Transport, Construction and Urban development (and later president) Battulga, who used his own private media empire to raise alarm over the prospect of building railways to the Chinese gauge (this would presumably make it easier for China to invade Mongolia).

In 2013-14, the political situation changed again. In October 2013 then-Mongolian Prime Minister Norovyn Altankhuyag visited China, signing several high-profile agreements, including one with Shenhua, China’s largest coal producer, to increase the export of Mongolian coal to the southern neighbor.13 In the wake of what seemed like Mongolia’s embrace of China-led regional integration, the country’s parliament approved plans to build two branch railroads to the Chinese standard. One would run from the Tavan Tolgoi coal deposit to the Chinese border; the other from Khuut (in Eastern Mongolia), once again, to the Chinese border.14

The change was accompanied by something of a scandal over the leaked letter from Vladimir Yakunin (dated June 21, 2014) to Norovyn Alankhuyag, in which the former angrily denounced the decision to build narrow-gauge tracks as undercutting the hope for Mongolia to play “a key role in Eurasian [read: Russia-led] integration.” Yakunin also criticized the decision on the ground that it would make Mongolia overly dependent on just one buyer (China), whereas the Russian railroad gauge would permit it to export resources via Russia to other markets in East Asia.15 Yakunin’s letter, like nothing else, demonstrated certain subterranean tensions in Sino-Russian relations—in particular, the friction over competing visions of Eurasian integration—and Moscow’s unrelenting effort to keep Mongolia strategically tied to its railroads and, by extension, its sphere of influence.

In 2020, the Mongolian Supreme Court overturned the 2014 decision about the narrow gauge, returning Mongolia to its strict adherence to the 1520mm gauge.16 This reversal obviously favors Russia and amounts to an important breakthrough for Moscow’s position in the country—one might add, at China’s expense. Notably, Mongolia’s commitment to the 1520mm gauge even found its way into the text of the 2019 Russian-Mongolian Agreement: Mongolia can no longer go back on this commitment without violating its international obligations.17

In the meantime, in September 2014, in the course of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ulaanbaatar, Russia and Mongolia signed an agreement to modernize the railroad, including the signaling system. A further agreement, concluded by Putin, Xi Jinping and then-Mongolian President Ts. Elbegdorj in 2016, to create an “economic corridor” connecting Russia and China through Mongolia provided an additional impetus to discussions about the upgrade of railroad infrastructure. In 2019, the joint enterprise began the implementation of a long-term upgrade program aimed at doubling the railroad capacity by 2030.18 More Russian locomotives are being purchased with additional loans from Russian banks.19 In short, after years of relative neglect, Russia is paying renewed attention to this key strategic asset, for both economic and geopolitical reasons. Moscow’s effective control over this railroad helps assure its position in the country as an indispensable facilitator of regional integration, even if the economic engine driving this integration is actually China. This is a way for Russia to stay ahead in this game.

Resources

Compared to the 1990s, when Russia for most intents and purposes simply abandoned Mongolia, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen a sustained effort on Moscow’s part to re-engage and, in particular, secure access to the country’s plentiful natural resources. It has, however, faced stiff competition, partly from China (which has largely monopolized Mongolian exports) but also from Western developers like the Anglo-Australian multinational Rio Tinto, which has shipped copper from Mongolia since 2013.

Russia’s most important investment here was Erdenet—the sprawling copper and molybdenum complex in northern Mongolia. The joint Soviet-Mongolian mining enterprise was established in 1973. Each side had 50% of the venture, though in 1991 the ratio of ownership was changed to 51/49, in Mongolia’s favor. The Russians were thus left with very little control over the venture, and saw almost nothing in profits because of extraordinary rates of taxation. It was perhaps this frustration over the lack of control that ultimately persuaded the Russian stake-holders (the state-owned Rostec) to give up on the venture altogether, selling it to Mongolia in 2016 for an estimated $390 million, plus another $10 million for the joint-stock company Mongolrostsvetmet (which mined fluorite, gold, and iron ore). It is still not entirely clear why Russia gave up on this economic asset (indeed, arguably its key asset in Mongolia). It is clear that at the time, the decision encountered certain pushback in the Russian policy establishment (the Foreign Ministry was reportedly against the deal).20 The likely reason was simply that the venture was underperforming economically, and highly susceptible to political changes in Mongolia.  

Moscow has tried hard but failed to gain access to the Oyu Tolgoi copper deposit (which was ultimately awarded to Rio Tinto), and the world’s largest untapped coal deposit at Tavan Tolgoi. Russia’s ambitions in relation to Tavan Tolgoi were closely tied to the railroad, since the key selling point—which would presumably lead Mongolia to award the contract to the Russians—was that they would then be able to take the coal out via a branch line and onto export markets in China and beyond. To endear itself to Ulaanbaatar, in November 2010, Moscow wrote off 97.8% of recent Mongolian debt (in addition to the earlier Soviet debt that Putin had already forgiven). But the promising plans fell through when the Mongolian government decided to split the deposit three-way between the Russians, the Americans, and the Chinese, leaving all unhappy.

The bidding was cancelled and further discussions ground to a halt. The deposit remained in the hands of the Mongolian government (through the state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi). Having kept the Russians (and everyone else) at bay, the Mongolians currently hope to develop the deposit largely with their own resources, and have floated internal bonds for the purpose. It is unclear, however, whether the developers can acquire the $3.4 billion required in investment between 2021 and 2025.21 In 2019, the Mongolian government made the decision to build the railroad (to take out the coal) with its own resources—construction troops, no less—leaving Russia (and potential other contenders) out in the cold. At least the Russians can derive satisfaction that the railroad gauge accords to its own standard (1520mm). The railroad is currently under construction.

Intriguingly, Mongolia is now trying to take advantage of the tensions in Sino-Australian relations in order to displace Australia as China’s coal supplier. The potential profits—provided the transportation bottlenecks can be overcome—are simply colossal. Not for the first time, Ulaanbaatar is skillfully playing its resource cards in an intricate geopolitical game.

The discussion of Russia’s efforts to gain access to Mongolia’s natural resources would be incomplete without a brief mention of the instructive Khan Resources affair. Khan Resources, in spite of its name, was a Canadian company that in 1998 and 2005 obtained rights to a uranium deposit in Dornod, Eastern Mongolia, that had once been explored by the USSR and Russia but was later abandoned for lack of demand in 1995. In 2009 the company (which held a majority stake in the joint venture, which also included Russian and Mongolian partners) professed readiness to begin production in Dornod, though whether it actually planned any production or intended simply to resell the deposit to other (possibly Chinese) investors has remained a subject of controversy.22

In August 2009, however, Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev visited Ulaanbaatar, where he agreed to develop Dornod’s uranium resources jointly with Mongolia. The media reported the head of Russia’s atomic agency RosAtom Sergei Kiriyenko as promising to invest “hundreds of millions of dollars” into the joint project. Medvedev promised to resolve problems with Mongolia’s outstanding debts to Russia and extend new agricultural credits in the amount of up to $300 million.23 In the meantime, the Mongolian Parliament passed legislation that effectively stripped Khan Resources of its license. Khan Resources then successfully sued Mongolia’s government, and in the end reached a settlement to receive $70 million from Ulaanbaatar in compensation, though not before the company’s chairman, James Doak, died in his hotel room in Ulaanbaatar after what was described as difficult negotiations with the Mongolian authorities.24

The Khan Resources case has been described as both demonstrating the perils of Mongolia’s economic nationalism, and also its limits (insofar as the Mongolian government, in the end, had to pay up something—though not as much as was demanded). But it also points to the success of Russia’s efforts to keep an undesirable competitor—a Western company—out of a strategic area like uranium exploration. This strategy of denial has served Russia well even in cases where it has failed to push its advantage, as, indeed, in the case of Dornod’s uranium reserves, which—for all the promises of 2009—remain largely undeveloped today. Ulaanbaatar has played along. “Mongolia sees uranium as part and parcel of its regional balancing act,” the US Embassy reported almost two years before the Khan Resources controversy exploded. “Mongolia has embraced Russian proposals wholeheartedly in order ‘to keep the bear fed.’”25

Gas pipeline

Battulga and Putin, during their meeting on the sidelines of the September 2019 forum in Vladivostok, reached an agreement in principle to construct a trans-Mongolian gas pipeline. In December 2019 then-Prime Minister (who later succeeded Battulga as president) Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh signed an MoU with Gazprom to begin preliminary exploration. The pipeline, called Power of Siberia—2 (the trans-Mongolian section will be called Soyuz-Vostok), could take up to 50 billion cubic meters of gas to China, or 1.3 times the capacity of Power of Siberia, which has connected China and Russia since 2019. If realized, this multi-billion dollar project would bring Mongolia a bonanza in transit fees (up to one billion USD, according to some Mongolian estimates),26 gas for domestic consumption, and thousands of construction and maintenance jobs and may well encourage additional infrastructural development, including the building of railroad and highways, and the laying of trans-Mongolian electrical and optical cables. Access to natural gas would also help Mongolia cope with one of its most serious and persistent problems, air pollution in Ulaanbaatar.

The signing of the MoU comes after more than twenty years of speculative discussions around the possibility of constructing a pipeline through Mongolia. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese seemed overly keen on the idea in the past—it was Ulaanbaatar that pushed for it, for obvious economic reasons as well as the country’s political stability. But the breakthrough, when it came, had a clear political component, framed as it was in terms of Russia and China’s respective visions for regional integration. If the pipeline were built, it would not only help anchor Mongolia in China’s BRI but also serve as an example of what Putin called the Greater Eurasian Partnership. This partnership—peddled by Putin since 2016—envisions the merger of China’s integrationist schemes (i.e., the BRI) with Russia’s (i.e. the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Mongolia is not a part), and its extension to other regional actors, including India, Iran, and Pakistan.27 One of the problems with the Greater Eurasian Partnership is that it has so far been confined primarily to hopeful proclamations; the Mongolian pipeline could be a game changer in this regard.

Since the gas pipeline project is still only in its initial phase, its long-term impact on Mongolia’s relations with its two neighbors cannot yet be ascertained. There are, for example, worries among some observers in Ulaanbaatar that Moscow may put Mongolia under political pressure in ways that it has done with Ukraine (which lies astride Russia’s gas transit routes). Worse still, the pipeline could allow China to add to its already overwhelming economic leverage to settle any disputes (such as, for instance, over transit fees) to Beijing’s advantage. There are also concerns associated with the construction of the pipeline, including where the projected 3,700 construction jobs and the 1,500 maintenance jobs would come from (imported jobs would be politically controversial), and who would operate the pipeline.28 What begins as an economic windfall could thus end up as a liability for Mongolia, especially in view of the populist currents in Mongolian politics. These concerns notwithstanding, the overall sense in Ulaanbaatar is that of considerable enthusiasm on account of the pipeline. There is a bipartisan consensus in Mongolia about the desirability and the importance of the country’s involvement in the project.

Conclusion

Twenty-twenty-one is a special year for Russian-Mongolian relations. On November 5, the two countries will mark the 100th anniversary of their bilateral relationship. This was not always a problem-free relationship. Mongolia was thrown about by the treacherous tides of Russia’s wars and revolutions. It loyally followed Moscow in bloody purges and in building a Communist paradise that led down a blind alley. Then it was practically abandoned for years—left to fend for itself. But in recent years Moscow has made a comeback, understanding, perhaps, Mongolia’s geopolitical importance. It is clear that the Kremlin regards Mongolia as an important piece in its Asian game. Having put aside recriminations of the 1990s, Moscow and Ulaanbaatar have developed a degree of trust in one another’s policy agendas. The relationship today is as close as Russia has with anyone in the region, quite a bit closer, for example, than even with China, which (despite proclamations of solidarity) is still regarded with a degree of wariness in Moscow.

It took years of patient work to get to this point. The most difficult aspect of Russia’s engagement with Mongolia was learning to overcome a tendency to play it rough. It was too easy to throw one’s weight around—for example, on matters pertaining to the railroad. The fallout from the MCA funding scandal cast a shadow over the relationship for years. Bickering over access to Tavan Tolgoi and the railroad gauge fed recriminations in Ulaanbaatar that Moscow was pursuing neo-imperialist projects. The Russians seemed unable to understand the rough-and-tumble of Mongolian democratic politics, so different from Moscow’s own increasingly authoritarian propensities. A willingness to give up on politically and economically problematic assets—like Erdenet—helped. Russia’s strategic patience ultimately paid off. The main reason for the current rapprochement between Russia and Mongolia is that Mongolia itself desires it. Why? There are several reasons.

First, Russia is increasingly seen across the political spectrum as a key economic partner. Even the Democratic Party came to recognize Russia’s indispensability (the MPP has always been more closely attuned to Moscow’s interests). Mongolia’s economic strategy hinges on the viability of various Sino-Russian economic corridors, and the degree of Ulaanbaatar’s involvement in these corridors is directly connected to the state of Russian-Mongolian relationship. Second, Russia is regarded as a key counterweight to China, on which Mongolia is heavily dependent economically. Ever apprehensive of China’s influence, the Mongolians look to Russia for reassurance: it is that wariness, undoubtedly, that feeds Moscow’s hopes that one day Mongolia will join the CSTO—not so much out of love for Putin as out of fear of Xi. Third, Russia’s gestures—from debt cancellation, to the introduction of a visa-free regime, to Putin’s relatively frequent visits to Mongolia, to vaccine diplomacy—help to create a positive image of Moscow in Mongolian public opinion. Finally, the West (especially the United States) have paid relatively little attention to Mongolia. It certainly did not become a magnet for Western investors, Rio Tinto notwithstanding—though that would have as much to do with Ulaanbaatar’s own somersaults (as the Khan Resources debacle showed like nothing else) as with the lack of interest on the part of Western multinationals. The payback from the Third Neighbor policy has not been all that impressive.

All of this has given Russia opportunities for considerably increasing its influence in Mongolia – opportunities that the Kremlin has skillfully taken advantage of. Indeed, the blossoming bilateral relationship has become one of the few success stories of Putin’s otherwise underwhelming “Turn to the East.”



1. The Presidential Administration of Russia, Press Release, September 3, 2019, http://kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/MN/events/61436

2.

In 2013 Ulaanbaatar also concluded a military assistance agreement with China, which includes provisions for gratis military aid. The text of the agreement has not been published. https://zasag.mn/news/view/3012/

3. “The National Security Concept of Mongolia,” July 15, 2010, https://www.legalinfo.mn/annex/details/8070?lawid=6163

4.

Sergey Radchenko, “As China and Russia Draw Closer, Mongolia Feels the Squeeze,” The Asan Forum, October 11, 2018,  https://theasanforum.org/as-china-and-russia-draw-closer-mongolia-feels-the-squeeze.

5.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC, Press Release, February 27, 2020, http://ie.china-embassy.org/eng/zgxw/t1750462.htm.

6.

Mendee Jargalsaikhan, “Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Mongolia’s membership debate,” Mongolian Geopolitics, No. 3 (2020), http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/mongolei/17483.pdf

7.

Interview of Russian Ambassador to Mongolia, RIA Novosti, December 3, 2019,  https://ria.ru/20191203/1561852966.html.

8. For a detailed account of Mongolia’s 2016/17 electoral cycle, see Sergey Radchenko and Mendee Jargalsaikhan, “Mongolia in the 2016–17 Electoral Cycle: The Blessings of Patronage,” Asian Survey, Vol. 57, Issue 6 (2017), pp. 1032-1057.

9. V.V. Graivoronskii, “Modernizatsiia Zheleznodorozhnogo Transporta v Mongolii,” Vostochnaia Analitika, 2011, https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/modernizatsiya-zheleznodorozhnogo-transporta-v-mongolii-i-rol-rossiysko-mongolskogo-sotrudnichestva/viewer

10. Ibid.

11. On the locomotive deal, see: http://www.ukrrudprom.com/digest/Mongoliya_kupit_luganskie_teplovozi.html. On the likelihood of corruption, see: http://www.mongolnow.com/degradatsiya-zheleznoj-dorogi/.

12. The Parliament of Mongolia, The State Railroad Policy, 2010,  https://www.legalinfo.mn/annex/details/3342?lawid=7018

13. Alicia Campi, “Efforts to Strengthen Sino-Mongolian Relations in Fall 2013,” Jamestown Foundation, December 5, 2013,  https://jamestown.org/program/efforts-to-strengthen-sino-mongolian-relations-in-fall-2013/

14. The Parliament of Mongolia, Resolution, May 15, 2020,  https://www.legalinfo.mn/law/details/10742.

15. The 24 Hour News, “The Letter of Yakunin,” September 11, 2014,  https://www.24tsag.mn/a/63548.

16. The Parliament of Mongolia, Resolution, May 15, 2020.

17. “Article 12, Agreement on Friendly Relations and Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the Russian Federation and Mongolia,” July 13, 2020, https://docs.cntd.ru/document/565307846?marker=7DE0K7

18. MOSGIPROTRANS, Press Release, June, 2019, https://www.mosgiprotrans.ru/rus/news/1208/.

19. https://gudok.ru/newspaper/?ID=1526974.

20. Lkhagva Erdene and Sergey Radchenko, “The Mysterious Sale of Mongolia’s Erdenet Mine,” The Diplomat, June 9, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/07/the-mysterious-sale-of-mongolias-erdenet-mine/.

21. ”Seeking to unseat Australia, Mongolia’s giant coal mine plans $700 mlm bond,” Reuters, April 21, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/mongolia-coal-idUSL4N2ME0MU

22. Permanent Court of Arbitration, PCA Case No, 2011-09, March 2, 2015, https://www.italaw.com/sites/default/files/case-documents/italaw4267.pdf. On the rumors of a possible investment from China, see https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2015/05/18/64188-uranovaya-druzhba-dovela-do-arbitrazha

23. “Russian Federation and Mongolia will solve the problem of debt,” Reuters, August 15, 2009, https://www.reuters.com/article/orubs-mongolia-russia-uranium-idRUMSE57O0XI20090825.

24. Khan Resources to Receive 70 million yo Settle Mongolia Dispute,” Bloomberg, March 7, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-07/khan-resources-to-receive-70-million-to-settle-mongolia-dispute. Mongolian experts did not find anything suspicious in Doak’s death, though Russia’s interest in the case raises questions.

25. US Embassy Cable, November 6, 2007, WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07ULAANBAATAR630_a.html

26. L. Khangai, “About the Natural Gas Pipeline Construction Process,” June 19, 2021,  http://baabar.mn/article/baigaliin-khii-damjuulakh-khooloi-barikh-tusliin-yawtsiin-tukhaid

27. Putin called for a great Eurasian partnership,” TASS, June 17, 2016,
https://tass.ru/ekonomika/3376295.

28. News.MN, “The Pipeline Issue Now Depends on us,” December 18, 2019, https://news.mn/r/2239127/, MONTSAME, “Pipeline is not a Dream,” June 8, 2020, https://montsame.mn/mn/read/227750

Now Reading Mongolia: Russia’s Best Friend in Asia?