The Relationship of Mongolia with Russia

This latest part of our series on Russia’s relations with its neighbours focuses on the huge empty land of Mongolia, Moscow’s original Soviet satellite state in the 1920s. These days it sits on the verge of a mineral mining boom for anyone who can reach a deal with the government. With Western investments in doubt, David Sneath explains that Putin has been renewing old ties.

In 1911, as the Qing empire that ruled China collapsed, the “outer” portion of Mongolia declared independence with Tsarist Russian support.

Having been balanced between superpowers in not just one cold war, but two, it would not be surprising if Mongolia were unwilling to repeat the experience a third time.

At first the newly independent nation was ruled by the head of the Buddhist church, the Bogd Khaan or “living Buddha of Urga, but in 1919 the capital was occupied by the Chinese warlord Xu Shuzheng. In 1920 the Russian civil war spilled over into Mongolia when a White Russian army led by the “mad baron” Ungern Sternberg attacked the Chinese, taking the capital from them the following spring.

The Soviets reacted by sending troops in support of Mongolian revolutionaries to oust Sternberg the same year. After the Bogd Khaan died in 1924, they established the first Soviet satellite state – the Mongolian People’s Republic.

The 1990s saw a political and public move away from Russia. The state turned to nationalism, which had been carefully regulated in the Soviet period, to create a new populist politics in the wake of the collapse of Marxist-Leninism. The imperial heritage of the great 13th-century conqueror Chinggis Khan was glorified to an extent impossible in the Soviet period, since in Russian history he was seen as the notorious architect of the “Mongol yoke” of tartar rule.

Mongolia adopted the “third neighbour” policy – seeking political, economic and cultural connections with partners other than Russia and China, particularly the US, EU, Japan and South Korea. With Russia in economic crisis in the late 1990s, China became the country’s chief trading partner and a major source of foreign investment, much to the disquiet of the Mongolian public, who remained deeply wary of Chinese influence.

One of the country’s most important economic prospects is the enormous copper and gold deposit at Oyu Tolgoi in the Gobi Desert that has attracted the Anglo-Australian multinational Rio Tinto. The prospect of a mining boom attracted other foreign investment and created high hopes for rapid economic growth.

Yet wrangling between Rio Tinto and the government over the terms of the deal has stalled the development, slowed the economy and led to public disillusionment. The Democratic president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, has had to turn to his first and second neighbours for loans and bilateral trade agreements, receiving the Chinese premier Xi Jinping last August and Putin in September.

Although China is by far the bigger trade partner, Russia remains the more popular of the two, and Putin played his hand well. He agreed to visa-free travel between Russia and Mongolia to widespread satisfaction. The Mongolian public retains a certain amount of nostalgic sympathy for Russia and this has been strengthened by the recent flight of western investment.

Finally, Mongolia is now looking to Russia for further investment in the jointly owned railway network to benefit from continental trade with China. Neither the crisis in the Ukraine nor the Western approach towards Russia has had a serious impact upon Mongolian relations with its onetime Soviet ally.


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