A neutral Mongolia could reduce Russia’s vulnerability along its eastern flank and eliminate concerns of closer military relations between Mongolia and China.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Mongolia's President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, center, during a welcome ceremony in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, September 3, 2014. Photo: AP

Officials from Mongolia and Russia recently held a second round of talks this month to plan the upcoming Selenge-2016 joint military exercises. The drills are scheduled from Aug. 29 to Sept. 7 in the Russian republic of Buryatia at the Burduny military facility. On the surface, these military exercises would appear to hint at greater military coordination between Russia and Mongolia, especially along Russia’s vulnerable eastern flank.

However, after years of defense collaboration with various international partners, the Mongolian government has announced that it currently wishes to establish an official policy of neutrality. Mongolian president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj issued a communiqué in late 2015 regarding the debate among the country's political elite on making Mongolia a neutral country.

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President Elbegdorj asserted that the time had come for Mongolian citizens to debate the issue publicly. While Mongolia has not officially declared itself to be a neutral country, the issue of neutrality is projected to be high on the agenda of the most recent convocation of the Great Khural (Mongolian parliament). And that could throw into doubt Russia’s military collaboration with Mongolia.

Mongolia’s military cooperation with Russia and the West

The Selenge drills have occurred annually since 2008, although total troop numbers between the two sides have varied. In 2011, there were 700 Mongolian troops present, but in 2012 only 300 Mongolian soldiers participated. The operational focus of the drills has been to combat illicit armed formations and terrorist groups. Around 1,000 personnel will participate in this year's Selenge exercises.

Aside from regular military drills, Mongolia and Russia have two agreements on military technology transfer dating from 2004 and 2014, respectively. In December 2015 the Russian defense ministry provided Mongolia with 100 T72-A tanks and 60 armored personnel carriers, including 40 BTR-70M's and 20 BTR-80's. 

Despite extensive defense collaboration with Russia, Mongolia has not shied away from military cooperation with the West. Mongolia participates in NATO's Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program, and has been active in Western-led training initiatives such as Khaan Quest, a joint exercise spearheaded by U.S. Pacific Command, which began in 2003.

Three months after the end of Khaan Quest 2015, a cadre of Mongolian military personnel graduated from a training course for staff officers conducted by NATO's Defense Education Enhancement Program. The period of time between Khaan Quest 2015 and Selenge-2015 amounted to less than two months, attesting to the flexibility of Mongolia's defense posture.

Neutrality and Mongolia’s foreign policy

Mongolian foreign minister Lundeg Purevsuren insists that Mongolian neutrality will not change the fundamental course of Mongolian foreign policy. Of particular importance is Mongolia’s ability to balance between China and Russia, as well as the "third neighbor" aspect of Ulan Bataar's external relations.

An official policy of neutrality, however, would halt the prospects for Mongolia's integration into any one of the collective security organizations with which it is involved. Thus, while Mongolian neutrality will be a boon for the country's "third neighbor" policy, it will also present challenges for Mongolia in simultaneously balancing its strategic interests.

The dexterity with which Mongolia has managed its post-communist foreign policy has largely removed the quandary of whether or not Mongolia would have to choose to align politically and militarily with China, Russia or the West. President Elbegdorj has asserted that Mongolia has essentially been neutral in all but name.

However, as Viktor Samoylenko of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) points out, neutrality can only be successful if a country enjoys a sound economic standing and is not overly dependent on other countries for financing and investment.

Potential impact on Russian military strategy

Mongolian neutrality would undoubtedly affect the country's military relationship with Russia. For Russia, an official declaration of neutrality in Mongolia could have two effects. Mongolian neutrality may represent a lost opportunity for Russia to increase its military influence in East Asia, especially against the rise of China's defense capabilities.

Russian foreign policy has centered on creating a cordon sanitaire of pro-Moscow states as a way to make up for Russia's lack of natural geographic barriers. Yet no countries on Russia's southern (or in Ukraine's case, southwestern) periphery have seen it fit to declare neutrality.

Russia, therefore, has attempted to bring these countries closer to it militarily, either through membership in any one of the collective security organizations of which Russia is a major member (such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) or attempting to limit cooperation with NATO. Despite this, Mongolia is cooperating with NATO.

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While Mongolian neutrality would affect Russian opportunities to augment its military influence in Asia, such a policy may nevertheless provide Russia with the sense of security in one of its most vulnerable areas that it has craved for so long. If Mongolia officially declares a policy of non-alignment, it may remove any doubt among Russian officials that Mongolia may turn militarily toward China or even the West.

This could potentially increase confidence in Moscow to a greater extent than the so-called multi-vector foreign policies of other countries bordering Russia, such as Kazakhstan.

To be sure, Mongolian neutrality would have little effect on the economic and financial security of Siberia, which is of more pressing concern to Russian officials than traditional military threats.

Nevertheless, with China's growing military power, Russian officials, having to contend with potential security threats on a variety of fronts, would likely welcome one less security concern, particularly one on its Siberian underbelly. To know that Mongolia comprises a definitively neutral area could allow Russian strategic planners to concentrate more of their resources in Primorsky Krai, for example.

Whether Russia sees the prospect of Mongolian neutrality as a loss or a benefit will depend largely on how Moscow calculates the cost-benefit ratio for Russian interests. If Russian plans for Mongolia have been to eventually induce Ulan Bataar to sacrifice its “third neighbor” policy in favor of closer ties with Russia, then Mongolian neutrality would no doubt represent a loss for Moscow.

As Mongolia has largely steered clear of overt alignment with any one power or bloc, it seems that Russia will not have much to lose in the event that Mongolia becomes officially neutral. It will likely have much to gain, however, in terms of reduced vulnerability in one area of its eastern flank. 

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.