Road to Ulaanbaatar | Latest news The Moscow Post
25 September 2023

Road to Ulaanbaatar

What did Russia and Mongolia come to for the centenary of relations.

Thirty years of change

At one time, Mongolia received large-scale economic assistance, comprehensive assistance, and investments from Moscow, the correspondent of The Moscow Post reports.

In those days, almost the entire elite of Mongolia spoke Russian, his teaching at school and universities was mandatory. By the beginning of 1992, USSR investments in Mongolia were approaching $13 billion in volumes. For comparison, only Belarus can boast such volumes of investment from Russia today. According to estimates by the Russian Foreign Ministry from 2018, in the post-Soviet period, Russia wrote off $140 billion in debts of developing countries, including Mongolia. This ratio (13/140) shows the place of a small neighboring country in the then priorities of Moscow.

Thirty years of change and Russian reform are a third of Mongolia's hundred years of independence. With the beginning of the Russian transformation, the Mongols, in their own words, had to "patiently wait for their Russian friends." These expectations were delayed. In 2000, Russia occupied 22.1% of Mongolia's foreign trade (9.7% in Mongolian exports and 33.6% in imports). In 2018, this figure fell to 13.9% (1.2% in exports and 29.1% in imports).

Throughout the post-Soviet period, Russia's influence in Mongolia decreased. On the contrary, China's economic influence was increasing. Mongolian observers noted that in the text of the concept of Russian foreign policy in 2013 and 2016, their country appeared in the section "strengthening traditional friendly relations." "In the three previous documents of the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation," they say, Mongolia was not mentioned at all.

In their opinion, "there are many signs of a desire to strengthen Russian influence in Mongolia, and first of all - in order to prioritize the participation of Russian enterprises in the mining industry." President of Mongolia H. Battulga, a former world sambo champion (1983) and vice world champion (1986, 1990), noted in 2018 that it is impossible to "load the entire shelf on one side of a camel," bearing in mind the imbalance in Mongolia's economic ties in favor of China.

In 2020, Russia's trade with Mongolia amounted to a little more than $1.4 billion and fell by 19.6% compared to 2019. Exports in 2020 amounted to $1.38 billion, a decrease of 20.2% ($351 million) compared to 2019. Russia's imports from Mongolia in 2020 amounted to only $38 million. Mongolia's share in Russian exports was 0.4%, in imports - 0.01%. As of 2018, the share of investments of Russian companies in Mongolia was less than 2% of all foreign investments. In 2016, Rostec sold a 49% stake in the Erdenet plant, the flagship of the Russian economic presence in Mongolia.

Inconspicuous Mongolia

In Russia's media space, attention to a vast neighbouring country with a population of about 3 million breaks out as high-level visits are planned or other important events take place. Early in the morning of April 20, 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived on an official visit to Ulan Bator. He was met by a guard of honor with a red carpet. The most recent references to Mongolia are related to Gazprom's recent decision to extend a cross-border gas pipeline to China through Mongolia, as powerful as Nord Stream-2.

In 2019, Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Mongolia, took part in festive events dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the victory of Soviet and Mongolian troops over Japanese troops on the Khalkhin-Gol River. Five years before, he took part in events dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the victory, which became one of the reasons for Japan's refusal to attack the USSR in 1941.

Negotiations between the leaders of the two countries took place, they laid a wreath at the monument to Georgy Zhukov in Ulaanbaatar, signed the Interstate Treaty on Friendly Relations, which received the status of a "comprehensive strategic partnership." Mongolia, and before that, was on the list of friendly countries, remains a priority area of ​ ​ Russian policy in Asia.

Russia provided significant support to Mongolia in the development of transport infrastructure, participates in the joint venture Ulan-Bator Railway (UBZhD), which includes the Trans-Mongolian Highway, which connects Russia with China. Half of the shares of UBZhD belong to the Russian Federation, they are managed by Russian Railways. The railway is more than 60% of freight traffic, in 2021 the volume may exceed 30 million tons.

Rosneft provides most of the country's needs for oil products (90% is imported from Russia). Rotek helps modernize Ulan-Bator CHP-4, Rosatom is considering the possibility of creating a center for nuclear science. Russia allocates hundreds of budget places for Mongolian students, conducts joint military exercises with Mongolia. Since 2014, a visa-free regime has been in force.

In search of new partners

With the adoption of the National Security Concept in 1994, Mongolia's elite began to actively position its country as a fully independent subject of international relations. The new foreign policy is based on the concept of "multi-vector." The diversity of interests is striking. Mongolia became an observer in the SCO and joined the NATO Partnership Program. In July 2011, the country took the chair of the international organization Community of Democracies. A special direction in foreign policy was participation in the affairs of the Korean Peninsula, readiness to mediate in the dialogue of the two Korean states. Since 2014, the Ulaanbaatar security dialogues in North-East Asia have been held under state patronage.

Mongolia also faced the need to look for new trading partners, investors, establish ties with international organizations, independently build relations with China, Yaponiy, the European Union, and the Republic of Korea. Relations of the "strategic partnership" are established not only by Russia (2006), but also with Japan (2010), China (2014), India (2015) and the United States (2019).

On November 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in the final meeting of economic leaders of the Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) countries. As part of one of the previous APEC summits, Chinese President Xi Jinping organized talks on the topic "Strengthening Infrastructure Partnerships." The heads of six neighboring countries of China, including President of Mongolia C. Elbegdorj, were invited to this conversation. He stressed then that Mongolia fully supported the objectives and principles of APEC and wished to join that organization.

Mongolia was not accepted in APEC, just like India. A moratorium was imposed on the admission of new members to this organization. India found comfort in the "quadrangular" cooperation with the United States, Japan and Australia under the roof of the anti-China concept of the Indo-Pacific region.

Mongolia takes part in the activities of a modest, subregional in scale, but international Tumangan project, in which Russia (Primorsky Krai), China, the DPRK and the Republic of Korea participate. The project has been discussed since 1988 with the submission of the Chinese province of Jilin and aims to form a transit transport hub, as well as the creation of an international special economic zone in the area where the borders of the DPRK, PRC and Russia converge (south of Primorsky Krai).


The Chinese leader's initiative to strengthen infrastructure relations in the Northeast Asian region has not been forgotten. In 2014, in Dushanbe, a mechanism was created for tripartite meetings of the leaders of Russia, Mongolia and China. In 2015, priority areas of interaction were identified, including politics, security, the economy, border and interregional relations, science and technology, the humanitarian sphere, and international affairs.

In June 2016, a tripartite meeting of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorzha was held in Tashkent, a tripartite intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the field of road transportation was signed. In June 2018, a tripartite meeting was held in Qingdao, but with the participation of Mongolian President Khaltmagiin Battulgi. The China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor Program was adopted.

Mongolia was in the spotlight due to the fact that in April 2021 a technical and economic analysis of the project for the construction of the Soyuz Vostok gas pipeline from Russia through Mongolia to China was approved. The gas pipeline will pass through Mongolia, becoming a continuation of the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline. On October 22, Ulaanbaatar hosted a meeting of the joint working group of PJSC Gazprom and the Government of Mongolia on the implementation of the memorandum on the project of pipeline gas supplies from Russia to China through Mongolia. The project will give Gazprom the opportunity to export gas produced in Western Siberia to both Europe and China.

"Third Neighbor"

The United States was in the category of "third neighbor" of Mongolia even before the collapse of the USSR, shortly after Washington recognized Mongolia in January 1987. Secretary of State James Baker visited the country in August 1990, then in July 1991. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also visited Ulaanbaatar in May 1998. But it was Baker who declared the United States the "third neighbor" of Mongolia.

In January 1991, a summit was held in Washington. The first president of Mongolia P. Ochirbat and US President George W. Bush agreed on the main directions for the development of relations, concluded an agreement on cooperation in trade, science and technology. With the assistance of the United States, Mongolia became a member of the IMF and the World Bank; in March 1991, the US Congress adopted a resolution in support of "maximum assistance to the transformation in Mongolia."

Having since pursued the policy of "third neighbor" towards Mongolia, the United States proceeded from plans to fill the vacuum in the part of Eurasia neighboring both the Russian Federation and the PRC, as well as in the hope of "helping Mongolia create a stable free market and a democratic society - a model for other former socialist countries."

For Mongolia, the United States, the West and Japan opened up the opportunity to balance their relations with Russia and China in the spirit of "multi-vector." It came to a curiosity when Donald Trump called Vladimir Putin on August 1, 2019 and offered help in combating natural fires in Siberia. The Russian president expressed gratitude "for such an attentive attitude, a proposal for help and support." And on September 5, Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga at a plenary meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum (WEF) said that it was he who asked Trump to call Vladimir Putin during a visit to the United States. The moderator of the WEF session confirmed that the call really took place at the time when the former world sambo champion Battulga was on a visit to the United States.

Finally, according to the Montsame agency, on November 15, Mongolian Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyuun-Erdene met with US Ambassador Michael Klecki. The prime minister announced his desire to strengthen democracy and cooperation with the United States in the framework of the anti-corruption working group. According to him, the Government of Mongolia pays special attention to factors limiting development, including transport, logistics, energy, labor productivity and sources of financing.

And Mongolia seems invited to the "summit for democracy" in December 2021. This is such a difficult fate for this small population, vast throughout the country, "squeezed" by the geography between China and Russia!

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