Russia Wants to Keep Mongolia in Its Place

A recent diplomatic spat reveals that Moscow still treats its democratic neighbor as a subservient satellite state.

Mongolian soldiers attend the traditional Nadaam festival in Ulaanbaatar on July 12, 2017.
Mongolian soldiers attend the traditional Nadaam festival in Ulaanbaatar on July 12, 2017. BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP via Getty Images

On June 24, Russia held a massive military parade, technically to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day—delayed for over a month due to COVID-19—but also to provide a suitably militaristic backdrop for voting in the constitutional referendum that will conclude next week, paving the way for the extension of Vladimir Putin’s presidency until at least 2036.

On the same day, Mongolia held its regular, democratic parliamentary elections.

Now these two unrelated events have triggered an uncharacteristic diplomatic row between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar that highlights Russia’s self-defeating propensity to bully its neighbors and Mongolia’s rapidly shrinking room for maneuver as it faces pressure from both Moscow and Beijing. Mongolia, a robust democracy in a deeply authoritarian neighborhood, faces a difficult future as its two giant neighbors and former imperial overlords, China and Russia, seek to reorder Eurasia in their image.

The latest row erupted when the Mongolian National Broadcaster (MNB) scrapped plans to air the Russian parade in a live broadcast. It had originally planned to show the parade, partly because the Mongolian government resolved to send a small detachment of soldiers to march in the spectacle in a gesture of respect for Russia. But realizing that the rescheduled parade would coincide with the Mongolian election, MNB decided to pull the broadcast, citing concerns over perceptions of election day bias.

The Russian Embassy in Ulaanbaatar lashed out against this decision in a mean-tempered public post on its Facebook page, accusing MNB of an “aberration of vision” and even subservience to Western interests: “Perhaps the MNB board of directors inadvertently joined … a whole campaign of accusing Russia of electoral interference nearly everywhere in the world?”

The remarks caused a storm of controversy. In a letter sent to Russian Ambassador Iskander Azizov, MNB Director Luvsandashiin Ninjjamts called the embassy’s remarks “clearly insulting” and demanded an official apology. Former Mongolian Prime Minister Sanjaagiin Bayar, who had also served in Russia as Mongolia’s ambassador, likened the embassy’s outburst to the old practice of Soviet ambassadors dictating to their host governments what they should and should not do.

Mongolians know a thing or two about Soviet interference. The country became a Soviet satellite 20 years before the same fate befell the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In the 1930s, the Soviets—and their Mongolian puppets, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party—slaughtered tens of thousands of people in anti-religious campaigns and waves of political repression.

Among the victims was Mongolian Prime Minister Peljidiin Genden, who had the nerve to quarrel with Joseph Stalin. (He is rumored to have smashed the Soviet dictator’s pipe to pieces in one nasty altercation.) He was sent to Moscow and executed by the Soviets in 1937. His successor, Anandyn Amar, suffered a similar fate. He was arrested, sent to the Soviet Union, and executed there in 1941.

This bloodbath led to the premiership of Khorloogiin Choibalsan, also known as Mongolia’s Stalin, who lent himself to serving Soviet aims in Asia and was closely supervised by Ivan Ivanov, the then-Soviet plenipotentiary in Mongolia. It was on Choibalsan’s and Ivanov’s watch that Mongolia got involved in the Soviet war effort during the 1940s, sending nearly half a million horses (which proved their resilience on the front line) and sponsoring a tank brigade. Mongolia also joined the Soviets in fighting the Japanese in Manchuria in August 1945.

Choibalsan’s successor, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, was even more anxious to endear himself to his Soviet overlords, repeatedly requesting Mongolia’s annexation by the Soviet Union. (To their credit, the Soviets refused.) Tsedenbal also fought Moscow’s case tirelessly during the unfolding Sino-Soviet split. In December 1962, his ardent defense of Soviet policies in a conversation with the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai got so heated that the two nearly came to blows.

Ironically, it was the Soviets who ultimately decided to remove Tsedenbal from power in 1984, sending him to peaceful retirement in Moscow. The move was choreographed by then-up-and-coming Central Committee Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (reportedly, in part because Tsedenbal’s anti-Chinese views undercut Moscow’s interest in improving relations with Beijing).

Mongolia only shed its status as a Soviet satellite in the late 1980s. Sandwiched uncomfortably between two former empires, the country embraced its so-called “third neighbor policy,” seeking actively to develop relations with the West as a counterbalance. Mongolia also developed a robust system of democratic governance, holding regular elections (in what has become largely a two-party system) and enjoying freedoms of speech, assembly, and association in stark contrast to its two authoritarian neighbors.

For years, Ulaanbaatar has played China against Russia, Russia against China, and both against the West in a skillful balancing act that is now becoming difficult to sustain. Closer relations between Beijing and Moscow in recent years have constrained Mongolia. The landlocked country’s utter economic dependence on its two larger neighbors accentuates its impossible dilemma.

Mongolia’s current president, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, campaigned on a Russia-friendly platform, projecting himself as Putin’s friend. He had also made overtures to China (most recently, by inexplicably donating 30,000 sheep as Mongolia’s contribution to China’s anti-coronavirus effort) and even floated the prospect of his country joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, largely run by China and Russia.

When Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Battulga’s predecessor as president, first agreed to contribute Mongolian troops to march in the V-E parade—in 2015, for the 70th anniversary—it served as an indicator of a careful pivot in Russia’s direction. It was a move that had some support in Mongolian policy circles: Better the Russians than the Chinese, their thinking went.

But, as the Russian Embassy’s intervention demonstrates, Mongolia’s independence is not yet fully accepted in Moscow. The expectation, clearly, is that the Mongolians ultimately have no recourse: They have to swallow their pride and do as they are told because, if they don’t, let them see if they can get better treatment with China.

The embassy’s outrageous Facebook post is a part of an emerging pattern. In recent years, the Russian Foreign Ministry has pursued a much more assertive social media policy. Russian embassies have played an active part in disgraceful propaganda and trolling, in particular related to the history of World War II. This includes, for instance, posts that blame Poland for the outbreak of the war (by the Russian Embassy in Warsaw) and posts by the Russian Embassy in Tallinn praising the joys of life in Soviet-occupied Estonia.

While the purpose of these aggressive and deliberately offensive social media campaigns is far from clear, its effects are obvious: enraging the populace of the target countries and helping to foster Russia’s image as an unrepentant, aggressive, neoimperialist power. That is certainly the image the Russian Embassy has projected in Mongolia.

Unfortunately, unlike the European countries that can laugh off Russia’s trolling or perhaps take it seriously and rally in defiance of Putin’s regime, Mongolia has limited options. Moscow senses this vulnerability and will, of course, exploit it. In the long term, the very existence of an open, democratic Mongolia poses a challenge to China and Russia, and for this reason the survival of democracy in the country is an open question.

Despite the row over MNB’s refusal to broadcast the parade, Mongolian troops did march on Red Square, a sign of Ulaanbaatar’s commitment to keeping its difficult northern neighbor appeased. Whether or not the embassy apologizes for the scandalous post (and it won’t), the passions will probably fizzle out in the days ahead, leaving just the bitter aftertaste—a reminder for ordinary Mongolians that in Russia’s zero-sum world, you march in unison and never, ever smash Stalin’s pipe.

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko

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