The new Mongolian president will not affect relations with Russia
Authors: Alexey Mikhalev, Buryat State University and Artyom Lukin, Far Eastern Federal University
In June 2021, Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, former Chairman of the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and Prime Minister, became the sixth President of Mongolia. The presidential race has been a turbulent one, even by the standards of modern Mongolian politics.
Incumbent President Khaltmaagiin Battulga of the Democratic Party – who had been barred from seeking a second term by the MPP-dominated parliament – sought to rally popular support by gathering mass rallies in the main square of the Mongolian capital, Ulan- bator. Yet Khurelsukh mainly relied on support from the bureaucracy and law enforcement.
Khurelsukh’s presidency is unlikely to affect Ulaanbaatar’s relations with Moscow. Russia, together with China, is an essential neighbor and partner for Mongolia. 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Mongolia, with Moscow becoming the first foreign power to formally recognize Mongolia’s sovereignty in 1921.
Despite former President Battulga’s reputation as a politician with pro-Russian sympathies, Moscow has remained neutral in Mongolia’s domestic political struggle. Once the election was decided, the Kremlin quickly congratulated the newly elected president. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Khurelsukh spoke in July to confirm “their mutual determination to continue developing friendly relations and a comprehensive strategic partnership between Russia and Mongolia.”
In September, Khurelsukh made a virtual appearance at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. In his remarks at the forum, Khurelsukh noted that Mongolia supports both Putin’s foreign policy vision of the Greater Eurasia Partnership and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Khurelsukh also raised the possibility of a free trade agreement between Mongolia and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Mongolia’s only free trade agreement so far is with Japan.
Still, concerns over Mongolia’s plans to build river dams that could impact the fragile natural environment of Russia’s Eastern Siberian border areas remain an irritant in Russian-Mongolian relations and are expected to continue under Khurelsukh. Partly due to Russian pressure, Mongolia has halted plans to build hydroelectric power plants on the Egiin Gol and Shuren rivers – tributaries of the Selenga River which flows into Lake Baikal in Russia.
However, Mongolia has launched the construction of a dam on the cross-border Uldza river. The dam is needed to divert water from mining projects in the Gobi region of southern Mongolia. The Uldza Dam, if completed, could disrupt the ecology of the unique Torey Lakes in Russia’s Daursky Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite Moscow’s concerns, Mongolian Foreign Minister Battsetseg Batmunkh has made it clear that the country will not give up on its hydropower and dam-building ambitions, which Ulaanbaatar sees as a path to energy self-sufficiency.
Despite disagreements over the dams, Russia and Mongolia are pursuing the Soyuz Vostok pipeline project that would transport gas from Russia’s Western Siberia to China via Mongolia. A feasibility study is nearing completion, and Russia’s Gazprom plans to start construction next year. If completed, the pipeline will become Russia’s and Mongolia’s largest joint venture since the Soviet era. Russia and China have the option of building a gas pipeline from Western Siberia directly to Western China via the Altai Mountains. Yet the Mongolian route would bring gas directly to areas of China that need it.
The route of the gas pipeline through Mongolia is not entirely without risk. Mongolian resource nationalism has troubled foreign investors in the country. The pipeline crossing Mongolian territory could potentially hold the project hostage to Mongolia’s turbulent domestic politics. This may be one of the reasons why Beijing has yet to sign a binding contract for the pipeline. An energy crisis currently affecting many parts of China could prompt Beijing to make a final decision in favor of the Mongolian route for Russian gas.
Khurelsukh’s election did not change the patterns of Mongolian-Russian military collaboration, which remains active. In September and October, Russian and Mongolian units conducted the annual bilateral exercise Selenga. Taking place in Mongolia, it involved around 1,400 military personnel from both sides. Yet Russia watches with suspicion as Mongolia pursues its “third neighbour” policy and develops military ties with the United States. Moscow is particularly uncomfortable with Mongolia hosting the international Khaan Quest exercises, which are conducted in close collaboration with the US Indo-Pacific Command.
Mongolia’s establishment of a “strategic partnership” with South Korea, agreed at a virtual summit in September between Khurelsukh and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, is another example of multi-country foreign policy. -proactive vector from Mongolia. South Korea has become Mongolia’s sixth strategic partner, after Russia (2006), Japan (2010), China (2014), India (2015) and the United States (2019).
Ulaanbaatar’s foreign policy cover is also visible in Mongolia’s vaccine diplomacy, with the country receiving vaccines from Russia, China, India and the West. Mongolia originally ordered 1 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, but by July had only received 80,000 doses, apparently due to production bottlenecks in Russia. The majority of shots administered in Mongolia have been the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
Regardless of who holds the presidency in Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar will continue to have a vital interest in strong relations with Moscow. Despite Mongolia’s proactive multi-vector foreign policy, Russia, rather than distant “third neighbours”, will remain the ultimate guarantor of Mongolia’s security and sovereignty.
Alexey Mikhalev is Director of the Center for Political Transformation Studies, Buryatia State University, Ulan-Ude.
Artyom Lukin is an associate professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.