Walking on a Tightrope, Mongolia and the Ukraine War
By Cosmo Dippmar
The Russo-Ukraine War is being covered far and wide by news sources from around the world. The politics of big players from around the world are being analysed and assessed by experts in order to analyse and predict the future implications and effects of this war. Analyses are, however, mainly focused on the West and the ‘big powers’ such as China, Japan, Brazil etc. This leaves more politically weaker nations out of the picture, which may suffer more from this conflict, compared to other countries which have more established and robust economies and governments.
One of these smaller countries is Mongolia. Although being the 19th largest country in the world, it only has a population of 3.4million, making it the least densely populated country in the world. Mongolia, despite it being 5,200km away from the conflict, is feeling huge effects from the war in Ukraine, putting it under immense pressure domestically and internationally.
Mongolia and its people are being squeezed by two giants. With Russia to the north and China to its southern borders, Mongolia is in between two of the world's superpowers. Russia is struggling to hold onto its superpower status, and China is eager to become the world’s leader. Thus the position of Mongolia in the region is one of careful and balanced politics, walking on a tightrope.
This, as we know, has not always been the case. At the height of the Mongolian empire around 1270, Pax Mongolia was created. It was a loose association of all the segregated factions in the Mongolian empire, with trade from the West to the East passing through, creating a lot of wealth. This however did not last. By the 1300s, the Mongolian empire was divided, with the “Mongolians” returning to their homeland where they reside until today. In 1925, a communist regime was established in Mongolia. This was one of the first Soviet influenced states and remained a close ally of the Soviet Union. Even under the communist regime Mongolia was a point of tension between the Soviet Union, modern Russia, and China. Following the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960, China laid multiple claims on Mongolia, all refuted and protected by the Soviet Union. Tensions remained throughout the Sino-Soviet split until 1990, when Mongolia underwent government reform and started transitioning into a free market multiparty democracy. This transition fully ended in 1996 with the first non-MPRP (Mongolian People’s Revolution Party) party being elected, marking an end to communism in Mongolia.
In Modern times, Mongolia has become increasingly reliant on Russia and China for its economy. 80-90% of Mongolia’s exports go through China, which has the closest port to Mongolia. And 90% of Oil imports into the country come from Russia. This creates an extremely reliant dynamic between Mongolia and its neighbours, with both countries having little business interest in Mongolia. Therefore, it must aim to remain in good relations with both countries at the same time, as one is not enough. Mongolia has also implemented a ‘third-neighbour’ policy, trying to be open to the entire world, not only to the regional super powers. Its focus is on accelerating its own development, and so keeps peaceful relations with the rest of the world and tries to build economic and political ties to accelerate progress. Yet, even though it aims to be internationally open, Mongolia still needs to significantly worry about its two neighbours. The position it is in gives little room for political manoeuvring as the Mongolian government needs to walk a fine line between China, Russia and increasingly the West.
In recent years there has also been increasing pressure to create a sort of “anti-western” triangle, as written by Wintour from The Guardian. Mongolia has stayed neutral throughout the Ukrainian conflict, as although it needs both China and Russia, the country also aims to move away from these two superpowers and become more international. Mongolia also has the chance to become a crucial transport hub between Russia and China. There are now plans to build a Sino-Russo gas pipeline through Mongolia, making it a vital point along the transportation line. This may lead to higher alignment with China and Russia, and distancing from the west. But, for now, Mongolia is pursuing a multilateral form of diplomacy, aiming to keep all sides happy. The question now is how long they can continue this.
Amidst the start of the Ukraine War in February 2022, Mongolia found itself in a tight spot. With sanctions against Russia increasing, and pressure from the international community to denounce Russia, Mongolia needed to strategically place itself. In the UN vote to call for Russia’s full withdrawal of forces, Mongolia abstained, despite immense pressures calling for the approval from Russia and disapproval from mainly Western nations. This decision to abstain has kept Mongolia in a limbo between Russia and the West. Although Mongolia is hanging onto its international relations, sanctions mean Mongolia is unable to trade with Russia or risks being blacklisted by international institutions themselves, something they cannot afford. Any positioning on the Ukraine war will have massive negative effects on the economy. Mongolia now risks a fuel shortage, and inflation is rising within the country. Since the start of the war, Mongolia’s inflation has rose to 16%, and the unemployment rate is as high as 10% (21% youth unemployment). With the economy crippling under the pressure, Russia and other countries are able to use fuel as leverage over Mongolia, since no fuel may lead to the collapse of the economy. The closing of Chinese borders due to COVID-19 have already had negative impacts, this new crisis may prove to be the determining factor in Mongolia's future.
An additional pressure on Mongolia now is the rise of Russians fleeing into Mongolia to escape the Russian mobilisation. Queues at the Mongolian boarder have reached up to 16 hours as of Putin’s recent call for “partial mobilisation”. This may lead to tensions in future between Russia and Mongolia as more Russians try to escape mobilisation.
It will be interesting to see how this conflict affects not only Mongolia, but also other smaller, ‘less significant’, nations. The Mongolian dependence on Russia and China puts them on a tightrope between ‘east’ and ‘west’, as they continue to try and become a more globalised country. Mongolia may however, have no choice but to align with Russia because, with no foreign support, their economy would collapse, or at least suffer massively. Mongolia’s survival is dependent on other nations and their reactions to the war in Ukraine.
The situation in Mongolia reminds us that war negatively affects everyone, even if we may not hear of it in mainstream news. Countries big and small suffer from this unjust and, like every war, ‘good for nothing’ conflict. Mongolia is an example of other nations suffering under this conflict, although they may not even be involved in this conflict. The Ukrainian War has had a global impact, let us therefor not only focus on the ‘big players’ but also smaller and weaker countries, which may be suffering more than we know of.