America’s increasingly active presence in a state historically within Russia’s sphere of influence might actually help solve some of Russia’s most pressing security concerns in Asia.


A hunter checks his eagle before the Altai Eagle Festival at Sagsai village in Mongolia. Photo: Reuters

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has actively fought against the United States’ encroachment into the territory and politics of the states of the former USSR.  Indeed, following the 2008 Russian-Georgian War and the 2010 debates about airbases in Kyrgyzstan, Russia has repeatedly insisted that the former Soviet space was inside of Moscow’s sphere of influence of privileged interests, according to Director of Moscow Carnegie Center Dmitri Trenin's article published in The Washington QuarterlyThere is one instance, however, where this sort of loud, vocal defense has not yet occurred – Mongolia.

Despite not being an official member of the USSR, Mongolia essentially acted as a de facto Soviet state in many ways – it had heavy economic, political and military ties with Moscow, played the role of a buffer state against China after the Sino-Soviet split, and steadfastly stood beside Moscow’s decisions and actions regarding international affairs, according to U.S. researcher Ron Porter's article published in Ritsumeikan Journal of Asia Pacific Studies. However, for the past few years, the United States has become increasingly active in Mongolian politics and economics while Russia has largely remained quiet. And this is even though Mongolia shares a rather long, though remote, border with Russia as well as deep historical ties extending back to the Middle Ages. 

Blake HolleyThe question becomes: Why is Moscow so nonchalant regarding increased U.S. activity and presence in Mongolia when Mongolia has historically been such a staunch Russian ally and is located at Russia’s weakest geographical point?

Currently, the main activities of the United States in Mongolia involve economic modernization and infrastructure development assistance via the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Peace Corps, and Millennium Challenge Compact programs.These programs have helped Mongolia to realize its business potential, especially in regard to mining. 

This trend is not new among former Soviet states and Moscow has never been too vocal against such economic assistance. After all, U.S. development assistance is first-class and the more money states have, the less of a security risk they become as they can pay for better security structures and, perhaps more importantly, provide for better economic benefits to their citizens (that is, assuming that the economic resources come back to the population, instead of being held by the government). 

Russia probably sees these assistance programs as beneficial to all in that they have potential to help secure the region without Moscow having to do too much work. As an added bonus, U.S. technological assistance can greatly accelerate energy infrastructure development that Moscow can use to connect itself more deeply with China, thereby increasing cooperation and decreasing the potential for conflict.

Of even greater concern for Moscow should be Mongolia’s increasing military and security ties to the United States. Since 2003, U.S. and Mongolian forces have participated in the annual “Khaan Quest” peacekeeping exercise program and Ulaanbaatar has even sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan to act as peacekeepers.

Moscow, though, still maintains military ties with Mongolia and participates in the annual “Selenge” field exercisesThis cooperation shows that, even with increased U.S. military involvement, Russia has not lost any of its previous capacity for cooperation.

Indeed, there seems to be a pattern emerging where Washington provides training assistance in regards to security and niche forces, and the assisted states then buy weapons from Moscow – as has happened in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states – which provides much-needed money for Russia’s military-industrial complex, which has lost significant investments since the end of the Soviet Union. As long as the U.S. does not move to establish military bases or anti-missile defense systems in Mongolia, Moscow is likely content with the extra support in the fight against human and drug trafficking and terrorism along its less-protected borders, among myriad other regional concerns.

Russian foreign policy has almost always sought to create a buffer zone with which to protect its territory – one need look no further than the Russian Empire’s actions in Central Asia regarding British Pakistan in the 19th Century and post-World War II Soviet consolidation of Eastern Europe for examples. Today, Russia is bordered by friendly states (Kazakhstan, Belarus), unfriendly states (North Korea) and states that cause uncertainty and concern (China). Uncertainly is always more dangerous in international relations than outright unfriendly rivals. 

Although Mongolia would not act as a full buffer against China, it certainly reduces much of the border space and, as Chinese migration to eastern Russia is increasing, can reduce the uncertainty of illegal border crossing by Chinese migrants.  In this sense, the U.S. pivot, and subsequent “employment” of Mongolia to contain China not only would make sense to Moscow but be welcomed by the Kremlin – if Washington will do the work that will ultimately benefit Russia, why should Russia complain? As long as there are active relations between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar, there is no tangible loss for Russia, merely a stronger border state that is increasing its security capacities and border security, while continuing to counter the large Chinese presence in the region.

In conclusion, while Moscow is generally quite concerned with, and normally a vocal opponent of, U.S. involvement in the regions immediately surrounding its borders, the Kremlin has stayed rather quiet in the case of Mongolia.  Through increased economic aid and assistance and military cooperation, the United States has helped Mongolia to strengthen its borders and become a stronger partner in pressing international security issues.

To this end, Russia gets a stronger neighbor that shares many security concerns as well a buffer against China with minimal effort on the part of the Kremlin. Moreover, Russia does not lose any military or diplomatic cooperation capacity.  Given the importance of the region and Russia’s overarching security concerns regarding human trafficking, drugs, terrorism, illegal immigration, and as well as a host of other threats, this is hardly an opportunity the Kremlin can afford to lose.

Blake Holley expresses a special thanks to Ian Litschko for help coming up with the topic and title for this essay.

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