Crossroads Asia

What Does Putin’s Re-election Mean for Mongolia-Russia Relations?

Recent Features

Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | East Asia

What Does Putin’s Re-election Mean for Mongolia-Russia Relations?

Since Mongolia’s democratization, ties with Russia have followed a steady course, no matter who is in office.

What Does Putin’s Re-election Mean for Mongolia-Russia Relations?

From left: Chinese President X Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa attend a trilateral summit on the sidelines of the SCO meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sep. 15, 2022.

Credit: Office of the President of Mongolia

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s re-election in March cemented him in power for another six years, with his inauguration for a fifth term set for May 7. Russia’s foreign policy will have an enormous impact on regional and global affairs. As Moscow continues to have security issues with NATO and its allies, Putin’s policies aim to strengthen ties with its eastern partners, which include Mongolia. How will Putin’s re-election impact Ulaanbaatar-Moscow bilateral relations? 

Regardless of who holds the top office, the 100-year-history of diplomacy remains the pillar of Mongolia-Russia relations. High-level visits often are timed to coincide with commemorations of shared history, whether remembering joint battles against the Japanese Army in World War II or and celebrating the strong diplomatic ties between the two countries. 

Since Mongolia’s democratization in the 1990s, ties have remained strong; presidential-level visits between Ulaanbaatar and Moscow have often led to a major upgrade in bilateral ties. Since 1993, there have been 11 official presidential state visits to Russia from Mongolia and four from Russia to Mongolia up to 2021. Mongolia and Russia are currently comprehensive strategic partners. 

On a governance level, one notable systemic distinction here is that while Russia’s leadership has changed just twice since Putin’s election in 2000, Mongolia has had five presidential elections and five presidents. Each Mongolian president had to account for Putin’s leadership style, economic policies, and general handling of East Asian, and Northeast Asian affairs, which Mongolia is heavily involved in.

Since Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, several major developments have taken place between Mongolia and Russia. In 2003, when Mongolia’s future president, Enkhbayar Nambar, was serving as prime minister, a high-level meeting resulted in Russia agreeing to reduce 98 percent of Mongolia’s debt from Soviet-era assistance. Mongolia agreed to pay the remaining 2 percent, equivalent to around $250 million. 

Later, the Enkhbayar administration (2005-2009) was keen on attracting Russian investments in Mongolia’s critical sectors such as mining in copper, gold, silver, and uranium. In 2006, during one of Enkhbayar’s visits to Moscow, Putin mentioned the need to strengthen Mongolia-Russia joint enterprises. 

When Elbegdorj Tsakhia was elected president in 2009, he became the longest-serving Mongolian president to work with Putin. During Elbegdorj’s administration, Mongolia’s foreign policy took an active path that strengthened Ulaanbaatar’s ties with its third neighbors in the hopes of greater economic prosperity, investment, and security, but he was also supportive of regional economic integration policies that have expanded Ulaanbaatar’s participation in global affairs.  

Between 2009 and 2017, Mongolia-Russia relations focused on establishing trilateral economic cooperation involving China. Mongolia also aimed to strengthen economic ties with third neighbors, which included technologically advanced economies such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Elegbdorj’s flagship diplomacy, which expanded Ulaanbaatar’s foreign relations to developed countries, is reflected in the Foreign Policy Concept of 2011. 

However, Mongolia-Russia economic activities continued to lag, particularly in major investment. Mongolia’s rapid signing of bilateral agreements during this period contrasted with the lack of deals reached with Russia. One exception was in the energy sector: Elbegdorj and Putin had multiple discussions on Mongolia’s imports of crude oil from Russia, as the country is dependent on Russian energy. These conversations actively began during Elbegdorj’s state visit to Russia in 2010. 

By contrast, Chinese investment flourished in a variety of sectors in Mongolia. 

Now out of office, Elbegdorj has also become the first Mongolian former president to openly criticize Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Elbegdorj has been an adamant voice against Putin’s war with Ukraine and Russia’s targeting of minorities such as Buryats. He has even drawn direct parallels between Ukraine and Mongolia, saying that “Ukraine is fighting an overt war, while Mongolia is fighting a covert war, to protect our freedom.”

The Mongolian government, however, has refrained from speaking out against Putin or the war in Ukraine.

In 2019, Putin paid an official visit to Mongolia to attend the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Khalkhiin Gol. During this visit, Putin and then President Battulga Khaltmaa (in office from (2017-2021) signed an agreement to upgrade bilateral relations to a new level of comprehensive strategic partnership. The upgrade aimed to boost Russian investment in Mongolia, especially in energy and infrastructure, while also promoting sporting events and cultural ties between the two countries. 

This was also crucial for the Battulga administration as it was important for Mongolia to have diverse investors, rather than relying on China. As a landlocked economy between Beijing and Moscow, balancing foreign investment is paramount. 

Understanding the significance of diversifying Mongolia’s foreign investors, the Battulga administration also updated Mongolia’s relations with “third neighbors” the United States, Japan, and South Korea to a strategic partnership level. 

Khurelsukh Ukhnaa took office in 2021; per a new constitutional amendment he will serve one six-year presidential term. From a bilateral relations standpoint, Khurelsukh has been continuing strong ties with Russian leadership, in line with all previous Mongolian heads of state. 

Similarly, Khurelsukh has expanded Mongolia’s bilateral relations with Mongolia’s third neighbors. In 2023 and so far in 2024, Mongolia has hosted high-level visits from Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, French President Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and most recently, British Secretary of State David Cameron.

From an international relations perspective, the irrefutable component of Mongolia’s landlocked position is that it must balance between the two great powers, Russia and China. Both Moscow and Beijing are financiers and traditional partners of Mongolia’s economy, development, and investment. Therefore, the leadership and policy directions of Russian leadership are crucial in strengthening Mongolia-Russia’s political, economic, and social ties. 

Putin’s re-election will no doubt have a great impact on regional affairs. Neighboring countries like Mongolia and China will likely feel a squeeze in investment as Russia continues its military adventure abroad. While Moscow has been making major changes to its exports, the Kremlin is also being selective in its investment projects. This will have a direct impact on multiple mega-projects that Mongolia wants to move forward.

At the leadership level, both Mongolia and Russia understand mega development projects such as building dams and thermal power plants will take years to build and require a continued flow of investment and capital. The projects that have previously been successful, however, serve as a major economic gateway for Ulaanbaatar’s landlocked economy. 

Foreign investment in Mongolia will continue to be crucial as Ulaanbaatar seeks to diversify investors in its energy and infrastructure sector. Mongolia and Russia have multiple pending projects that need to be accelerated, with the participation of China as a trilateral partner, such as the Erdeneburen Hydroelectric Power Plant and the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline. Despite these bilateral and trilateral projects, Mongolia will still aim to strengthen partnerships and seek cooperation in alternative energy sources with other global partners.