Three Developments in Mongolia Increasingly Worry Moscow

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 28

(Source: President of Mongolia)

Executive Summary:

  • Recent developments in Mongolia challenge Moscow’s long-standing assumption that it has sufficient leverage to keep Ulaanbaatar in line with Russian interests.
  • Two of these developments—Russian flight there and interest in Mongolia among Russia’s Buddhist peoples—are probably long-term, disturbing many Russians. The third—Mongolia’s restriction of water flows into Lake Baikal—has the potential to be immediately explosive.
  • Chinese financing of Mongolian dams has heightened the Kremlin’s fears, which may serve to disrupt relations between Moscow and Beijing.

On February 12, former Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbergdorj took to X (formerly Twitter) in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propagandistic excuses for his “special military operation” against Ukraine. During a recent interview with US television personality Tucker Carlson, Putin asserted that Russia has a historical right to Ukrainian territory because it was once part of the Russian Empire. In mocking Putin’s musings, Elbergdorj posted maps of the Mongol Empire and stated, “Don’t worry. We are a peaceful and free nation.” He implied that, by Putin’s reasoning, Mongolia would have a claim to Russia’s southern region. Luckily, Ulaanbaatar, unlike Moscow, respects modern borders and international sovereignty (, February 12). Despite Mongolia’s strategic location between China and Russia and its recent efforts to pursue a more independent approach to foreign and domestic policy, the lowly populated and landlocked country seldom receives much attention in Moscow. Russia generally looks at Mongolia through the lens of the “Mongol Yoke” of medieval times. As a result, the Kremlin takes notice when Mongolian leaders make remarks, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, at Moscow’s expense that suggest an interest in reviving the empire of the Golden Horde (Bitnews Today, February 13; DKN News, December 15, 2022; Window on Eurasia, May 20, 2023).

Three recent developments have prompted Russian officials to focus more closely on Mongolia. These are the flight of Russian citizens from Siberia and the Far East to Mongolia to avoid being forced to fight in Ukraine, growing interest in the three Buddhist nations of the Russian Federation in expanding ties with Mongolia, and Ulaanbaatar’s plans to construct hydroelectric dams that will limit the flow of water to Lake Baikal and threaten its survival. Russia’s renewed attention to Mongolia comes at a time when Moscow is growing concerned that Ulaanbaatar is taking these steps to build support with China, a country the Putin regime wants to retain as Russia’s primary ally (see EDM, November 8, 2023).

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Mongolia has pursued increasingly independent policies at home and abroad, occasionally drawing fire from Moscow (see EDM, June 20, 2019). Until recently, however, the Kremlin appears to have assumed that it has sufficient leverage to prevent the Mongolian government from taking any action that would directly threaten Russian interests. Although that is changing, growing alarm in the Kremlin has yet to lead to a substantive shift in policy given Moscow’s focus on Ukraine.

The flight of Russians from Siberia and the Russian Far East into Mongolia is of particular concern to Moscow. The exodus began at the start of Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as the population sought to avoid conscription. Flights from the major Russian cities and the country’s western regions have been far more extensive and have attracted more attention. Still, the Russian flights into Mongolia may matter even more. While the numbers fleeing from east of the Urals are small—perhaps no more than a few thousand—they portend a serious demographic shift. This departure threatens Moscow’s ability to control the enormous but underpopulated region of Russia that China and others have an interest in. Additionally, the exodus involves Buryats and Tuvans, two Buddhist nations where anti-war attitudes are especially strong and secessionist attitudes are growing. Unsurprisingly, some in Moscow are concerned that this new diaspora in Mongolia could disrupt Russia’s influence (Svobodny idel-ural, April 11, 2022; see EDM July 14, 2022, December 23, 2023; Siber.Realii, September 2, 2022; Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe, September 25, 2022).

Moscow is also concerned with the specter of pan-Mongolism emanating from this exodus. Recently, Moscow directed Russia’s three Buddhist republics—Buryatia, Tuva, and Kalmykia—to form special groups to combat any talk or action intended to promote a partnership with Buddhist Mongolia (Baikal Journal, January 6; see EDM, January 18). Moscow has good reason to fear such a development. These nations are increasingly hostile to the Kremlin’s actions and increasingly see Mongolia as a defender and ally. Some believe Ulaanbaatar can be persuaded to issue special passports to allow them to move to Mongolia more easily. That has led some observers to suggest that, of the three, Tuva may become the first republic to secede from Russia (Baikal Journal, June 20, 2023; Gordon, June 23, 2023; Idel.Realii, January 25).

For the time being, Moscow remains in control of all three republics. Always sensitive to any threat to the country’s territorial integrity, Russia’s intelligence services and force structures are already taking action against the looming threat (cf. Idel.Realii, January 25; Window on Eurasia, February 10). Some of this talk and action is self-serving behavior on the part of Russia’s siloviki, people who work for the state in any capacity that can use force. After all, the best way to boost their influence and funding is to posit the existence of such threats. Just as there typically is no smoke without some fire, however, the Kremlin has reason for concern, albeit not yet for genuine action.

Mongolia’s actions around Lake Baikal have  generated further concern and some anger in Moscow. To address its energy crisis, Ulaanbaatar decided to build hydroelectric dams on rivers that flow across the Russian border and feed Lake Baikal, a body of water with immediate symbolic and fundamental importance to Russia. Adding insult to injury, Beijing is funding these projects, though it is aware of Moscow’s opposition. Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, head of the Institute on Water Problems at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said last week that Mongolia’s plans represent “a catastrophe for Baikal” and must be a matter of great concern to all Russians (Babr24, February 14).

The Mongolian project will lower water levels in the lake and threaten its fragile ecosystems, as well as the people living in its watershed. Danilov-Danilyan fails to address an even more serious concern for the Kremlin: the impact of this development on political relations between Moscow and Beijing, on the one hand, and Mongolia and China, on the other. It is unlikely that Putin is worried about Lake Baikal. He is undoubtedly more focused on the future of his relationship with China. The developments in Mongolia appear set to trigger new tensions between Moscow and Beijing, which may be further exacerbated by the Kremlin’s efforts to maintain its influence over Ulaanbaatar.