Mongolia and Russia inked several agreements during a pomp-filled official visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Ulaanbaatar. But the bevy of signings does not mean that Mongolia is about to reenter Russia's sphere of influence, Mongolian analysts say.During Medvedev's August 25-26 visit, Russia and Mongolia agreed to start a joint venture to mine the rich uranium deposit in Dornod, in northeastern Mongolia near the Russian border. The two countries also discussed the possibility of a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Mongolia, and carried out a military exercise.Medvedev's visit was also loaded with symbolism, as it included a commemoration of the 1939 battle at Khalkhin Gol, when a joint Soviet-Mongolian force defeated Japanese troops, decisively ending Japan's ambitions against the Soviets in World War II. At the end of his visit, Medvedev and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj laid wreaths at a World War II monument in Ulaanbaatar. Medvedev and Elbegdorj both invoked history in describing their current ties. "History is such a stubborn thing that can be neither forgotten nor changed," Medvedev said. Meanwhile, Elbegdorj commented that Russian-Mongolian ties had been "sealed by the blood and sweat of our peoples."But the closeness of Russian-Mongolian ties should not be overstated, said Col. Galsanjamts, a foreign policy expert at Ulaanbaatar's Institute for Strategic Studies. He was quick to point out that Mongolia and Japan signed an agreement on nuclear energy in May, and that Ulaanbaatar also cooperates in the uranium sphere with France, Canada and China. "We are not going to sell all our uranium to Russia," Galsanjamts said.The military exercise, Darkhan-2, is also less significant than it might otherwise seem. Much of it is based on repairing Mongolian equipment. Although the two countries billed it as a "peacekeeping exercise," similar to another just concluded by the U.S. Marines and Mongolia, that only means that the units whose equipment is being repaired are peacekeeping units, said Jargalsaihan Mendee, another analyst and a former Mongolian defense attaché in Washington. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. About 90 percent of the equipment of the Mongolian armed forces is of Soviet origin, and the spare parts are available only in Russia, said Mendee.Nevertheless, Russia plays an important role in Mongolia's foreign policy, mainly in providing a counterbalance to China. "Chinese leaders believe that Mongolian territory is part of China and Mongolians are a national minority of China, and that they lost Mongolian territory because of Russia. The Chinese still have this in their mind, and this is what they teach their children. They don't say this officially but it's in their mind, probably forever," said Galsanjamts."Russia doesn't do this sort of thing," Galsanjamts continued. "There is always a question of how Mongolia can keep its independence between two giants, and the solution is keeping a balance between Russia and China."Galsanjamts noted that in 1919, when Russia was in chaos, China took advantage of the situation to occupy Mongolia. Later on, however, a Stalin-led Soviet Union reasserted itself in Mongolia, pushing the Chinese out. "We had Russia's interest and so we weren't occupied by China. And because of China's interests, we didn't become the Mongolian Soviet Socialist Republic."So Mongolians welcome Russia's increased interest in Mongolia, he said. Russia has increased the number of Mongolian officers it trains in Russian military academies, and has increased the amount of military aid it provides Ulaanbaatar, about $60 million over the last two years for equipment, including armored personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters.And because of the importance of maintaining good relations with Russia, ties with the United States -- especially military ties -- will necessarily be limited, Galsanjamts said. For example the exercises carried out between the United States and Mongolia will only be peacekeeping, not combat exercises, to avoid offending Russia, he said. Russian officials have told Mongolian leaders to "reconsider" deepening military ties with the Washington, he added.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.