As President Obama declares that the US is preparing to boost its military presence in Europe to the tune of $1 billion, and NATO and the EU move quickly to deepen relations with Georgia and Moldova it is easy to conclude that the crisis in Ukraine and the recent actions of the Russian Federation are a very European issue. However, if we turn our attention to Mongolia, we can see that worsening US/EU relations with Russia are likely to have a far more global effect than may have been initially assumed.
Mongolia, for its part, seeks to simultaneously maintain good relations with its neighbors (Russia and China) while deepening relations with extra-regional powers such as EU member states, the US, Japan, and South Korea. While maintaining this balance and neutrality is difficult enough in a stable international environment, the recent increase in tensions between Russia and NATO/EU members has made playing both sides of the fence an increasingly delicate process.
The first sign that Mongolia was finding itself in an increasingly sticky situation appeared when the country chose to abstain from the UN resolution condemning the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Everything about Mongolian foreign policy and general international outlook would lead one to believe that Mongolian officials do not welcome Russia’s aggressive actions. Not only would Mongolia not be keen on Russia’s attempts to legitimize its actions by reference to historic rights and “arbitrary decisions” (this having the potential to set a precedent for claims on Mongolia’s territory by China), but this kind of action by a great power against a smaller neighbor more generally underlines Mongolia’s own vulnerability. That said, it is also clear that Mongolia is not in a position to upset its relations with the Russian Federation, given its importance to the Mongolian economy and its role as a neighboring balancer vis-à-vis China. “Abstain” was likely the only decision Mongolia could make.
It would appear that the Russian government is also watching how countries on its eastern borders will respond to the crisis in its relations with Europe and North America. Case in point: Russian President Putin met with Mongolian officials 2 times in just the last 3 weeks. The first time, Mongolian Prime Minister N. Altankhuyag met with Putin to discuss the two countries’ bilateral relationship at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The second time, Putin met with Mongolian President Elbegdorj at the Confidence Building Measures in Asia meeting in Shanghai. Russia is eager to keep Mongolia from sliding towards the United States and Europe.
While I do not know if the current situation in Ukraine was discussed at these meetings, Ukraine was on the agenda during recent meetings between the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs L. Bold and the British Minister of Foreign Affairs two weeks ago. I would also guess that U.S. Senators Steve Lynch and Steven Shabet mentioned the issue during their visit to Ulaanbaatar as part of an official tour of Asia.
Mongolia and other small states seeking to maintain relations with Russia and the “West” are going to find it increasingly difficult to maintain a favorable balance. As Russia becomes more assertive of its foreign policy and security interests, its relationship with NATO and EU member states is unlikely to improve. While Mongolia has navigated the international arena successfully for the past couple decades, that well thought-out success has a limit. As Mongolia’s international profile rises and relations between real and third neighbors deteriorate, I predict that Mongolia’s goal of an omni-directional foreign policy will become more and more difficult to maintain. Difficult, but by no means impossible.
(Many of the resources and links for the post came directly from my “Foreign Policy Roundup”, which be can found here).