Russophiles, Russophones and Russophobes

By Julian Dierkes

Reactions to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine have been quite visible on Twitter.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to Ulaanbaatar on July 5 have brought many of these reactions to the fore again.

Here’s a prominent and strongly-worded (in Russian no less) example representing the perception of Russia as an aggressive, (neo)imperial power.

Marissa J Smith documented initial reactions to the invasion of Ukraine in two posts earlier this year (February/early March | March). B Bulgan focused specifically on the close attention that the apparent involvement of Buryat soldiers in the invasion was receiving in Mongolia in March.

On the whole, I have been more surprised by the level of quiet and sometimes vocal support for Russia than by denunciations of imperial aggression. As it turned out, the absence of a government reaction to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan seems to have been a harbinger of the current policy to stay quiet, though for even more pressing Realpolitik reasons.

The Solitudes of Mongolian Foreign Relations

It has become very clear in the past five months how significant the Russophone (i.e. Russian-speaking) and Russophile (possessing an affinity for Russia) communities in Mongolia are. The fact that I found this surprising is surely due to my myopia and the fact that my own language abilities (not including Russian) have always steered me toward Mongolians with other language abilities and thus away from the Russophone/phile crowd. Some of my surprise is also rooted in the fact that there really is not very much of a Russian diaspora in Mongolia, unlike many Central Asian countries, though even there Russian population shares appear to be shrinking. With the transfer of ownership over Erdenet from Russian to Mongolian interests some years ago (as irregular as that was), even Erdenet as a regional/local stronghold of linkages with Russia is declining in significance.

Yes, I am aware of history prior to 1990. 😉 Yes, of course, I have seen numerous Mongolian officials, but also academics pull fairly fluent Russian out of their hats when called upon. And yes, I am also aware of the Russian educational trajectories and personal connections of numerous recent representatives of Mongolia, not least former pres Kh Battulga and current pres U Khurelsukh. But, I just never had a lot of interactions with this Russia-focused crowd.

Official Neutrality

Obviously, the government has studiously attempted not to take sides in this conflict. It has abstained on UN resolutions, has not joined in any sanctions, has received officials (like FM Lavrov) and even signed a pipeline deal placing it literally between Russia and China.

Why this neutrality? Well, even though some Mongolians political and values compasses might point to industrialized democracies, it remains surrounded by two autocracies (of very different nature) that are increasingly assertive internationally, though rooted in a perceived position of strength for China and in more of a desperate imperialistic rearguard action for Russia.

This is Mongolia’s foreign policy reality. While I still thought that on an issue like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mongolia could have publicly sided with Western allies without anyone in Beijing or Moscow really noticing, I do find the argument plausible that both neighbours’ governments might be quite miffed if Mongolia sided very publicly with the Ukraine. Whether there would be any consequences to Russian or – even less likely as they are only tangentially involved – Chinese displeasure at Mongolia taking a stance is very unclear. Of course, Mongolia is very vulnerable to any shifts in Russian hydrocarbons, even more so than Western Europe, for example. Regardless of any Russophile predilections in the MPP leadership, official silence might thus be a realistic assessment of Mongolia’s options, as painful as that is to committed democrats, those committed to international rules and the absolute injunction against aggression toward other countries, and those who are particularly concerned about Russian aggression and the threat it may pose to Central Asia, but also to Mongolia.

In this context I would also note that there has been a curious flurry of announcements of visits, MOUs, and general relations with Belarus over the past 2-3 years which has not looked better in the context of Russia’s reliance on Belarus as a staging ground for aggression against Ukraine.

Outright Support of Russia

There are clearly prominent voices supporting Russia, including voices in the government.

B Tsogtgerel, Vice-Minister of Roads and Transport, is an example of Russophile voices that come across as quite servile in the context of the Lavrov visit, tweeting in Russian here no less.

As has also been observed elsewhere around the world, there are significant portions of the Russophile and Russophone community in Mongolia who appear to buy into Putin’s propaganda narratives of persecution of Russophones by Ukrainian fascists. I find this no less puzzling in the Mongolian context of an active and fairly free press than anywhere else in the world.

Most of the support for Putin/Russia appears to be of a kneejerk/loyalty variety. I have not come across many reasoned arguments that actually point to any advantage Mongolia might gain by siding with Russia that would make this a conceivable foreign policy options. I cannot tell whether the same voices that occasionally show admiration for Putin’s style of personalistic, autocratic governance as having benefited Russia, are also the voices that are professing some kind of solidarity with Russia. That is largely due to my myopia and lack of understanding of the Russophile community as I have written above.

Condemnation of Russian Actions

FM Lavrov’s visit was an occasion for many voices on Twitter to be very vocal in their condemnation of the Putin regime. Broadly speaking that opposition appears to have three elements, democracy partisans, anti-aggression, and anti-(Russian)-imperialism.

Democracy Partisans

Some grandees of what remains of the Democratic Party have clearly taken a stance rooted in their dedication to democracy and the implied right to self-determination that is so obviously violated by the unprovoked invasion of a neighbour. Some of the DP’s “golden swallows” have been active in this regard.

E Bat-Uul, former mayor of Ulaanbaatar and longtime DP leader, makes an explicit link to risks that Russian aggression poses for Mongolia in this context.

But there are also defenders of democracy beyond the DP. MP T Dorjkhand has also position XYH clearly in this regard,

pointing very explicitly to the authoritarian threat that Mongolia’s neighbours pose to its democracy.

Civil Society

There are numerous voices that have condemned Russian aggression without an explicit link to Mongolian parties. I have already pointed to Ts Bat above, but here’s another example of this kind of voice:

Showcasing images from the demonstration against FM Lavrov’s visit behind Government House.

I do not imagine that long-time prominent commentator Baabar was endorsing the defense of Mongolia from outside forces that Lavrov offered.

Critics of Neo-Imperialism

There have been some rumblings across Central Asia pointing to Russian aggression against Ukraine as part of a broader pattern of Russian neo-imperialism, something that many European and North American analysts also point to as a motivation for Putin’s actions, namely the desire to make Russia great again. The “Kazakh-Russian Rift” in June was a prominently visible example of that, all the more remarkable coming in a Kazakh context, one that is just overcoming – maybe – a personalistic autocracy, and a government that had called for “international” (ie Russian) intervention when it was facing riots in January.

These fears about Russian neo-imperialism were very evident in early reactions to the invasion of Ukraine that focused on the deployment of Buyats in the war.

Implications

Obviously, there are many scenarios for further developments in Ukraine. However those developments unfold, Russian aggression has led to a new geopolitical position that Mongolia finds itself in. With the invasion of the Crimea and subsequent OECD sanctions against Russia, a process started that is bringing Russia and China closer together. Even for the most committed Russophile in Mongolia (who is likely to simultaneously be a Sinophone), that cannot be good news. The deepening division between Russia and most of the world, and the resulting attempt by the Putin regime to cozy up even more to its fascist counterpart in Beijing, has replaced the fear of a deepening U.S.-China confrontation where Mongolia might have to pick sides, with a context where Mongolia’s Third Neighbours may re-engage with the country again in a context of value-based diplomacy that may or may not be seen as threatening by the Xi regime.

Addenda

I received two quite justified comments/criticisms to this post on Twitter.

Generations

Yes, clearly feelings of solidarity/affinity with Russia vary across Mongolian generations, that is an important point. This difference may be visible even in officialdom. While Pres Khurelsukh was socialized with a focus on the Soviet Union, PM Oyun-Erdene is young enough that much of his political socialization was no longer (exclusively) focused on Russia. Given the demography of the Mongolian population, Russophiles are surely decreasing in number.

Interestingly, this is a question that Bulgan asked regarding foreign languages learned in 2016 already, i.e. “How Popular is Russian in Mongolia“.

Putin vs Russia

Also a very valid point in that I largely conflate Russia with Putin/the Putin regime. Obviously, there is a lot of attention being paid to any (growing) opposition to Putin within Russia, but this is also a question to be asked about Mongolian attitudes. It is a question that deserves a more sophisticated answer than I am able to give, but surely there is some anti-Putin Russophilia, as well as some anti-Russian infatuation with personalistic authoritarianism, so a true understanding of Mongolian attitudes should be more nuanced.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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