Of late, bilateral relations between Russia and Mongolia have witnessed a sea change in terms of comprehensive cooperation in varied areas largely due to advancement in their strategic partnership. Unlike Soviet period when dependence and domination were the two fundamental features characterising bilateral ties between Russia and Mongolia, the post-1991 period has been observing quite a different pattern that is based on ‘equality’ in the overall relationship. Moreover, it was Putin’s visit to Mongolia in 2000 that proved to be meaningful for comprehensive cooperation between the two sides in succeeding years. But the year 2006 gave a new direction when the two sides agreed to move from a “good-neighbourly partnership” to a “strategic partnership”.
In order to give a boost to this agreement, in 2009 a ‘Declaration on the Development of Strategic Partnership’ was formally signed. Several critics and political analysts pointed out that, “signing of the declaration on strategic partnership development signifies the progress of vital importance scored by Russia’s diplomacy towards Mongolia”. Following this Declaration the two sides had been planning to establish a strategic partnership since September 2014, when the Russian and Mongolian Presidents met in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. At that time, among notable economic deals Putin and Elbegdorj agreed to include a protocol that provided for visa-free travel of both Russian and Mongolian passport holders between the two countries for up to 30 days. This agreement marked the return of diplomatic relations to the level the two sides enjoyed during the Cold War years and is, as such, a remarkable and symbolic development so far as advancing strategic partnership is concerned.
However, in order to reinforce the plan of establishing a strategic partnership last year in April 2016, Russia and Mongolia signed a medium-term program for the development of strategic partnership. This document was most needed in the ongoing circumstances because under the existing regulations, the planning of bilateral relations was being carried out only on a yearly basis based on the protocol of the Russian-Mongolian Intergovernmental Commission, which was not enough to realize the full potential of the strategic partnership. Another noteworthy component of Russia-Mongolia strategic partnership has been Russia’s positive posture for Mongolia’s efforts of making its presence felt in the world for the simple reason of developing democratic culture in the Asia-Pacific region. The success of democratic transition has indeed taken Mongolia to the new stage of development not only at home but also at foreign front in strengthening its bilateral and multilateral relations.
Since Russia-Mongolia relations have been developing in a spirit of strategic partnership and on the basis of mutual benefit and mutual trust, it has been observed that Russia remains supportive in Mongolia’s engagement with regional organizations, such as OSCE, NATO, TAC, ASEM and CICA, while at the same time seeking membership of APEC. However, Russian support to Mongolia’s engagement with regional organisations is more visible in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) where it has an observer status since 2004. Recently, there have been indications that Mongolia would now seek full membership in the SCO. Even both Russia and China are insisting that the observer status of Mongolia in SCO should be changed to the status of a full member. In terms of regionalisation efforts in Asia, Northeast Asia has been one region where both Russia and Mongolia have enduring interests. The two countries’ interests in the Northeast Asian region have contributed much to strengthen their bilateral and multilateral relations of which the regional factor has its own significance. By supporting Mongolia for its involvement in the Northeast Asian regional integration process, Russia looks for an opportunity to find its own place in the region.
Russia’s engagement with Mongolia in the framework of developing strategic partnership is also important because both the countries have distinct geopolitical needs: For Russia, Mongolia traditionally provides a strategic buffer from China, while Mongolia increases Russia’s stake in Sino-Russian relations and offers leverage for Moscow when dealing with Beijing. In recent years, Russia has resumed its military assistance to Mongolia quite actively through training, equipment and exercise. For Mongolia, Russia has been the only source of political, economic, and military support in the face of an assertive China. Nevertheless, advancing strategic partnership with Russia also ensures Mongolia’s importance in China’s “One Belt, One Road” project under which the three sides agreed to create a economic corridor. For Mongolia, a trilateral agreement with Russia and China provides a far more balanced approach to regional security, economic exchange, and political affairs.
Yet, considering Russian foreign policy it is in Russia’s interests that Mongolia, as its immediate neighbour, remains a politically stable and economically prosperous state so as to establish a good-neighbour zone around the perimeter of the Russian borders. Similarly, despite Chinese economic dominance Russia as a significant strategic partner remains to be a credible necessity in matters of Mongolia’s bilateral and multilateral security concerns. In addition, although China is by far the bigger trade partner, Russia is the more popular of the two. Mongolia is now looking to Russia for further investment in the jointly owned railway network to benefit from continental trade with China. Since Russia has already agreed to write off the vast majority of Mongolia’s outstanding debt to Russia, a total of $174.2 million, it may open interesting opportunities for Moscow as well. This is so because Mongolia is a major importer of refined petroleum from Russia in addition to importing goods worth billions of dollars. Hence, Mongolia will continue to be seen as an opportunity for Russian state and private firms. In such a scenario, advancing strategic partnership appears to be the key in Russia-Mongolia existing relationship.