Navigating the Triangular Dynamics: Mongol-Russian Relations in the Context of China

by Ute Wallenböck

Feb 27, 2024 in CEIAS Insights

Navigating the Triangular Dynamics: Mongol-Russian Relations in the Context of China

Mongolia is sandwiched between two great authoritarian powers, namely Russia and China. The complexities of these triangular dynamics will be explained by looking at the historical entanglements and contemporary power dynamics. Which dynamics shape the triangular relationship between these three countries?

Responding to the American journalist Tucker Carlson’s recent interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia’s democrat president between 2009 and 2017, shared maps on X (former Twitter) showing how vast was the Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries when it controlled parts of what is now Russia. In fact, Mongolia was the first nation to unify Eurasia following the conquests of Genghis Khan, an autocratic ruler who was also perceived as a “good guy with a terrible international press”.

During that time, the Mongol Empire was the largest land-based empire in the world. Additionally, by facilitating trade routes, it also improved its economy. However, with the dissolution of the Timurid Empire in the early 16th century and the onset of the maritime era, the ancient Silk Roads faded, marking the end of Mongolia’s pivotal position in global history. Subsequently, as China and Russia expanded their influence in Central and East Asia, Mongolia became part of the Manchu Empire under the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, Outer Mongolia achieved independence under the leadership of Bogd Khan, the spiritual leader of Buddhism. Following a revolution in 1921 and the death of Bogd Khan in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Party took control and established a Communist-ruled state known as the Mongolian People’s Republic. China reluctantly recognized Mongolia’s independence as a satellite state that was aligned with the Soviet Union. All the allies at the Yalta Conference in 1945 formally acknowledged Mongolia as an independent state, and the 1950 Sino-Soviet treaty explicitly recognized the independence of the Mongolian People’s Republic.

Still, between 1924 and 1989, the Soviet Union exercised dominant control over Mongolia. In fact, its relations with China depended on the condition of Sino-Soviet ties. Consequently, due to the ideological differences between Moscow and Beijing in the early 1960s, resulting in the Sino-Soviet relations split, a rift emerged between Mongolia and China that lasted until the early 1980s. Joining the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in 1962 significantly impacted Mongolia’s political and economic development. Most of its capital investment was financed by Soviet loans, and the development of industries and trade was planned according to the “needs of socialist countries”.

Mongolia’s strategic partnerships

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent unexpected, Mongolia’s relatively peaceful shift to democracy left Mongolia without the security assurances it had relied on from its former ally. This compelled Mongolia to safeguard its own independence and sovereignty. In response, the authorities devised a unique strategic approach, leveraging Mongolia’s democratic identity. This strategy revolves around three main priorities. Firstly, Mongolian diplomacy prioritizes fostering amicable relations with its immediate neighbors: Russia and China. In 1993, Mongolia signed treaties of friendship and cooperation with Russia and, in 1994, with China. Secondly, Mongolia aims to cultivate and strengthen close ties with democratic and developed nations, often called its “third neighbors”. Through this effort, thirdly, Mongolia has successfully established strategic partnerships with Russia and China and various third-party nations worldwide, such as the US, South Korea, India, and the European Union, bolstered by its involvement in international peacekeeping operations.

Russia’s and China’s historical ties with Mongolia and its geographical proximity have shaped a relationship that is both multifaceted and dynamic. As Mongolia is situated between these two regional giants, they play a major role in the intricate dance of geopolitics, which often sees nations forging alliances and partnerships to secure their interests and navigate the complexities of international relations. Hence, the dynamics of Mongolia’s relationships with its neighbors not only shape its foreign policy but also have broader implications for regional stability as well as global geopolitics. In recent years, Mongolia has pursued a policy of strategic diversification, seeking to balance its relations with Russia and China while safeguarding its sovereignty and national interests.

In the 21st century, the relationship between Mongolia, Russia, and China has undergone substantive changes with several ups and downs. In the past two to three decades, Russian-Mongol and Sino-Mongol relations have developed rapidly in various fields and have been promoted to the level of ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. The bilateral treaty was signed with China in August 2014. China wants Mongolia to adhere to its positions regarding Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Additionally, China seeks assurances from Mongolia of non-alignment in both military and political contexts. The Russian Federation, after signing the treaty with Mongolia in September 2019, wants to exert its influence on matters of strategic significance, including defense, energy, and railway infrastructure.

Mongolia’s current economy 

Mongolia’s economy grew in the first decades of the 2000s but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including border closures with China, Mongolia’s largest trading partner and neighbor, its economy contracted in 2020. Consequently, having discussed trade and economic cooperation for years, Mongolia has actively participated in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as Russia’s key partner in Asia since September 2020. Mongolia’s membership in the EAEU has strengthened its economic ties with Russia, particularly in trade, investment, and infrastructure development. Concurrently, this membership has raised Beijing’s concerns about potential disruptions to its bilateral trade and investment flows with Mongolia.

However, the gradual implementation of substantial projects may provide an enabling environment. By balancing its relations with China and Russia, Mongolia reached a comprehensive deal on the China–Mongolia–Russia (CMR) economic corridor in 2016 with the aim of stimulating economic growth and development across the region, including energy cooperation, such as the construction of a Russian gas pipeline to China through Mongolia, planned for 2024. Concurrently, official rhetoric began to emphasize the potential benefits of Mongolia’s cooperation with its immediate neighbors.

The war in Ukraine has disrupted Mongolia’s supply chains while rising food and fuel prices have weakened its economy as Mongolia depends on the import of strategically important goods from Russia. Even though Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the former president, spoke out in support of Ukraine, Mongolia has chosen to remain politically neutral because of the country’s relationship with Russia. As a matter of fact, Mongolia has emphasized its commitment to pursuing a balanced and pragmatic foreign policy that serves its national interests while fostering constructive relations with both China and Russia.

Even though Mongolia can still make decisions independently, lately, China is gaining greater influence, especially regarding the country’s mining sector. According to the World Bank, thanks largely to the mining sector, Mongolia’s economy grew in 2023, even as Mongolia grappled with elevated inflation, devaluation of its currency, constrained fiscal policy options, and a significant level of external debt. Economic growth is expected to accelerate in the coming years.


With only two international borders, one with China and one with Russia, and heavy economic dependence on both, Mongolia’s geopolitical bridgehead status has led it to adopt a “dual balance” policy to maintain stable relations with both while seeking additional “neighboring third parties”. Mongolia stands out among small powers in Asia for its skillful navigation of potential territorial disputes and nationalist tensions with its powerful neighbors.

Despite being landlocked, Mongolia has avoided these pitfalls through a deliberate, long-term strategy grounded in a multilateralist and realist philosophy. By embracing collective influence and relying on balancing among great powers, Mongolia protects its interests without causing noise or offense, recognizing its limitations in playing on the same level as major powers.


Key Topics

Mongol-Russian RelationsMongolia's economytriangular dynamicsMongoliaRussiaChina


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