Russia is Eyeing Mongolia and the Reason is Not (Only) China

Turkey is more and more present in Mongolia, the land in between Russia and China, and its presence is set to work against the Kremlin’s national interests in the region since the two countries have recently resumed their centuries-old rivalry for hegemony over Eurasia. In 2020 as in 1853, Turkey is not alone since its agenda is backed by the Western powers, that’s why Russia needs to carefully plan every move in this all-against-one geopolitical game.

Understanding Turkey’s Vision for Mongolia

Mongolia and Turkey are tied by a millennia-old spiritual relationship since the former is one of the places where the modern-day Turkic peoples used to live long before moving westward. It comes as no surprise that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to dedicate some space to Ulaanbaatar in its very rich and complex foreign agenda based on the combination of Neo-Ottomanism, Islamic nationalism, Pan-Turkism and Turanism. In Mongolia’s case, Erdogan’s strategists are playing the turanist and pan-Turkic cards, trying to make fascinating and attracting the memory of an ancient and related past.

Pan-Turkism is the ideology whose aim is to make Turkey appear as the legitimate defender of the Turkic peoples wherever they live: China’s Xinjiang, Moldova’s Gagauzia, Russia’s Crimea, Central Asia, and so on. This claim has prompted Ankara to try to fund a pan-Turkic cultural and political revival by means of charities, NGOs, government-linked agencies, schools, cultural centres and mosques.

As of today, Turkey’s strategy is paying back since it is more and more hegemonizing Central Asian dynamics via the Turkic Council and the International Organization of Turkic Culture, it is one of the most important reference points and international sponsors of the Uyghur insurgency and it is attracting into its orbit several Russian republics via their incorporation in pan-Turkic entities, like the World Turks Qurultai.

What is Turanism?

Turanism is a less known but very captivating school of thought believed to originate in tge early 1900s, until Hungary and Turkey decided to bring new life to it in the 2000s. That choice proved savvy, because turanism is now showing up its game-changing potential. Turanism was born out of the minds of Central European thinkers in the late 19th century with the purpose of building a continent-wide alliance made up by the peoples of Ural-Altaic origin so that to counter the unification processes started by the pan-Slavists and the pan-Germanists. These peoples were and are Hungary’s Magyars, Finland’s and Baltics’ Finns, Russia’s Tatars and Anatolia’s Turks, but neo-Turanists tend to extend the spiritual connection to some Asian peoples like the Mongols, Turkestani Turks, the Koreans and the Japanese.

Nineteenth century’s turanism didn’t work out and eventually crashed against the revolution-powered pan-Slavist and pan-Germanist sentiments but Viktor Orban and Erdogan got to make it appealing and, above all, to make it work. The two countries formed a very solid strategic partnership and are expanding throughout Asia. Budapest, for instance, took advantage of the turanist momentum to develop strong ties with the -stan countries and Tokyo.

Turkey’s interest for Mongolia has to be contextualized in this ideological framework and, just like in Central Asia and the Balkans, the task of increasing its own influence to the detriment of Russia is not proving very hard.

What are the Turkish Doing in Mongolia?

The relations between Mongolia and Turkey didn’t start in the post-Cold War but date back to the Ottoman era, that is when the High Porte supported the “Turkic Mongol brothers”‘s military campaigns against the Russians. The later fall of the Gengis Khan-built empire and the turning of the Russian reality into a strong and well-defended empire against the background of the consolidation of the Chinese empire, led to the disappearance of Mongolia as an independent entity until 1911.

In the post-World War I, the Communist revolution spread from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar and the historically deep-rooted hostility between Mongols and Chinese have been wisely exploited by the Soviets to give rise to a decades-long conflict-free partnership whose soundness hasn’t been affected by the political turmoil of the 1990s.

It’s in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse that Turkey enters Mongolia again in the expectation to take advantage of the power vacuum. Although the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1969, it was only from the late 1990s that Ankara started using its own proxies to raise its influence over Ulaanbaatar and it has been recording quite a success.

Avalanche of Turkey-Mongolia Agreements and Projects

As of today, the two countries are tied by more than hundred agreements and from 2011 Turkey has been included in the “Third Neighbor” list, that is the list where are mentioned the nations (beyond Russia and China) recognized by Mongolia as important for the regional stability and, thus, with which is recommended to strengthen the bilateral cooperation. The Third Neighbor’s list speaks for itself since it includes a series of Western or Western-aligned powers: Turkey, the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and India.

Erdogan is known to be a skillful and pragmatic statesman and, indeed, is missing no chance. So far, his strategy has been based on the projection of soft power, more in detail on culture and humanitarian cooperation. The government-linked Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) is present in the country since 1994 and it has proven to be Ankara’s main instrumentum regni.

From 1994 to 2019, the Tika completed 661 humanitarian projects in Mongolia, and 67 new ones were launched last year, and its range of action knows no borders. In fact, the Tika is being engaged in the delivery of tons of food and basic goods to the Northern Mongolia-based Duhka Turks, in the building of capacity underground vegetable warehouses in Henti province (which has been carefully selected for the fact of hosting a small Muslim community), and it is also funding projects in the fields of education, health, work, welfare, social infrastructure and culture.

The latter field is probably the most important due to its potential repercussions. Indeed, the Tika is trying to foster a cultural revival by means of initiatives aimed at helping vanishing Turkic tribes preserve their identity, rituals, language, and religion. Accordingly, the agency is funding the publication of local dictionaries and grammar guides, the establishment of cultural centers, and is entering universities and high schools to “provide consultation for students who want to pursue studies in Turkey”.

Turkey Helps Mongolia with COVID-19

The outcomes are yet to be seen but something is undoubtedly beyond the horizon. Recently, a school in Ulaanbaatar which was renovated by the Tika has been symbolically renamed after Kemal Ataturk. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected Mongolia only marginally, Turkey was in the front line to help national companies to make masks and other medical goods. Equally important is to remember the role played by Ankara in convincing Ulaanbaatar to join NATO missions across the globe, to adopt the alliance’s operational and training standards, and to sign, in 2012, the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program.

In any case, the most important events took place last year, in the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. The Turkish government sent a delegation to Ulaanbaatar and got several results, including the promise to “take out bilateral relations in every field to the highest level”, concrete support in the fight against Fetullah Gulen’s network, and the participation in the forthcoming establishment of an Ankara-run “parliamentary assembly composed of Turkish-speaking countries and countries which have common roots.”

The Russians in Mongolia

Russia and Turkey are in Mongolia for the same reason, that is to create a bridgehead with which to keep a foot in Central Asia. The former is facilitated by the anti-Chinese hostility displayed by both the Mongol political class and public opinion, whereas the latter is helped by the identity factor.

As of today, Mongolia is far from becoming a Chinese or Turkish satellite since the Kremlin is betting hard on the country and has been increasing its presence since the 2010s. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the mastermind of the Russo-Mongol revival and skillfully posed himself as a mediator between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing with the double result of making Moscow appear the country’s guardian and of monitoring Chinese moves.

Last September, Putin and his Mongol counterpart launched an eloquent message to the world by signing a milestone perpetual friendship treaty. That document is important but needs to be complemented by concrete actions otherwise it will remain a mere piece of paper and the country might well fall in someone else’s hands. Indeed, Turkey got to become a “Third Neighbor” in less than a decade of operations with no need for friendship treaties, showing just how quickly the situation can change.