Peter Schaller

Berlin, 06 April 2022

Putin, Ukraine and Mongolia

When you talk to people interested in Mongolia in Germany these days you will sooner or later be asked the following question: "What is Mongolia's position on the war in Ukraine and what does this invasion mean for Mongolia's foreign policy situation and specifically for its security?" Behind this is the fear that Russia could invade Mongolia like it did Ukraine and relegate the country to the status of a satellite again.

To present my answer to this question, I need to elaborate a bit.

I admit I was a »Russland-Versteher« worse: »Putin-Versteher«, a German term which is difficult to translate into English with its full meaning and its many implications. It means something like »someone, who understands Putin«. For some years now, this expression has been used in Germany to describe someone who wants to explain Russia's policy since the dissolution of the USSR and especially Putin's policy towards "the West" in terms of foreign policy contexts and power interests, i.e. with a view to the political and power realities in Europe and the world. From this perspective, foreign policy is determined by the interest of the state. The "Putin-Versteher" has always been seen in Germany, but especially now after the invasion of Ukraine, as a blue-eyed fool who does not recognize or does not want to recognize the "evil" in Putin and puts the West at Russia's mercy.

Understanding Russia in this context is mainly about understanding Russia's security needs. It is important to keep in mind that in the last centuries the major threats to Russia came from the West: at the beginning of the 17th century from Poland, a hundred years later from Sweden. In 1812 Napoleon conquered Moscow and in 1941 Hitler was a deadly threat. Russia is open to invasion because of its geography, which is free of major natural obstacles such as high mountain ranges, hostile deserts and oceans. Even the wide Russian rivers and the swamps are no obstacle: in winter they freeze over, a fact that the Mongols took advantage of in the 13th century. For Russia was also threatened from the east: in the 13th century came the Mongols, at the end of the 16th century the Crimean Tatars, and two decades later the Kalmyks. The Mongols conquered Russia, but this was 800 years ago, and in the last two hundred years the existential threats came from the West.

At the centre of Russian security considerations is NATO, a Western and US-dominated defence alliance. The counterpart to NATO was the Warsaw Pact, a defence alliance of European socialist states led by the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact dissolved after the collapse of the world socialist system thirty years ago, but NATO not only continued to exist, but expanded to the East in the years that followed until today. The argument that NATO threatened no one was shaky from the start. If the old enemy military pact no longer existed, what was the point of NATO at all? And if it continued to exist, then there could only be one possible adversary in Europe, namely Russia. What other military threat to Europe existed? Certainly not from Lithuania or Poland or any other country. To any unbiased observer, this is clear.

The Hollywood film industry has played its part and continues to do so to this day. In dozens of films, either the Russian mafia threatens the free world, or money-hungry or ideologically stubborn Russian generals are an even greater danger, selling nuclear weapons or even detonating them themselves. The bad guys are "the Russians". Films, of course, do not depict official policy one-to-one, but they show a general mood, the zeitgeist, "what's going on".

Trust never existed, despite statements to the contrary. Russian security interests were portrayed as exaggerated, hysterical or as a cover-up for its own power ambitions, which were to dominate the former Soviet republics again. The need for security was seen as an obsession. The NATO-Russian Council was a consolation, but it did not work because NATO was gradually expanding. Putin warned about the expansion of NATO in his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. I have always seen this warning as a turning point in the history of the relationship between Russia and the West/NATO over the last thirty years, mainly because these remarks were disregarded. 

It doesn't matter for politics whether one regards such ideas as Russian security interests, which determine concrete action, as unsubstantiated. They are simply there and cannot be explained away and pretended not to exist. All states and peoples have these obsessions, which arise from their history and its interpretation.

Large states like the USA, Russia, China have an effect by their very existence. They are gravitational fields and radiate into their "surroundings". The USA traditionally sees Central and South America as its backyard and has also acted like the landlords there. Since they can reach out militarily and economically worldwide, they bring their interests to bear worldwide. Interests of big countries have to be dealt with politically. This includes recognizing them to a certain extent and putting this into practice. 

As a former diplomat, I belong to a profession that is trained to see the world as it is, to understand other nations and to classify the world view of others as an effective element and not as an unfounded idea. Combined with an objective analysis of one's own state interests, this is the basis of a realistic foreign policy. I admit, in the current mood in Germany and Europe, where everyone is making their mark with ever stronger measures against Russia and where emotion and politics are mixed, this view of the world is not en vogue, but that does not make it obsolete either.

This leads me directly to Putin. I was a Russia-and-Putin-Versteher because I saw Putin as a leader who had Russian geostrategic interests in mind. As a former intelligence officer, he is trained to analyse, to assess, to put one and one together, to not kid himself. That is the only rational reason for the existence of intelligence services operating abroad: to complete the picture of the other through sources that are not readily available and to produce as accurate a description of reality as possible so that policy-makers do not do anything in the blue.

On that basis, after the large-scale attack on Ukraine, I no longer understand Putin. I don't see why this war should serve Russia's interests. The need for security could have been realized in other ways and with less effort and losses. For example, Russia could have occupied the two breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk in their entirety and secured them with Russian troops, analogous to Putin's approach in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This would have prevented Ukraine from joining NATO, which is the main threat for Putin, for the foreseeable future. Russia would have created a "frozen conflict" and could keep Ukraine under pressure by pinpricks. That would not be nice and would also be against international law, but here one could still have recognized a »rational« power calculation. That I am not misunderstood: The fact that one can understand such a move from the perspective of a country or its respective leader does not mean that one approves of it. 

But what happened instead of a limited and »rational« operation? Instead of acting on a manageable theatre of war, Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border on three thousand kilometres with insufficient forces, carried out the operation amateurishly according to the judgement of all military experts and, unless there is a total turnaround, will either have to withdraw completely or retreat to the two breakaway provinces, or they will be embroiled in a partisan war that they cannot win. 

What has Putin achieved, to what extent has he promoted Russian interests? 

I do not see anything.

1. Ukraine is undefeated, and it is increasingly supplied with weapons and all kinds of goods by many states in the world, the most important prerequisite for continuing to hold out. 

2. The Russian military has disgraced itself. Russia creates the image of a colossus on feet of clay, which ultimately only appears threatening because of its nuclear weapons. Of course, they can indiscriminately destroy, but it seems difficult for them to gain a complete victory. For the well-trained and well-led NATO troops, Russia has lost much of its potency; a march through to the Atlantic or the occupation of states bordering Russia in Europe can hardly be imagined at present. 

3. Russia has made an enemy of half the world and all of Europe, even though influential states such as India, China, Iran, Pakistan, South Africa and others abstained from the UN vote on 2 March condemning the Russian invasion, which in itself is a strong statement. 

4. Possible war crimes, that are tolerated or even ordered by officers as a means to wage war add to Russia’s bad reputation. 

5. The sanctions will cause lasting damage to the economic development of Russia and lead to a loss of prosperity for the population (though also in the European states). 

6. Thousands of Russian soldiers have already been killed, but Putin has not yet achieved his war aims, as far as these can be discerned. In other words, these soldiers have died in vain. 

As a result, Putin has weakened Russia.

What are the fundamental interests of a state? It wants to protect its borders and its citizens, it wants to be appreciated and respected in the world, and it wants its citizens to live in peace, security and prosperity. The war against Ukraine blatantly violates these objectives and thus harms the interests of Russia and its people.

Obviously, the Russian attack was based on a gigantic misjudgement of all the important factors that are decisive for a war.In any case, wars are rarely carried out as planned. In his fundamental work »On War« (»Vom Kriege«) the famous Prussian general Clausewitz referred to this as »Friktion« (friction) which can also be expressed with the term »Unwägbarkeit« (imponderables or the unpredictable). They are due to chance and therefore cannot be calculated. In the case of Ukraine, however, it goes deeper. I can only explain the Ukrainian adventure that Russia has embarked on as Putin basing his decisions not on facts but on ideology. And that is the second reason why I am no longer a »Putin-Versteher«. No matter how this ideology is expressed, whether as Russia's uniqueness and special mission in the world (the "Third Rome"), its own interpretation of Russian-Ukrainian history, the designation of the Ukrainian government as a genocidal regime and spearhead of the hostile West, or the fact that Putin's aide Medvedev now rages against Ukraine as a "National Socialist Third Reich": Ideology clouds the view of reality, it leads to decisions that are not appropriate to reality. The ideologue seals himself off from reality, he ignores information and lives in his own world. It cannot then be true what must not be true. I do not fully believe the thesis put forward in the Western media that the Russian military and intelligence services, out of fear to voice inconvenient truths, have given Putin a false overall picture of the possible negative consequences of an invasion and of Russian military capability. German history shows that dictators bend the facts to suit themselves.

What does Mongolia have to do with all this? Mongolia is not directly affected by the Ukraine war. It is far away, and it does not get components made in Ukraine like the German car manufacturers. Ukrainian refugees will not turn up in Mongolia. It does not get gas from Russia, but it gets the great bulk of its fuel and a significant share of its electrical energy. Russia also controls her transit routes to Europe, and Russia is the second largest trading partner after China. In other words, Russia has effective leverage over Mongolia. More so has China, and unfortunately China stands by Russia. 

Mongolia's dependence on its two neighbours is not new, and therefore its vote on the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly on 02.03.2022 is not surprising. Mongolia abstained along with China. Political relations usually follow economic ones. Mongolia cannot afford to upset Russia and China. Voting against Russia (and thus also against China) would go against Mongolian interests. The voting decision was correct and reasonable. Or as Hegel (or exactly Engels in this form) said: freedom is insight into necessity. Mongolia secured its national interests.

I give a second assessment to those who ask: Mongolia is not threatened by Russia (if it behaves as shown above). Russia has nothing to gain from an invasion of Mongolia. On the contrary: for both Russia and China, Mongolia is a strategic cordon sanitaire. Both are basically happy that this protective belt exists. For Russia and China are strategic partners on the one hand, but also competitors in Northeast Asia on the other. Mongolia can use this status as a "safety belt" for its own policy.

Peter Schaller was in his last two posts before retirement in 2013 German Consul General in Saint Petersburg and Ambassador to Mongolia.