Russians Seek Refuge in Mongolia Escaping Ukraine War
Thousands of Buryats (ethnic Mongolians) fled their homeland in the 1920s to seek safety in Mongolia during Stalinist collectivization and repression.
One hundred years later Mongolia witnessed a long line of motorists at its northern border post Kyakhta from a region with Buryats and Russians, who are attempting to flee the Ukraine war, as Putin declared a partial mobilization of Russian reservists to augment his war effort in Ukraine.
According to Justice Minister Nyambaatar, the country will not bar Russian “tourists” from entering for a 30-day visa-free stay.
As Mongolia is becoming Russia’s primary gateway to China images of huge lines at the border revealed that Mongolia had unexpectedly become a safe haven for men escaping Russia.
So far, Mongolians’ initial attitude to Buryats has been cordial and favorable. Former President Elbegdorj, who is a staunch advocate of worldwide ethnic Mongolians, called citizens to embrace their brothers and sisters from Russia and urged Putin to end the brutal war.
Expat Buryats launched a Telegram channel and other online forums to help people cross the border, find rental homes in Ulaanbaatar and find out if physicians in hospitals speak Russian.
Businesses and entrepreneurs perceive the unexpected demand for shelter, food, and basic services as an opportunity to make good money as most “migrants” come with cash unable to use their Russian bank cards in Ulaanbaatar because of sanctions.
Also, Mongolia is a safe transit route for fleeing Russians to South Korea, the United States, and other Asian destinations.
Many questions have arisen as a result of this sudden influx from the northern neighbor: whether Ulaanbaatar can accommodate thousands of these political migrants, whether Putin would press Mongolian leaders to return his military-capable citizens, what happens to the legal status of Russians/Buryats who overstay their one-month visa, and so on.
"Tourists" from Russia are not yet considered refugees or asylum seekers. A small group of expats demonstrated in New York City, urging visiting President Khurelsukh to provide Buryats safe haven and to establish a "humanitarian corridor" for Russians fleeing the war.
Mongolia works with the UN and offers limited assistance to refugees and asylum seekers but they do not enjoy a legal status in the country. The government does not provide them with work permits, health care or education.
In Russia, there are around 400,000 Buryats encircling Lake Baikal with the main city of Ulan-Ude.
They speak Mongolian dialect, however, Russian is the first language of most urban and younger Buryats. Another 40,000 Buryats live in northern Mongolia, with another 70,000 in northeastern China.
The Mongolian government has been neutral on the Ukraine war as the country is almost entirely dependent on gasoline imports from Russia. Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene secured a long-term discount fuel supply from Rosneft this summer.
A recent public survey suggests more than 70 percent of Mongolians do not want to take sides in the war.
Going forward, Mongolia intends to expand its economic partnership with Russia as the Power of Siberia 2 natural gas pipeline, construction of which is expected to begin in 2024.
The planned 2,600 km pipeline connecting Russia and China via Mongolia will have a capacity of 50 billion cubic meters of gas per year and might be operational by 2030, generating transit fees and gas supplies for the country.
Mongolia shares a 3,500-kilometre border with Russia.
Amar Adiya is editor-in-chief of Mongolia Weekly newsletter and regional director at Washington-based strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia.