Vladimir Putin is locked in a high-stakes gamble. Through amassing an invasion force on Ukraine's eastern and northern borders, he appears to believe he is forcing the US to make a decision – either allow Ukraine to fall permanently within Russia's sphere of influence or become embroiled in a proxy war against the Russian military on its own doorstep. Although Mongolia is 5,000 km away from Ukraine, this major crisis nonetheless affects the country's security architecture, which has worked well over the past three decades.
Tactical wisdom dictates that you should strive to seize the initiative. In ground combat, forcing your opponent to react to your movements, instead of the other way around, creates opportunities to secure victory. On the surface, this is what Putin appears to have done on the issue of Ukraine: he is forcing the US to react to his moves.
Except geopolitical strategy is more nuanced. There are too many options available to an opponent to force such a clear cut decision.
In calling out the possibility of Russian action, refusing Putin's demands and arming the Ukrainians, Washington has called the bluff.
In precipitating this crisis, Putin has in fact forced a difficult choice on himself. He can either retreat without achieving any concession from the US, or he can invade Ukraine and embroil Russia in a costly and bloody occupation of another country.
So what next for Russia? Neither of those options will be appealing. But geopolitical strategy is nuanced - perhaps there is a third way out, a method of extracting himself from the crisis without losing face domestically or starting a war.
It is impossible to predict the future, of course, but perhaps Russia will extract a relatively minor concession from the US – such as a reduction in the number of pre-positioned American troops in eastern Europe – and advertise it within Russia as a 'major victory'. In effect, this would maintain the status quo, which is the least risky option. Alternatively, Putin could accelerate the existing separatist war in eastern Ukraine, although this is only likely to push Kiev closer to the West.
But it's also possible that Putin has precipitated this crisis for unclear domestic reasons. Perhaps his political position has been weakened and he is looking to create a distraction or reinforce an image of strength. If so, it will be more difficult for him to find a plausible 'third way out' without undermining his own position at the apex of Russian power.
Yet the central question – what next for Russia – extends far beyond Ukraine. It is really a question about Putin himself. At 69, he has perhaps 10-20 years left as Russia's leader. What happens after Putin? How will Russia handle the transition of power? Who is the next leader?
These are questions of incredible importance for Mongolia. Moscow is a major energy supplier, economic partner and historic security guarantor for Ulaanbaatar. If Putin's departure causes major instability in Russia, Mongolia will quickly need to find another security guarantor (probably the US, or even Japan) to safeguard its independence from another strong authoritarian leader in Xi Jinping.
This question may need to be answered sooner than many expect. Instability within Russia could occur even while Putin remains a leader. For example, if Putin miscalculates in the Ukraine crisis, he could weaken his domestic position and cause political unrest amongst other powerful players in Russia. With this in mind, Mongolia's 'Third Neighbour' policy is a good insurance policy and should be maintained and even strengthened.
In this, there are echoes of an even larger question: what next for China? After all, Xi Jinping is only a year younger than Putin and has his own ambitions to reclaim Taiwan. And that is why Putin's gamble in Ukraine is being watched so closely and may have a consequential impact on Mongolia’s future.
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