The Role of Peacekeeping in Mongolia’s Military Strategy: A New Paradigm for Security

The Role of Peacekeeping in Mongolia's Military Strategy
A New Paradigm for Security

by Christopher Pultz
January 23, 2014

This article examines the military component of Mongolia’s security strategy and argues that the Mongolian Armed Forces (MAF) have redefined their objectives and identity by creating a modern military centered on peacekeeping and global peace-support operations.



Mongolia is developing a unique military strategy that attempts to balance conventional and peacekeeping capabilities. Having moved away from its previous security arrangements with Russia, Mongolia now pursues a foreign policy that will facilitate global engagement while allowing the country to maintain its sovereignty, national identity, and diplomatic freedom of maneuver through a “third neighbor” policy. This policy seeks to expand ties with other democratic nations in order to both counterbalance Russian and Chinese influence and increase Mongolia’s international profile. A relic of the Cold War, the MAF has discarded all but a few vestiges of its former makeup and embraced a new structure, doctrine, mission, and identity to complement this new foreign policy direction. The MAF has thus become a vital instrument supporting the third-neighbor policy by transforming itself into a modern military force focused on peacekeeping and global engagement.

  • Mongolia’s peacekeeping deployment to South Sudan in 2012, its largest to date, has put the MAF on the global stage as a reputable and capable force that has built a capacity for diverse mission sets within the spectrum of peace-support operations. This capability will give the U.S. a reliable partner for future peace-related support operations.
  • Mongolia’s participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program has signaled the MAF’s desire and readiness to push beyond UN-sponsored peace-support operations, thereby providing the U.S. and regional states additional opportunities to improve interoperability.
  • Mongolia’s increased foreign military relations have complemented the country’s third-neighbor policy, despite pressure from both China and Russia. The U.S. should capitalize on this window of opportunity to enhance Mongolia’s peacekeeping capacity.

On a chilly early morning in June 2012, a group of Mongolian soldiers rolled onto Ulaanbaatar international airport’s parking apron. Waiting there was a United Nations–contracted IL-76 cargo aircraft, preparing to transport the soldiers to the Unity region of South Sudan in Africa. The region is considered one of the most violent and dangerous areas along South Sudan’s northern border with the Republic of Sudan. The soldiers were members of one of Mongolia’s elite units trained specifically for peace-support operations, and deployment of the unit marked the largest peacekeeping mission in the country’s history. This event established a high-water mark for the Mongolian Armed Forces (MAF) as they celebrated their tenth anniversary of supporting UN peacekeeping operations. Further, the unit’s deployment constituted a truly remarkable achievement for a nation that just 25 years earlier had discarded 67 years of Communist rule and international isolation in favor of democracy and global integration.

Mongolia sits landlocked between two world powers, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the last quarter century, the country has abandoned its former alliance with Russia and managed to create a thriving democratic society and growing economy, despite its relatively small population of approximately 2.7 million people. In contrast with other satellite states of the former Soviet Union, Mongolia concurrently instituted a democratic political system, a market-driven economy, and a foreign policy based on balancing relations with Russia and China while expanding relations with the West. Mongolia is now pursuing a foreign policy that will facilitate global engagement, allow the nation to maintain its sovereignty, and provide diplomatic freedom of maneuver through a “third neighbor” policy. [1]

The MAF is reshaping itself to complement this balanced approach to foreign policy and has become a vital instrument in Mongolia’s global engagement. A relic of the Cold War with strong institutional attachments to Russia, the MAF discarded all but a few vestiges of its former makeup and has embraced a new structure, doctrine, mission, and perhaps most important, an identity centered on peacekeeping. Since 2002, Mongolia has significantly increased its participation in globally diverse UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations. Although only comprising approximately 8,000 soldiers, the MAF now contributes the second-largest number of troops from Northeast and Central Asia. [2] Mongolian forces have also participated in multiple rotations supporting U.S.-led coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Despite pressure from both China and Russia, Mongolia has expanded its participation in global multilateral security organizations and partnerships, such as by joining the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), partnering with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and chairing the Community of Democracies.

This article will focus on the military component of Mongolia’s global-engagement strategy and argue that the MAF has redefined its security objectives and identity. By creating a modern military force centered on peacekeeping and global peace-support operations, Mongolia has reinforced its sovereignty and independence despite the country’s geopolitical constraints. The article is divided into the following sections:

  • pp. 131-34 consider Mongolia’s historical dependence on Russia for security and examine its sudden political transformation after the former Soviet Union’s disintegration and withdrawal from Mongolia.
  • pp. 135-36 describe Mongolia’s third-neighbor policy and significant military reforms and modernization programs as the country attempts to become globally engaged with UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations. The section argues that the MAF, with support from the United States, has chosen a path of reform centered on improving its capabilities for peace-support operations.
  • pp. 137-39 examine U.S. policy toward Mongolia’s defense reforms and argue that U.S. military aid has significantly improved the MAF’s capabilities. The expansion of foreign military engagement is not only supporting Mongolia’s third-neighbor policy but has also enhanced the country’s sovereignty and sense of national identity, while improving regional security.
  • pp. 139-41 discuss the course that Mongolia has set toward military modernization and force transformation and assess the challenges the MAF faces in balancing conventional and peacekeeping responsibilities.
  • pp. 141-44 examine China’s and Russia’s reactions to Mongolia’s global military engagement. Mongolia has expanded not only its military programs but also its strategic partnerships with other nations as well as with multinational security organizations.
  • pp. 144-46 describe Mongolia’s challenges in balancing its military transformation and modernization programs and analyze how the MAF has become an instrument of foreign policy.

[1] The term “third neighbor” is used to describe the concept of Mongolia looking beyond its two immediate geographic neighbors (Russia and China) to develop strong relations with the world’s democratic nations, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Canada, Australia, and various European countries.

[2] United Nations, “Contributors to UN Peacekeeping Operations,” August 31, 2013,

Christopher Pultz is a China Foreign Area Officer currently serving as an Attaché Instructor at the Joint Military Attaché School at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He served as the Assistant Army Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, from 2011 to 2012. Prior to this assignment, he completed various Foreign Area Officer assignments, including Assistant Professor of Chinese at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Senior Asia Analyst for the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Senior China Analyst in the Office of Asia Pacific Analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Senior China Advisor for the Under Secretary of Defense for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any of its components.

About Asia Policy

Asia Policy is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal presenting policy-relevant academic research on the Asia-Pacific that draws clear and concise conclusions useful to today’s policymakers. Asia Policy is published quarterly in January, April, July, and October and accepts submissions on a rolling basis. Learn more