Abandoned Russian bases dot Mongolia’s border

Between Mongolian fields of green, the Russians built apartment blocks for servicemen in the middle of nowhere, erected statues of Soviet heroes and paved airstrips aimed not at the west or the east, but to the south, towards China.

The Soviet Union had reached its peak. March 14, 1979, reads the Russian broadsheet now peeling from the walls of the abandoned airforce base in Bayantal. Pravda reported that long-range television broadcasting capabilities had successfully been installed on a satellite orbiting 40,000 kilometres above the Earth. In Moscow, preparations were underway for the 109th anniversary of the birth of revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.

‘Then they got kicked out,” says Dambii, who has spent all of his 64 years tending to the fields of Bayantal, where children gallop past on horses at 50 kilometres an hour, straight into sleeting rain.

Moscow shrunk as Beijing’s influence grew. One by one the bunkers filled with warplanes emptied. The runways that once countered the threat of China grew green with moss, the apartments with mildew.

Now a family of four, their dog and a yurt guards the entry to the last vestiges of a fallen military power, whose domain once stretched to the Chinese border but now struggles to maintain its own frontline in Ukraine.

Dambii uses a bunker once filled with 20 Russian armoured vehicles as a shelter for his 200 goats and 800 sheep. The rent is five sheep a year paid to the local council. “It works really well,” he says. “It keeps them warm”. Nearby, children play football on the rooftops of buildings where posters of revolutionaries once hung.

Mongolia, like other states with deep links to the former Soviet Union, is wrestling with its ongoing ties to Moscow. It is divided into generations who were educated in Russian and those now learning in English. By those who believe they owe a debt of gratitude to the Russians that gave some of them running water and heating, and those appalled by what they are seeing unfold in Ukraine.

At the height of its power in the 1970s, more than 50,000 Russian troops were stationed in Mongolia across half-a-dozen bases, accompanying 1800 tanks and 190 planes. By 1992 they were all gone. Older generations remember them fondly, but Russia’s war in Ukraine has damaged Mongolia’s rapidly modernising economy by restricting fuel, flights and goods to a younger generation that has become reliant on international supply chains. Increasingly, as Russia’s power has diminished, Mongolia has made its economy dependent on the emerging superpower to its south.

China now buys 90 per cent of Mongolia’s exports, mostly coal and other resources. But its economic support has done little to sway public opinion in a country that remains rooted in its own ethnocentrism, independence and history.

(source: brisbane times)

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