80th Anniversary of The Battle of the Khalkh River

From left, N.N. Voronov, G.M Shtern, I.A. Ivanov, Kh. Choibalsan, G.K. Zhukov. Mongoltoli.mn. https://mongoltoli.mn/history/h/646.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Khalkh River (often written as Khalkhiin Gol) where Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) and U.S.S.R armies fought the Imperial Army of Japan (IAJ), and Manchukuo from May-September 1939. The Battle of Khalkh River is also recorded in historical archives as Nomonhan Incident.

This battle was a prelude to World War II, just days before Germany’s invasion of Poland. The Battle of Khalkh River has resulted in an unprecedented consequence in Japan’s expansion in the Far East, future relations between Mongolia and Russia, and modernization of Mongolia’s military as a whole.

Battle of the Khalkh River

Early in 1935, trouble began at the Mongolia-Manchukuo border in Buir Lake. Soon, the Soviet Union realizes that the Mongolian troops and whoever can join the military needed to be prepared and trained for the “just-in-case if Japan attacks” scenario. The Soviet Union’s suspicion of the Japanese had a historical rationale, learning from the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. For the Mongols, too, this was not the first time their forces dealing with the Russian armies.

The earliest military encounter recorded is on 24 August 1382, “Tartar Mongol forces surrounded the Kremlin walls but were careful to stay out of Russian arrow range.”[1] Yet, in 1935, they joined their militaries to protect the Mongolian Eastern frontier. The years and months before the actual Battle of Khalkh River explains a lot of about the geopolitical environment in which regional players were placed, their motivates, and strategy—this includes MPR, USSR, Japan, and China.

Months after the first Japanese attack on Buir Lake, on March 12, 1936, being suspicious of the Japanese advancement in the Far East, Mongolian Foreign Minister, P. Genden, the Chairman of the Lower House, A. Amar and Soviet plenipotentiary, Vladimir Tairov signed a military protocol with following agendas:

  1. “The Soviet government gave the Mongolian government a loan of 10 million gold rubles to open an Ulaanbaatar-Chita airline;
  2. Both countries were to build a railway between Ulaanbaatar and Chita;
  3. The USSR was to assist in Mongolia’s modernization of its military forces;
  4. In case of necessity, the Mongolian government was to provide the USSR favorable conditions for moving Soviet Army troops through the territory of Mongolia.”[2]

These four articles ultimately boosted Mongolia-Soviet military and economic relations. For the time being, the military aspect, which “Mongolia allowing Soviet Army through its territory” was a presage to Japan.

The 1936 protocol was not well-received by the neighboring countries China and Japan. Historical records indicate that the Japanese government sided with the Chinese government on protesting such protocol— “allowing Soviet troops in Mongolia towards Japan, if necessary.” Both China and Japan saw this rapprochement as a great threat to power balance in the Far East, crafting greater opportunity for the USSR through Mongolia. From MPR’s perspective, rapprochement towards the USSR meant modernization of its military, strategy, and tactics, and most importantly, securing its national identity and sovereignty with a calculated risk of Soviet domination. The 1936 protocol soon became a defensive strategy for both armies to counter Japanese expansion.

On January 24, 1935, Japanese soldiers, led by Tsuji Masanobu, a tactical planner in the IJA attacks Buir Lake. This attack invigorated group of Mongolian young revolutionaries—hence, mobilizing small troops including volunteer Buddhist monks. The following months would witness a string of border clashes, which eventually led to a full-out war between the Mongolian-Soviet allied troops against the IJA. Between May 15-28, about 40 Japanese bombers destroyed the Mongolian army supplies, instigating the Mongolian-Soviet armies to retaliate immediately.

In the first Mongolia-Soviet chain of command, “Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov was selected to the command First Soviet Mongolian Army Group in 1938.[3] By August 20, 1939, 5:45 am, “Mongolian and Soviet bombers and soldiers annihilated the Japanese forces in Khalkh River.” According to the Mongolian archival documents, “around 700 killed and wounded from the Mongolian side, 24,800 killed and wounded from the Soviets, and 48,600 killed and wounded from the Japanese side.”[4]

Mongolia war horses in the Battle of Khalkh River, Armor magazine May/June 1993

The Battle of the Khalkh River, although lasted only four months, created hindrance between Mongolia and Japan, Russia and Japan, and later, Russia and China.

29 years later, on February 24, 1968, then Chairman of Mongolia’s Peace Committee, D. Adilbish attended the opening ceremony of the Japan-Mongolia Friendship Association and a conversation took place, the Japanese side speaks:

“As we all know, the Mongolian notified the Far Eastern Commission on October 18, 1946, about war time losses of 2,039 persons and $80 million of damage caused by the Japanese army between 1935 and 1945. As a precondition for establishing diplomatic relations, Mongolia always asked for the payment for the war reparations. Do you still insist on it? We are aware that there was the Khalkh River battle. However, after WWII, Mongolian, blatantly ignoring international law, forced Japanese war prisoners to work for two years. As a consequence, about 1,686 of them died. Such a one-sided request by Mongolia is not acceptable to us. If you agree to drop such claims and start talking with us about economic cooperation, then we can enter into negotiations with you.”[5]

The Japanese government insisting on not paying war reparations for the Battle of the Khalkh River, offered to contribute $20-30 million to finance the construction projects instead to support Mongolia’s development.[6] In retrospect, Japan, by not accepting war damages, while offering a monetary solution in the name of “construction projects” was a win-win for both Mongolia and Japan. It took 32 years for Mongolia and Japan to normalize and establish official diplomatic relations.

In hindsight, the Battle of the Khalkh River was a post-action validation of MPR and Soviet premonition of the aggressive nature of the IAJ. The Soviet armies, equipped with modernized armaments and tactics, ultimately contributed to modernizing Mongolia’s military, in strategy and in war time tactics. These historical episodes have crafted the foundation of a longstanding relations of Mongolia and Russia. From Mongolia’s standpoint, as for need to constantly strengthen its independence and sovereignty, modernization of its military was the strategy of the 1930s, credit given to one of Mongolia’s historical hero figures, Gen. Choibalsan Khorloo.

From a geopolitical standpoint, China and Japan’s strong opposition to the 1936 military protocol illustrates the complex regional competition in which Mongolia was situated at that time. Russia’s duplicitous state-of-mind in the 1930s, MPR’s bold move to gamble in order to strengthen its national identity, sovereignty, and recognition was the pivotal point of the Mongolian foreign policy.

[1] Infantry, Summer 2002. P. 7.

[2] Stephen Kotkin and Bruce A. Elleman, Mongolia in the Twentieth Century. p. 115.

[3] Barbarossa Unleashed: The German Blitzkrieg through Central Russia to the Gates of Moscow, June-December 1941, Craig W.H. Luther, Schiffer Publishing, 2014.

[4] Mongolia News, August 24, 1994.

[5] Stephen Kotkin and Bruce A. Elleman, Mongolia in the Twentieth Century. Chapter 2, Batbayar, “Mongolia and Japan in 1945-1995: A Half Century Reconsidered.” p. 170.

[6] The Archive of MER, 59-61. pp.19-25.

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