Mongolian academics and researchers pay a great deal of attention to the Battle of Khalkhyn Gol, which was the last “war” of the 20th century for Mongolians. It is believed that through this battle, Mongolians defended its independence and land. It’s already been 80 year since the Soviet Union and Mongolia won the battle and yet researchers haven’t come to a conclusion for the exact dates of the battle and whether it was an actual war, battle or conflict.
To learn more about the battle, Unuudur invited social and humanities professor at the School of Security of the National Defense University I.Chinbat and academic at the Analysis Center of the Institute of Defense Studies L.Bayar for its Reader-Reporter corner. Below is a translation of I.Chinbat’s extensive interview about the battle with fellow battle researcher L.Bayar.
Many events and activities are planned this year in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the battle’s victory. In relation to this, Unuudur has invited us to its Reader-Reporter corner, which I’m deeply grateful for. First of all, can you tell us your opinion about the cause of the battle and its events based on your study? Not only Mongolian researchers but also Japanese and Russians have conflicting opinions about the events of this battle.
I believe that the prelude or the cause of the undeclared battle that took place over the border of Mongolia in Khalkh River in 1939 had been constituted from much earlier time. In particular, Japanese soldiers began to enforce an aggressive war policy for the Far East in late 1920s. In 1927, Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi announced that the foundation to Japan’s existence lies on its conquest of Northeast Asia, Manchuria and Mongolia, convinced that this will create conditions that allow Japan to become more powerful. This revealed Japan’s aggressive policy.
That wasn’t the end of it. Japan invaded northeastern China, known as Manchuria, in 1931 and in the following year, founded Manchukuo (a puppet state) for military purposes. The aggressive policy picked up pace as Japan made a pact with Germany, which had declared war against Europe. At that moment, both Asia and Europe were facing a real threat of war and Mongolia and Russia were more focused on the Japanese forces.
Depending on Japan’s military and political policy for the Far East, Mongolian and Soviet leaders repeatedly met and came into agreements between 1934 and 1936 and made an oral agreement on mutual assistance for the first time in 1934, which ensured that the two countries will aid one another if a third party invades one of them. As the tension grew, the oral agreement was officially made into the Protocol on Mutual Aid on March 12, 1936. It stated, “If any of the signed parties is under attack, the other party is obliged to come into aid and provide military and weaponry assistance”. This became a legal basis for Mongolian-Soviet military cooperation.
These events proved that Japanese military aggression was real and it was worsening. Obviously, Japan wasn’t pleased with the Mongolian-Soviet protocol, which led the Japanese military forces to make various attacks at the borders of Mongolia. However, it was over not long after.
Back then, what was the Soviet’s strategy and policy regarding the Japanese military aggression?
The battle was, in truth, a consequence of conflicts between powerful states at the time. In other words, Russia and Japan’s fight over politically, military and strategically significant land in the Far East turned into a large-scale battle. It is a fact that then-Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin’s policy and stance was of utmost importance for Mongolia back then.
Stalin met with Mongolian delegations led by Prime Minister P.Genden and Minister of Military Affairs and Marshal G.Demid on numerous occasions in the mid-1930s and paid special attention to strengthening military and weaponry capacity of People’s Republic of Mongolia. His main goal was to get Mongolian leaders to allow his troops to enter Mongolia as soon as possible. In that sense, the Soviet provided considerable assistance to bolster Mongolian military forces.
Even though Mongolian leaders were cautious about letting Soviet troops enter the country and preferred to focus on weaponry and technical assistance, they had no choice but to give way to the Soviet leader’s demands and pressure. However, if we look at events that happened later, Stalin’s stance wasn’t that wrong. In fact, he sent troops to strengthen the Mongolian army and thanks to that the Mongolia-Soviet military forces managed to push back Japanese troops and attain victory at the Battle of Khalkhyn Gol in 1939. This should be acknowledged.
Does that mean the battle had already begun between the late-1920s and early 1930s? How did this battle impact Mongolia?
To begin with, I must say that historians and researchers are starting to acknowledge that the battle was originated amidst Russia and Japan’s conquest for strategically important land in the Far East and their political conflict. In Mongolia’s case, it got stuck in between that because it was situated on that crucial land. Whether it liked or not, Mongolia had to get involved in the war. Moreover, the Russian side was urging to have its troops enter the Mongolian border; whereas, the Japanese side continued to attack the Mongolian border with its military aggression nonstop since the early 1930s.
Japanese and Manchurian army not only took over up to two kilometers of land from the Mongolian border in Khalkhgol soum in January 1935, and Bulan Ders and Ulaan Khudag border guards in June 1936 but also expanded its military aggression step-by-step. Up until then, Mongolian border soldiers were prohibited to open fire or even retaliate against “enemies” under the orders of Marshal G.Demid who preferred diplomatic solutions.
Then-prime ministers P.Genden and A.Amar sent “resistance letters” sharply condemning Japanese and Manchuria’s aggression on numerous occasions, which proves Mongolia’s acknowledgement of the threat of conflict in Khalkhgol – to be more specific, the risk of losing its land and territorial integrity.
Most researchers assess that the battle began on either May 11 or 28, 1939. In your professional opinion, when did the battle begin and end?
This matter hasn’t been specially discussed at the academic conference of Mongolia, Russian and Japanese researchers annually held on the anniversary of the battle’s victory. Nevertheless, a few comments and conclusions have been shared.
In 1989, researchers started interjecting that the battle began in 1935 instead of 1939. But later in 2004, most believed that it began on May 11 or 28, 1939 and this has been the most popular opinion among researchers and academics since. The latter date is more commonly used in current military and history studies right now as all three sides expanded their forces on May 28, 1939.
In my case, I agree with historians and researchers who claim that the battle began in 1989. I think this is more accurate because the Japanese and Manchurian aggressions at Mongolian borders between 1935 and 1939 weren’t just small-scale armed conflicts or border attacks. Considering that relatively large military forces attacked the border repeatedly, the battle had already begun by January 1935.
During this period, more than 1,000 Japanese and Manchurian soldiers fought at the border with similar number of tanks and aircrafts. We can’t forget that national heroes such as Sh.Gongor and D.Demberel were recognized amid the numerous battles of bloodshed. This is proof that an undeclared war had set off in Khalkhgol soum.
I’m sure that everyone would agree that land and territorial integrity are assurances of a nation’s independence. In that sense, it can be said that the day guns were fired and the sirens went off in the eastern part of Mongolia and Khalkhgol vicinity is the day the war/ battle began. On the other hand, we can determine the accurate phase and chronological order of the battle by studying all of the events as a whole.
It’s also necessary to determine the battle’s beginning and end for the sake of national interests and security. Accounting all of these factors, it is possible that the Battle of Khalkhyn Gol began in January 1935 when the Japanese-Manchurian forces invaded Khalkh soum, breaching Mongolia’s inviolability of borders and territorial integrity.
How long did the battle last?
Battle durations can vary depending on its events. If we estimate that the battle began in 1935, then it continued for slightly over four years until September 1939 when all sides agreed to a ceasefire. This is a new trend in military and history studies but there’s an underlying need to study this topic in depth.
(Mongolia, Russia and Japan) mainly strived to resolve all of the events that took place from 1935 to 1939 via military, political and diplomatic approaches. Between May to September 1939, it was a prime time when the three sides were actively trying to resolve and end the battle in my opinion. I’d like to underline that the most pressing matter right now is to discuss the battle’s cause, beginning, events and end from a new perspective and reach a common understanding.