Many landlocked countries with no access to the open ocean maintain navies, which might seem odd at first. But once you realize that aside from oceans, lakes and rivers too form national borders for many countries, the idea will not seem so absurd.
For example, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan—three landlocked countries, all maintain their own naval fleet on the enormous lake, Caspian Sea, which they border. Paraguay has armed patrol boats on the country’s major rivers because any hostile nation can reach the heart of Paraguay by travelling upstream via these rivers from the open sea through Argentina. Switzerland—historically neutral, yet one of the most armed nation in the world—also has armed patrol boats keeping watch across its many lakes. Hungary maintains a full armada of vessels including warships and minesweepers. All these nations have legitimate reasons for defending their inland waterways. But Mongolia is another story.
Mongolia is surrounded on all sides by land. Photo of the Mongolian map by Jason Kolenda/Shutterstock.com
Mongolia is the most landlocked country in the world with its borders more than 600 km away from the nearest coastline. In terms of size, it is the world’s second-largest landlocked country behind Kazakhstan.
Mongolia’s only international water border is a 10-km-long zigzag across the northeastern end of Uvs Lake, a tiny portion of which crosses into Russian territory. Realistically speaking, the chances of Russia invading Mongolia through this narrow corridor is extremely low. Nevertheless, if Mongolia wants to defend its water boundary, so be it. But that’s not the reason why Mongolia has a Navy. As a matter of fact, Mongolia’s Navy isn’t even on Uvs Lake. It’s on another water body—Lake Khövsgöl—that’s entirely inland. The Russian border is more than 13 km away from the lake’s shores and separated by a lofty mountain range.
Mongolia’s token navy is the result of the country’s vain attempt to keep alive a lost heritage. Eight hundred years ago, the Mongols, led by Kublai Khan, had the world’s largest navy. The Mongolian Empire at its widest reach stretched across Central Asia and Eastern Europe, with maritime presence along the Sea of Japan, the East and South China Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Twice in the late 13th century, Genghis Khan led a fleet of more than 4,000 ships across the Sea of Japan to attack the island nation. Both invasion fleets were destroyed by devastating typhoons, that the Japanese called the “divine wind”, or kamikaze. Centuries later, thousands of World War II pilots known as kamikazes would crash their planes into enemy ships in suicide missions to protect Japan.
A 19th-century painting by artist Issho Yada depicts the sinking of Kublai Khan’s fleet. Photo credit: Koji Nakamura/Nat Geo
By the end of the 13th century, the Mongol Empire had fractured into a number of independent empires. Eventually, with the Chinese conquest of the Mongol Empire, the nation was pushed further and further back from the coastline to its current landlocked state.
In the 1930s, the Mongolian Navy was reborn when the Soviet Union presented the country a single tugboat, the Sukhbaatar. The current vessel, Sukhbaatar III, is manned by a crew of seven. According to a documentary produced by Litmus Films, only one of the crew members know how to swim.
“I would like to see the real sea someday,” muses a sailor of the Mongolian Navy. “I imagine it’d be gentle and peaceful. Here on Lake Khövsgöl, the water is very rough and cold.”
Sukhbaatar III doesn’t see a lot of combat duty. Lake Khövsgöl, where it sails, is completely surrounded by Mongolian territory. During the communist days, the tug boat used to transfer oil from the south of the lake to its northern tip—a journey that takes 8 hours to complete, as opposed to 4 days by horse. There is no motor-able road. But when the post-communist government moved its oil hub elsewhere, the navy lost its purpose. The navy has since been privatized and abandoned by the government. The crew now struggles to stay relevant by hauling cargo and ferrying tourists across the lake.
Sukhbaatar III. Photo credit: Nyambayar Turbat/Flickr
Lake Khövsgöl. Photo credit: Felix Filnkoessl/Flickr