Invasion of Mongolia
September 1941 – With the Soviet Union reeling from Operation Barbarossa, the Kwangtung Army began to plan for a rematch with the Red Army as early as June 1941. Their eyes fell on Mongolia.
What began in conception as a limited engagement to probe Russian strength in the region rapidly escalated into a minor offensive as the Germans neared Moscow and the Japanese believed the USSR approached collapse.
The Kwangtung Army built up their forces in the region from early August to mid-September, preparing to pounce when the Soviet’s grip on Mongolia seemed weakest.
In early September, the Japanese began vocally protesting against local Mongolian forces committing hit and run incursions into Mengjiang. Citing the dissolving control the Mongolian central government had over its southern border, the Japanese demanded the right to occupy key points throughout the Sumbataar, Umnogovi, Dornogovi, Hovd, Govi-Altay, Bayanhongor, and Dornod provinces in order to prevent future assaults on Mengjiang. Khorloogiin Choibalsan, Mongolia’s leader, stalled for time. He contacted General Vlassov, the junta leader of the rump Russian state, asking for military aid pointing to the former alliance between the Soviet Union and Mongolia and pleading for Vlasov to uphold that alliance.
General Vlasov had a tough decision to make. If he were to come to Choibalsan’s aid, it may lead to war with Japan. That was something Vlasov was not sure Russia was ready for. With control of all European lands ceded to Germany, Vlasov had lost the majority of his heavy industry, military equipment, and manpower. To make matters worse was the composition of his forces in the Far East. Russian strength in the area had improved little since Nomonhan in 1939 which saw Russian armor drop to a mere 250 tanks and the utter annihilation of the Far East Air Force. Stalin had placed a priority for military equipment on his western border believing the Japanese were too weak, and too smart, to try and assault Soviet territory again. Because of this, Soviet armor and aircraft were in short supply. Estimates range from 25-50% operational strength for Soviet armor and lower for Soviet aircraft, much of which was outdated to begin with. Fuel and ammo stocks were also limited. The ability to stop the initial Japanese drive seemed slim. Sure, Vlassov could use the forces at his disposal, a still commanding army of roughly 1.5 million, and counterattack the Japanese drive using the bones of his soldiers to stall the Japanese drive. But what then? He would exhaust his armor, lose precious aircraft, and be hard pressed to replace his losses. Even worse, what if the Japanese managed to break through? And even if they didn’t, would the blood of so many dead draw the attention of the Nazis back to what was left of Russia? Was all this worth it for Mongolia, an arid, worthless piece of desert? Russia had enough problems with the central Asian republics already revolting, a faltering economy, and the nagging threat of Hitler just beyond the Urals.
Vlasov would turn his back on Choibalsan to buy time should the Japanese decide to continue north. The Kwangtung Army would march into Mongolia, officially annexing the nation to Mengjiang.
The long term effects of Vlasov’s decision were enormous. Such wanton cowardice further demoralized Russian forces who had already seen too many defeats. Vlasov’s refusal to aid Mongolia also emboldened the Japanese who saw Russia increasingly as a dying state ripe for dismemberment. A nation that had held them at Nomonhan now ran from battle. The Japanese continued to supply the central Asian republics with arms in exchange for influence in the region and to tie up Russian troops. Dreams of conquering Siberia began to reemerge among the inner circle of the Japanese High Command.