By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Does Vladimir Putin have fantasies about making it easier for Sarah Palin to see Russia clearly from her home in Alaska? Might be.
Back in 2008, when asked about her expertise in the area of foreign policy, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate seemed to think her ability to glimpse Russia on a clear day gave her an electoral advantage. Although, at its narrowest, there’s only 50 miles of Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, this quip earned Palin more guffaws than votes, mostly because she wasn’t playing it for laughs. But maybe she was on to something. Maybe we should pay more attention to the location of the fiftieth state.
For some time now, Russian aircraft have been buzzing the fringes of Alaska. The Russians have also been extending their claims to the North, which is a matter of real concern to Canada. In most cases, countries enjoy exclusive sea rights only out to a 200 mile limit, but where the ocean beyond is exceptionally shallow special exceptions may apply. Thus, the Lomonosov shelf comes into play. It extends well across the Arctic Ocean toward Canadian shores, which is why Russia has planted a flag underwater at the North Pole, a ploy which would have been ludicrous in the days before global warming. Those were the days when valiant explorers died or got iced in while attempting to force a Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia. Now, ogling and photographing polar bears, tourists by the thousands cruise safely through waters that are open for several months in the summer. And thinner ice makes oil exploration feasible, too, which is probably why the Russians are laying claim to as much of the sea bottom as they can snatch. That and other as yet undisclosed mineral deposits.
So far there are no Russian claims to the Alaskan city of Barrow or to the oil fields American companies are exploiting on the North Slope. But maybe the U.S. Navy should start paying special attention to the most far flung island of the Aleutian chain, which arcs out toward Russia. Attu, the most distant of the Aleutians, is closer to Russia than to the U.S. Once this forbidding bit of land was of interest to whalers. It also had a permanent population of Aleuts, all of whom where imprisoned when Japan occupied Attu during World War II. These days Attu is uninhabited, but what if the Russians decided to copy the Chinese, who have a tendency to occupy vacant rocks and reefs in the East and South China seas, preparatory to reviving ancient claims to the seas around them?
After all, Russia has just snatched Crimea from Ukraine. Not so long ago Moscow gobbled up segments of Georgia, which used to be an important part of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. Revanchism at work. Now all the ex-satellites of the U.S.S.R. are worried that clusters of Russian speakers will give Putin an excuse to take bites of their territory, too, to say nothing of stirring up unrest and violence.
Meanwhile, I’m sure it hasn’t escaped Putin’s attention that Alaska was Russia’s North American possession until 1867. In that year the heavily indebted tsar sold it to the United States. Americans at the time dubbed the sale [Secretary of State] Seward’s Folly. That was well before oil was discovered on the North Slope, of course.
Did I say something about Putin’s tender concern for Russian-speakers in other countries? So how about this: the Aleuts and Inuits and other native Alaskans share a genetic heritage with the indigenous peoples of Siberia. Like the Russian speakers of Donetsk, they would no doubt be eternally grateful for a chance to be linked up with their relatives, in this case on the other side of the Bring Strait. Or so Tsar Vladimir must imagine in his imperial fantasies.
Meanwhile, like Russia under Putin, China under Xi is as unhappy with his country’s land borders as with his lack of absolute control over traffic in the East and South China seas. The informal boundary between China and India, for example, dates back to the days of the British raj and allocates a good number of people of essentially Tibetan stock to India. China insists that all such peoples rightly belong to China. India disagrees. India would like to formalize the existing boundary. China resists. Just as Putin dreams of Russia’s once again controlling the ex-satellites of the Soviet Union, China dreams of regaining suzerainty over all the territory that once paid tribute of imperial China.
I don’t want to overdo the similarities between Russian and Chinese foreign policy, although they are striking. Nor do I wish to suggest that Vladimir Putin is about to pull a Crimea stunt on Attu Island. But I do think that his activities in the Arctic bear watching and responding to—and I have little confidence that Washington is imaginative enough to be doing so. All too many Americans, including more than a few foreign policy specialists, really believed that history stopped about 25 years ago. That turned us into a stodgy status quo power repeatedly surprised by events that departed from script.
And speaking of scripts, maybe the U.S. should worry less about the border with a friendly Mexico and pay more attention to Tsar Vladimir’s game in the Arctic.