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Russia’s Designs for Alaska? It’s All About the Arctic.

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Recently, there have been a smattering of reports of Russian military action directed against the poorly defended and sparsely populated Alaska. While it is true that the Russians have sent nuclear-capable bombers into U.S. airspace over the 49th state, the Russians have also reinforced their small base on Wrangel Island (which is about 920 miles away from Alaska) with a new radar outpost.

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A Russian military helicopter operating on Wrangel Island in 2014. The Russians have steadily fortified their position on this island, which is a shooting off point for Russian forces operating in the hotly contested Arctic as well as Alaska.

Russia also plans to expand their permanent military presence on the island (sparking controversy from international conservation groups, who fear increased militarization of the island will negatively impact the unique animal and plant life that call the island home).

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Russia Ilyushin II-38 Antisubmarine warfare plane.

Meanwhile, the Russians have been steadily increasing their force presence in the Chukotka region in the Russian Far East. At the same time that Russia has been focusing on expanding its presence in the Russian Far East (including expanding their Pacific Fleet), the Russians have also been investing in modernizing their ailing Northern Fleet. The Russian Northern Fleet operates in the Arctic Circle. As recently as 2014, elements of the Russian military (such as anti-submarine warfare planes) were reported as having chased off U.S. Navy Virginia-class submarines in the Barents Sea (of course, the Obama Administration denied that this occurred).

isis-boy-rifle1825262777All of these moves are part of a larger Russian design. Yes, the Russians are interested in beefing up their Far Eastern holdings, but the Russians are also intent on developing the natural resources located in the Arctic. In order to do that, they need to secure the territory that links Russia with the Arctic. This explains why the Russians have been steadily investing in the modernization of their Northern Fleet, the expansion of their presence in the Russian Far East, and why the Russians have become very aggressive in asserting themselves so near to Alaska.

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While the world fretted over the Russian annexation of Crimea (and wondered where in Europe Putin would attack next), as American policymakers lambasted Russia for its intervention in the Syrian Civil War on the side of the Assad Regime, the world ignored a theme that was dominating local Alaskan politics: the issue of sovereignty. You see, as far back as 2012, the Obama Administration ceded control over a chain of uninhabited islands off of Alaska’s coast to the Russian Federation.

In and of itself, this development was far from Earth-shattering. However, to most Alaskans, this was an unnecessary diplomatic overture from Washington to Moscow. Indeed, I believe that this move has inspired greater efforts on the part of the Putin Regime to expand Russia’s presence so near to Alaska.

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In the case of Russian aggression, the world has witnessed what many observers refer to as the “salami slice strategy” for Russian revanchism. As such, the Russians are understandably reticent to start gobbling up surrounding territories at once. Instead, the Russians prefer a systematic campaign of disinformation, subterfuge, diplomatic intrigue, and obfuscation to confuse the world about its intentions.

While the Russians do this–preparing the battlefield, as it were–they steadily increase their military presence in the region and then begin asserting their will through a hefty dose of coercive diplomacy. Soon, the targeted state has no reliable defense against Russian aggression and, as we saw in Crimea and Georgia before that, the Russians just easily walk into the country (or a part of the country) that they desire.

It is unlikely that Russia either plans or has the capabilities to take even modestly defended Alaska by force (or that the U.S. would ever cede the far flung territory to Russia). Yet, there can be little doubt that the increased presence of Russia is designed to both complicate American strategic aims in that part of the world whilst fulfilling a core Russian strategic objective: capitalizing on the vast mineral wealth of the Arctic Circle. The United States, as it stands, has done little to shore up its holdings in the Northern Pacific. This has only inspired greater–albeit silent–Russian aggression there.

In 2008, it was reported that the climate in the Arctic had shifted to such a degree that new waterways were opening up in the Arctic. These waterways would cut down on the time that cargo ships (and, therefore, military craft) usually required when operating in that region. Now, these waterways have become highly desired strategic points on the map.

Connecting lightly defended portions of the northern hemisphere in ways that were never previously anticipated by defense planners in either Russia, Canada, or the United States, these waterways, if one power came to dominate them over the others, would allow for an aggressive power to exploit key strategic vulnerabilities in that region.

Indeed, as I have recently noted, America’s northern neighbor of Canada is sparsely populated (for a country of its size). Most of its population is located in the southernmost regions of Canada, near the United States border. Almost 90% of Canada is unpopulated because of the frigid temperatures and rough geography. Should a state like Russia come to dominate these Arctic waterways, they could potentially launch a surprise attack from these areas and land in the sparsely developed parts of Canada.

While such a conquest would offer little in the way of economic advancement to the Russians, it would not only complicate North American defense, but it would also humiliate the Canadians and, by extension, the Americans. It would also place the Russian military in striking distance of places like Greenland and Iceland.

Furthermore, Russian operations around Alaska are aimed at stunting America’s ability to threaten the Russian Far East. This region of Russia is also sparsely populated and offers the United States a tempting target, when seeking to threaten Russia. Throughout the Cold War, America would routinely conduct missions and drills off of the Russian Far East with the understanding that Russian defenses were weakest there.

I have long advocated that the United States should intensify its position in Alaska in order to complicate Russian aggression, by threatening Russia’s Far East. Also, the United States should not cede the Arctic–which is supposed to remain an internationally neutral location–to the Russian bear.

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As Russia increases its hold on their eastern and northern territories, the Russian government is also starting to get bolder. The Putin Regime’s cozy relationship with the Orthodox Christian church has led to the Orthodox Christian church being used as a sort of asymmetrical weapon in advancing Russian interests abroad. In Ukraine, it was reported that Orthodox churches were being used as not only transmission belts for Russian propaganda, but also to house arms, and to recruit pro-Russian elements in the creation of a Russian fifth column there. This is being replicated throughout much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in lands that are either under direct threat (or may soon fall under direct threat) from the Putin Regime.

“I have been working on this since 2008, we found in the archives that Spruce Island belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church and that its ownership of the land was immune to any sale and territorial transfer. The island was the home of famous Russian holy people such as Saint Herman of Alaska.” – Aysen Nikolayev, the mayor of Yakutsk

Now, something similar may be afoot in the oft-forgotten American state of Alaska. In Alaska, there is a place called Spruce Island. It is home to one of the oldest Orthodox Christian churches in the world. It is the sight of annual pilgrimages that Orthodox Christians from around the world travel to. It is a truly beautiful and amazing sight, in a pristine American land.

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A Russian Orthodox church on Spruce Island in Alaska.

Yet, the Orthodox Church has claimed the island for years. Indeed, the Orthodox Church has officially lobbied the Russian government to advocate for their claim on the world stage. There is some doubt as to whether or not President Putin takes the claim seriously.

However, the fear is that (or, at least, it should be) the Putin Regime will use the Orthodox Church in the same way that it uses the church in other disputed lands: as a Fifth-Column aimed at undermining local rule. As time progresses, and tensions become increasingly strained (as they always do with Russia), President Putin may decide to try and use Alaska as a strategic lever to apply pressure on the United States and further complicate U.S. national security.

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Russian Orthodox Christian pilgrims preach at the famed Orthodox Church in Alaska each year. The Orthodox Church has laid claim to Spruce Island and insists that the Putin Regime advocate for its return to the control of the Orthodox Church (which is essentially an arm of the Putin Regime).

Spruce Island being the sight of a religious icon would also complicate American defense of the island on the diplomatic stage. America’s refusal to cede the land to the Church could make the U.S. look as though it were at war with the Orthodox Christian community. It could also fan the flames of resentment toward the U.S. What’s more, it would be a relatively cheap way for Putin to further tweak the United States.

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Spruce Island is in Kodiak County of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean.

While the concept of Russian revanchism in Alaska may seem far-fetched: make no mistake, the Russians are operating dangerously close to the 49th state. Their intentions are less about retaking Alaska, which even Putin has scoffed at, and more about a) furthering their claims to the Arctic and b) complicating American defense policy.

la-na-tt-putins-crimea-grab-20140303-001Plus, the Russian commitment to its “salami slice strategy,” as well as its unofficial marriage to the Orthodox Christian church, could very well be the admixture Putin needs to cleave more bits of Alaska away from the United States. While the loss of Spruce Island would do little harm to the United States, it would further degrade Alaska’s territorial integrity and could allow for the stationing of (however small) Russian forces on the tiny island in the midst of an American state.

However, there is likely no Red Dawn scare coming from Alaska. It is highly unlikely that Putin plans on retaking the state in order to launch an invasion of Canada and America from the Pacific Northwest. What is far more likely is that Russia’s Arctic ambitions are informing their policy toward Alaska.

Therefore, they are going to continue increasing their military presence near Alaska as well as try and take as many of the “low-hanging fruits” around Alaska, to further push back American strategic reach. The United States should therefore immediately increase its own force presence in and around Alaska and it should not cede one inch of territory in this region.

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