Escape to Alaska: 2 Russians Cross Bering Sea To Dodge Putin’s Draft

Alaska

A 2008 photo of Gambell, Alaska — on St. Lawrence Island — where two Russian asylum seekers landed Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. Wikimedia Commons photo by Alan Schmierer.

Wikimedia Commons photo by Alan Schmierer.

KYIV, Ukraine — Sometimes, you just gotta get away — especially if you’re a Russian man trying to avoid a national mobilization roundup that promises an express ticket to the front lines in Ukraine, where tens of thousands of your countrymen have already died.

Epitomizing the lengths to which some Russian men will go to avoid service in their country’s so-called special military operation against Ukraine, two Russians took a boat some 300 miles across the treacherous waters of the Bering Sea on Tuesday, Oct. 4, seeking asylum in the US.

After landing in the small Alaskan seaside community of Gambell, located on remote St. Lawrence Island, the two seafarers told locals they’d fled the Russian military, Alaska’s News Source reported. The pair reportedly embarked from the northeastern Russian city of Egvekinot, a journey of some 300 miles from Gambell.

In a joint statement with fellow Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, Sen. Lisa Murkowski referred to the two Russians as “asylum seekers.”

“This situation underscores the need for a stronger security posture in America’s Arctic,” Murkowski said in the Thursday joint statement.

Bering Sea

The Bering Strait, separating Siberia from Alaska in the North Pacific. NASA image, taken by MISR satellite, via Wikimedia Commons.

NASA image, taken by MISR satellite, via Wikimedia Commons.

As of this article’s publication, it remained unclear what type of craft the Russians used for their crossing.

According to area media outlets, the US Coast Guard confirmed that the Russian duo briefly stayed in Gambell’s public safety building before leaving St. Lawrence Island by helicopter on Tuesday. After traveling to Anchorage, the Russians were taken into custody by “federal authorities,” Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy told reporters on Wednesday.

Located only 50 miles from Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula, St. Lawrence Island is closer to Russia than the Alaskan mainland. Even so, Dunleavy downplayed the risk of a “continual stream” of Russian asylum seekers trying to cross the Bering Sea to reach US territory.

“We have no indication that’s going to happen, so this may be a one-off,” Dunleavy said.

NORAD 2 bering sea

A US Air Force F-22 fighter intercepts a Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber over the Bering Sea on Oct. 19, 2020. North American Aerospace Defense Command photo via Twitter.

North American Aerospace Defense Command photo via Twitter.

US Customs and Border Protection officials are investigating the Russians’ identities as well as “the admissibility of these individuals to enter the United States,” Sullivan said in the joint statement with Murkowski on Thursday.

By any measure, Russia’s so-called partial mobilization has been a total SNAFU. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the measure on Sept. 21, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled their homeland. In one particularly striking scene that was widely shown on social media, fleeing Russians, mostly men, formed a roughly 10-mile-long traffic jam on Russia’s border with Georgia — a country Moscow invaded in 2008.

The price of airfare to fly abroad from Russian airports has skyrocketed. And the Kremlin has increased judicial punishments for men shirking military service.

Putin said Russia’s partial mobilization would raise 300,000 new troops for Russia’s invasion force in Ukraine. These new soldiers were to be drawn from a pool of reservists with prior military experience and who possessed specialty skills.

In practice, the number of mobilized soldiers is likely to surpass 300,000. And the selection process, largely left to area officials, has indiscriminately targeted Russia’s least privileged citizens — effectively press-ganging them into service, in many instances, regardless of their military experience.

According to multiple news reports, a disproportionate number of these new Russian recruits belong to ethnic minority communities in far-flung areas distant from Moscow, such as Siberia and the Far East.

“Public and elite unrest in Russia over the mobilization order may make the war unpopular in Russia. This happened in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and helped bring down the Soviet system,” William Courtney, an adjunct senior at the Rand Corp. and a former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Sullivan, the senator from Alaska, said the Coast Guard should develop a plan “in the event that more Russians flee to Bering Strait communities in Alaska.”

He also underscored Alaska’s growing importance to US defense in this new era of great-power competition.

“This incident makes two things clear: First, the Russian people don’t want to fight Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Second, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia, our state has a vital role to play in securing America’s national security,” Sullivan said in the joint statement with Murkowski.

Read Next: To Get Its Gas to Europe, Russia Still Relies on Ukrainian Pipelines

Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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