Despite Putin, Alaska can maintain productive relations with Russia

As U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate to perhaps their most tense level since the Cuban missile crisis a half century ago, it may be time for the leaders of those nations to look north for a model of how to successfully conduct international diplomacy.

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the "Friendship Flight" between Nome and Provideniya, Russia, which helped melt the "ice curtain" separating the United States and Russia at their closest point.

That breakthrough Alaska Airlines flight reunited scores of Siberian Yupik peoples from Alaska and Russia who were long separated by the Cold War. This helped launch two decades of productive commercial, cultural and scientific activity across the Bering Strait.

In 1988, I was press secretary to Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper, who had taken office two years earlier pledging to expand Alaska's international ties. After our emotional day on "Evil Empire" soil for the first time, I quickly caught the Russia bug and have focused on promoting better relations between Alaska and the Russian Far East ever since.

I've visited Russia about a dozen times, lived and worked in Russia's third largest city of Nizhny-Novgorod and administered a $2 million Alaska-Russia exchange program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

In my just-concluded position as U.S. Senator Mark Begich's chief of staff, I put together meetings with my boss and his Russian counterparts to advance issues such as governance of the Arctic, management of shared fish and game resources and enhanced cooperation in trouble spots like Syria.

President Obama took office famously hoping to reset relations with Russia. But with an eye toward cementing his support at home, President Putin has gone out of his way to antagonize the international community.


He successfully capitalized on Russia's historic paranoia of the West by invading the Ukraine, kicked Western nonprofits out of the country and even banished to Siberia female rock 'n' rollers protesting corruption in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Today, Russia is in chaos, not unlike the former Soviet Union of the 1980s, which was coming apart at the seams. Falling world oil prices and Western sanctions have sent the Russian economy into a tailspin. Average Russian citizens are scrambling to buy refrigerators and big-screen TVs because they hold their value better than the collapsing ruble.

In the mid 1980s, then Premier Gorbachev inherited a stagnated economy and pressure for greater independence by the Soviet's satellites. Capitalizing on Gorbachev's "glasnost" or openness policy, groups of well-meaning Alaskans spotted openings to rekindle the largely unrestricted travel, which had occurred across the Bering Strait for generations until frozen by the Cold War.

Juneau peace advocate Dixie Belcher led musicians across Russia for three weeks of performances in 1986. Nome businessman Jim Stimpfle launched weather balloons with friendship messages across the Strait.

A few months after the Friendship Flight, Cowper became the first Alaska governor to lead a trade mission from Russia's northeastern-most village to the Russian naval seaport of Vladivostok.

Those modest efforts at citizen diplomacy led to a whirlwind of successful Alaska-Russian relations for two decades. Thanks to the vision of Alaska pioneer Vic Fischer and federal earmarks by Sen. Ted Stevens, UAA's American Russian Center helped train 62,000 Russian entrepreneurs, educators and public and private sector managers.

Alaska Airlines provided direct air service between Alaska and Russia's largest Far East cities. Alaska and Russian Natives cooperated on marine mammal management so vital to their subsistence.

Alaskans shared environmentally sound development techniques in Russian oil fields on Sakhalin Island. Love even blossomed as scores of Alaskans and Russians got married.

Like January in Magadan, relations across the Strait have cooled. Between currency exchange issues, lack of direct flights and the burden of securing visas, doing business in Russia remains challenging. Putin hasn't helped with his nationalistic, anti-Western policies that make new U.S. overtures difficult if not dangerous.

Still, the enormous consequences at stake between the world's most powerful countries cry out for a different approach. Alaskans and our neighbors to the west enjoy a special affinity for each other; many Russians still fondly refer to America's 49th state as Russian-America.

With a renewed commitment to citizen diplomacy at the local and regional level, our legacy could be the foundation for a future where Alaskan and Russian neighbors capitalize on the benefits of cross-border relations, making us strong, self-reliant and cognizant of our unique place in the world.

David Ramseur worked for Alaska Govs. Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and just concluded six years as chief of staff to U.S. Senator Mark Begich.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

David Ramseur

David Ramseur is a former aide to two Alaska governors and Sen. Mark Begich, and the author of “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier.”