While the slogan of colonial expansion in America was John Soule's "go west, young man" (later borrowed by Horace Greely), in Russia it was Peter the Great's "go to the rising sun." It was inevitable that east and west would meet at Alaska.
If President Vladimir Putin has his way, the geopolitical winds that swung from Moscow to Washington in 1867, will swing back toward Moscow in coming years and Alaska will once again be influenced by Russian dominance.
With the support of one of the primary academics of Russia (Gennady Osipov, Regent of Moscow State University,) the head of Russian's railways, Vladimir Yakunin, proposes to rebuild the Trans-Siberian Railroad into a high-speed line with an accompanying highway.
The transportation corridor would connect new towns spawning economic resource extraction developments and value-added manufacturing. One line would go toward China and its emerging thirst for material goods. The other would go toward Alaska to eventually connect with North America. According to the Siberian Times, the project "would make Russia the new world center for the creation and development of high-tech industries."
The Russian visionaries are not mere economic developers; this is billed as a social experiment, rejecting the neo-liberal idea of the individual as the basis of society and the economy (the reason corporations are individuals in the U.S.).
Instead they propose a cooperative system with egalitarian access to wealth cross-cutting national and regional interests. I'm not sure President Putin sees it that way. A tunnel across the Bering Straight to Alaska is a fundamental plank in this concept. The Russian visionaries must know that this will hit a dead end at Little Diomede because of environmentalist opposition coupled with conservative (neo-liberal) opposition to environmental regulation resulting in gridlock.
Lurking in the Russian plan for its Far East is a sinister figure who believes that Alaska is a legitimate part of Russian manifest destiny - Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. It was betrayal, Rogozin believes, that led to the sale of what is rightfully Russia's to the United States. In the forward to Ivan Mironov's book, "Alaska Betrayed and Sold," Rogozin equates the sale of Alaska to another betrayal: Mikhail Gorbochev's and Boris Yeltsin's breaking up the former Soviet Union.
Rogozin is not a crackpot. He's the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and one of President Putin's right-hand men. He's on the U.S. State Department list of individuals responsible for destabilizing the Ukraine among other nefarious accomplishments intended to reunite the former Soviet Union into the Russian Federation. And, he's the newly appointed head of Arctic policy for Russia, likely forming a new government entity designed to carry out Putin's militarization and development policy in the Arctic.
With global climate change (which goes unrecognized by some of the highest levels of the U.S. Congress) the Northern Sea Route is now ice-free between the Chuckchi Sea and Barrents Sea permitting ship passage year-around. Orchestrated by Rogozin, Russia has been placing military bases at strategic points along its northern coast to protect this sea route and enhance ship trade between northern Europe by way of Murmansk to markets in Korea and China. The largest bases are near Alaska, particularly on Wrangel Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where development is laughingly forbidden.
In 2007 Russian scientists descended in a diving shell to the seabed at the North Pole, took samples to prove that the area was part of the Russian landmass and placed a flag claiming it for the Russian Federation. In Alaska we joked about the absurdity of such a claim. This summer, Russia will put a military base on the ice at the North Pole. Now they will have a military presence there. Now it's not so funny.
The reason for Russia's northern focus is not so cruise ships with aging tourists can comfortably view some melting icebergs and fret about global warming. It's about oil. The region holds 13 to 30 percent of the world's oil reserves. More recently Russia's state oil companies Gazprom and Rosneft have partnered with Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Statoil (Norway) on their Arctic projects.
So while the United States and other members of the Arctic Council have conferences about how to rebrand the Arctic into pastures-of-plenty for multinational resource extraction, Russia is doing it the old fashioned way: transportation infrastructure and full-ahead development supported by militarization, all with little environmental oversight. Russia is posturing itself to be the sovereign nation of the Arctic, and there seems to be little we can do about it.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.
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
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