Less than two months before Vladimir Putin launched his latest ruthless attack on Ukraine, several dozen Alaskans and Russians, including their community’s top elected officials, connected across an 18-hour time difference for a historic occasion.
Thirty years ago, the communities of Fairbanks and Yakutsk, Russia, were inspired to establish sister-city relations at the height of a renaissance in American-Soviet relations. The January Zoom conference celebrated three decades of visits to each other’s communities, exchanges of elementary and university students, business leaders, journalists and joint scientific ventures.
The Fairbanks-Yakutsk relationship was among a dozen set up between Alaskan and Russian communities after those on both sides of the Bering Strait helped end the Cold War. It remains among the most active but sadly, may not survive to mark its 31st anniversary.
Alaskans have joined most of the world in opposing Putin’s deadly and inexcusable invasion. As the only American state which shares a border with Russia, we have a significant stake in its aftermath and the new world order which follows.
Beginning in the late 1980s, hundreds of Russians moved to Alaska to learn Western business practices, participate in civic exchanges and become productive Alaskans. An estimated 1,400 foreign-born Ukrainians also live in Alaska, according to the state demographer.
In the succeeding decades, Alaska organizations invested in Russia’s economy, Alaskans worked in Russia’s oil patch and Alaska scientists undertook joint research with their Russian counterparts. Now, institutions such as the Permanent Fund are under pressure to dump their Russian shares and companies such as ExxonMobil are pulling out of eastern Russia’s massive Sakhalin-1 oil and gas project because of the invasion.
Ironically, Alaska and other oil-producing states are enjoying financial windfalls because of record-high world oil prices resulting from the war in Ukraine. Some legislators want to give a portion of it to Alaskans in the form $1,300 “energy relief” checks.
A particular challenge for Alaskans and other Arctic nations is future cooperation in the Arctic. Russia rotated into chairmanship of the international Arctic Council for 2021-23. Yet the council’s seven other member countries just condemned Moscow’s “flagrant violation” of Ukraine’s sovereignty and announced a boycott of meetings in Russia and a halt to ongoing projects.
Inspired by the 1980s reforms of one of Putin’s predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev, Alaskans and their Russian Far East neighbors capitalized on Kremlin-sanctioned opportunities to enter into joint ventures and cultural exchanges. Anchorage and the Russian gulag city of Magadan joined as sister-cities while the University of Alaska Anchorage welcomed hundreds of Russian students to its campus. Several decades of progress followed, largely without the participation of the two country’s national governments.
In recent years, Putin has erected roadblocks to such interaction with the West by branding civic groups “foreign agents” and sometimes arresting their members, including me. Now with Western sanctions, contacts will be all but impossible.
One especially tragic consequence for Alaska is likely suspension of the visa-free travel program for Alaska and Russia Native peoples. Established in 1989, it allows travel across the Bering Strait for Alaska Natives without the burdensome requirement of a national visa. Unifying long-separated Alaska and Russian Natives was a primary driver for more normalized relations three decades ago.
To support those exchanges, the National Park Service established a Beringia Program in the early 2000s. After Putin’s first incursion into Ukraine in 2014, that program was largely suspended and no doubt will be again now.
Another casualty is likely cooperation between the U.S. Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart in the heavily trafficked Bering Strait. As Russia and China build a stronger alliance, more massive freighters in the ice-free strait threaten environmental safety and subsistence resources invaluable to the region’s Native residents.
Alaskans should continue to aggressively condemn Russia’s invasion by applying every available immediate pressure on Putin, including sanctions, cutting active business and cultural ties such as joint athletics and refusing cooperation, such as in the Arctic Council.
At the same time, we must remember that one day Putin will no longer be president of the nation with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. By preserving the model of citizen-to-citizen cooperation Alaskans and our Russian neighbors created more than 30 years ago, we can lessen the threat to even greater global destruction.
Cooperative efforts such as sister-city relations, which have proven to stand the test of time, should remain at least dormant and available for resuscitation after Putin is gone.
David Ramseur is a former Alaska newspaper reporter whose 2017 book, “Melting the Ice Curtain,” documented the most recent era of productive Alaska-Russia relations.
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