What does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mean for the region?
By Peter Loewi
The email was short, and titled Air Raids. “As we watch things heat up overseas, does Nome have any buildings for bomb shelters?”
It was not the only email or phone call that The Nome Nugget received from a reader, concerned about their safety following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is located over 4,000 miles west of Alaska, but the unpredictability of Russian leadership and the close proximity to Russia across the Bering Strait, sparked uneasy conversations and the question how the conflict would affect Alaska and particularly this Bering Strait region.
Fears for those in Nome were exacerbated somewhat by the coincidental presence of participants in the Alaska National Guard’s Arctic Eagle/Patriot 2022 exercise.
Despite the invasion happening just days before the Alaska National Guard’s Arctic Eagle/Patriot exercise, which is designed to train participants for, among other things, homeland defense challenges from peer adversaries, Alaska Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Eric Marcellus stressed that the exercise was not correlated with the conflict.
Speaking about another exercise happening in Alaska, though not in the Nome region, the head of public affairs at Alaska Command, Captain Lauren Ott, said the same thing. “It’s possible that’s the connection that readers might make, but the reality of the situation is, and I can only speak for Arctic Edge, but, it occurs every two years. We haven’t made any significant changes or alterations to how we plan to execute the exercise,” she said.
Alaska National Guard is hosting a major exercise with over 500 participants in Anchorage, Kodiak, and Nome; Alaska Command, the active-duty troops stationed in Alaska, are also having Arctic Edge 2022 from Feb. 28 to March 17; the U.S. Army has their Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Capability exercise; and the U.S. Navy will be hosting ICE-X, an opportunity to train submarines to operate underneath the sea ice.
This does little to calm fears of those living across the Bering Strait from Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 27 directive to put his nuclear forces on high alert brings back Cold War memories.
On the afternoon of Thursday Feb. 24, President Joe Biden addressed the nation regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at one point saying there was a complete rupture in the relations between the U.S. and Russia.
Residents of the region know what it is like to have a complete rupture in those relations.
Despite doom and gloom in the Nugget Reporter email inbox, there was not much concern the other end of the phone when asking the mood in Savoonga. The staff at the Native Village Office shouted across the room and discussed amongst themselves, much of which was audible:
“Some of us are scared.”
“I’m not scared.”
“I have Russian friends, they said they’re not going to bomb us.”
Native Village of Savoonga President Ben Pungowiyi was clear-eyed. “Scared of Russia? We have no means of war, we don’t have any military, so we’re not afraid. We have lived here for how many millenniums, close to Russia and Alaska, and we’re just a peaceful community. We have no aggression on anyone.”
“At some point,” he said, “during the Cold War era, people were a little afraid because they were seeing things like spies doing recon out here. It turns out that there were some forces doing their exercises, but they couldn’t get into the village because there was a perimeter of dogs,” he laughed.
“We had visitations that were shut off for 40 years, and when finally the east coast Natives came over here, everyone was overjoyed. That’s how we look at the world: we don’t have no means of aggression towards any human, but I guess that’s how governments work. We’re a peaceful community.”
When The Nome Nugget reached out to members of the government to figure out exactly how they address the situation of heightened tension between the U.S. and Russia, with Alaska being a direct neighbor, there was little to no response. The Alaska Delegation walked in locked step to denounce the invasion and point to resource development in Alaska.
Governor Mike Dunleavy’s issued a statement saying: “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian aggression and barbarous invasion into Ukraine is–in the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy–an attempt to drop ‘a new Iron Curtain.’” Dunleavy also pushed for resource development in Alaska. “In the energy security implications of this invasion, Alaska’s resources are an advantage to our national security. The U.S. must not continue importing record levels of oil from Russia as we have been doing since fall,” Dunleavy said. While seeking further comment from the governor’s office, a spokesperson asked The Nome Nugget if this reporter had heard anything from the Alaska Congressional Delegation.
Representative Don Young’s office did not respond to a request for comments.
Senator Dan Sullivan’s office did not respond to a request for comments.
Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office said they could not provide this reporter with anything.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comments.
In press releases shortly after the invasion, Senator Sullivan and Representative Young both focused on promoting natural resource extraction in Alaska instead of assuring the closest Americans to Russia that they are safe. On Tuesday, March 1, Sullivan turned against President Joe Biden and accused his administration of waging a “holy war against domestic energy production.”
Senator Murkowski’s addressed the Senate as it worked on a sanctions packet, days prior to the invasion, which included sanctions on seafood imports. She spoke directly on Alaskans being familiar with “Russia’s aggressive tactics” may it be from flying near U.S. airspaces to sailing through EEZ waters. She blamed Russia for an August 2020 exercise which resulted in U.S. fishing vessels in the Bering Sea abandoning equipment. In reality, the Russian exercise was preplanned and announced, and the U.S. military in Alaska and the Coast Guard were even aware of the exercises but failed to inform the public about them. Then-Coast Guard Admiral Charles Ray told a Senate panel “This was not our best day with regards to doing our role to look after American fishermen,” Ray said. “I’ll just be quite frank: We own some of this.”
District 17 of the US Coast Guard, which usually has a good working relationship with the Russian Border Guard, was unable to confirm if they are currently in communication with the Russians or not without conferring with USCG Headquarters in Washington, DC.
On the evening of Feb. 28, the independent Russian news agency Interfax reported that the Russian Eastern Military District had announced that troops from Russia’s Far East will hold drills in the Astrakhan province, 4,500 miles from Alaska. The Nugget was unable to confirm this report, but satellite imagery shows increased Russian troop presence heading towards Ukraine and thus away from the Bering Strait border.
While there were few details on the situation, many people wanted to talk about the bigger picture.
All the exercises happening across Alaska, Captain Ott explained, are a recognition of the strategic importance of the Arctic. “The exercises are in defense of our homeland, and it’s to ensure that we have servicemembers who are familiar with what operating in cold weather environments is like. We don’t exercise to defend natural resources, but the interest in natural resources, and shipping routes and things of that nature, that’s going to bring more attention, more activity, and more players into the region, and that’s what we have to be cognizant of, that increased activity,” she said.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany moved to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany. It was thought that the project would bolster the struggling Russian economy, and in order to recoup those loses, it is feared that Russia will increase LNG shipments along the Northern Sea Route and through the Bering Strait.
A bipartisan group of Alaska legislators on Tuesday sent a letter to the Permanent Fund Corporation urging immediate divestment from Russian assets. The most recent statement said that APFC’s investment exposure to Russia totals $210 million.
The overlapping of military, environmental, and economic crises point to the need for a more comprehensive understanding of what security really means. Dr. Brandon Boylan, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Arctic and Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and colleagues have been working on just that. He explained some of the ways that the invasion of Ukraine might impact the Bering Strait region.
Some of these include increased shipping traffic through the Bering Strait. There is the possibility that China purchases more through the Power of Siberia pipelines and if western sanctions on Russia include LNG and oil, Russia could court new markets. These would most likely be South or Southeast Asia, and that would lead to a big increase in traffic through the Bering Strait. Those sanctions, however, are currently seen as undesirable by most governments, because it would disrupt energy markets and lead to greater perceived inflation by western consumers.
This is an opportunity for the Alaska Congressional Delegation to “push very loudly” for oil development, said Dr. Boylan, and it might renew debates on drilling in ANWR and other Alaskan sites.
That isn’t the only trouble, either. An oil spill in the Arctic, would be incredibly difficult to clean up, even if USCG and RBG cooperate, so Dr. Boylan thinks even if there is a lot of interest in an Alaskan increase in oil production, “we’re going to butt up against a lot of cold, hard realities.”
Dr. Boylan and colleagues’ paper, “Alaska’s Arctic Security Complex and Evolving Dynamics in Nome,” combines all these types of security. The framework they wrote proposes balancing Physical Security, Military Security, Economic Security, Environmental Security and Cultural Security. Looking at it through this lens, he says there is “a great potential for this invasion to impact and the ensuing repercussions to affect the Bering Strait. I think that there are a host of security implications.” Even the lack of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in this region poses a risk to security. Increased military presence might increase some types of security, but increase some types of risks, as well.
One final proposal from Dr. Boylan, was to increase cooperation and communication, not just across countries, but within them; lack of discourse can lead to security for some, but insecurity for others. “This current invasion and the fallout aside, the Nome Port development project is a big deal. I think the port development initiative has to be developed carefully. If I’m in Nome, I’d have a lot of questions about the development of that port and what exactly it’s for,” he said.
More broadly, he wrote that “any infrastructure or other project in the Arctic must be attuned not only to nation- and military-centric types of security but also to the entire security environment to avoid undermining communities and peoples it is meant to serve.”
Which brings us back to the original infrastructure question. The answer to the email inquiring about bomb shelters in Nome is no, there are no buildings or designated bomb shelters. The Nome Rec Center is the designated emergency shelter, but it would not stand up after an air raid.
Alan Brown, Director of Communications for the Alaska National Guard and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, however, suggested that a likelihood of an air raid is low. “We’ve not heard of any heightened threat,” he said. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, just that they haven’t been told of one.
While it is not directed specifically at Alaska, a U.S. Senior Defense Official told reporters on Feb. 27 that “we are confident that we have the ability to defend the homeland and to defend our allies and partners, and that includes through strategic deterrence.” The next day, a senior defense official said that the words Putin used, “special combat duty alert,” don’t actually correlate with any specific doctrine.
Savoonga’s Pungowiyi, who himself served six years in the 297th Infantry, promoted another doctrine, that of Jimi Hendrix: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”