Return Alaska to Russia?
A month ago, such lunacy wasn’t newsworthy, but — after Russia shockingly invaded Ukraine — anything is possible.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine has been massive and brutal. Civilians continue to be targeted, and thousands have been killed. Apartment complexes, stores and nuclear power plants are being bombed and hospitals, orphanages and children’s theaters are being shelled. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, threatens to use nuclear weapons.
The game changer may be Russia’s hypersonic missiles, which fly more than five times the speed of sound. They can maneuver in mid-flight like a slower cruise missile making them harder for air-defense systems to track and intercept. These missiles are bunker-busters. Putin’s forces claim the first hypersonic missile blew up an underground warehouse storing Ukrainian missiles and aviation ammunition. While Chinese and Russian militaries have hypersonic weapons, we don’t — but we are close.
No one knows what Putin plans next. But demanding the return of Alaska to Russia seems far-fetched — or is it?
Earlier this month, Oleg Matveychev, a member of Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, appeared on Russia 1, a state-owned TV channel, demanding reparations from Europe and the U.S. for the damage caused by their sanctions levied after his country invaded Ukraine. Matveychev stated those reparations include the return of all Russian properties, including Alaska.
The U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. Russia proposed the sale after being soundly defeated in the Crimean War (1853-1856). Russia needed the money. The Alaska purchase added 624,000 square miles to the United States for just 2 cents per acre. At the time, some in the lower 48 states thought it was a waste of money and were highly critical of Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the deal. The detractors called the land purchase “Seward’s Folly.”
However, the Klondike Gold Rush between 1896 and 1899 vindicated Seward and put Alaska on the map. Discovery of gold in Alaska attracted 100,000 prospectors. Large-scale gold mining in the Yukon Territory, which extracted over $1 billion in gold, didn’t end until 1966.
The gold rush cemented the link between Washington’s Puget Sound and Alaska. Miners flocked to Seattle and Tacoma to buy their supplies and take a ship north to the Yukon and the gold deposits.
By 2013, Alaska’s economic relationship with the Puget Sound accounted for 113,000 regional jobs and $6.2 billion dollars in labor earnings, according to a McDowell Group study, which noted that “the value of Puget Sound exports to Alaska totaled $5.4 billion in 2013, up from $3.8 billion in 2003.”
Alaska supplies oil and natural gas and seafood to the Lower 48. Today, increasing the supply of North Slope crude is a way to replace Russia’s exports in our refineries.
Our 49th state is more than an exporter of seafood and energy, though. Alaska is truly different and unique. The state has more mountains, glaciers and wildlife than nearly any other place in the world.
Alaska is an ever-popular destination with more tourists making their way north again this year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.23 million tourists traveled to Alaska between May and September 2019.
Whether Oleg Matveychev was grandstanding or delivering a message for Putin, we need to take his statements seriously. America must bolster its Alaska defenses. Remember, Russia is just 55 miles across the Bering Strait from Russia and Russia’s mobile hypersonic missiles have a 1,250 mile range — approximately the same distance in air miles between Seattle and Anchorage.
In a time when Putin is determined to restore Russia’s territorial integrity at any cost, we must be prepared in case he turns his weapons our way.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. Brunell can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.