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A fight for Ukraine’s borders could maul America’s own in the Arctic


On July 29, 1881, Navy Lt. Cmdr. George Washington De Long raised the U.S. flag on a desolate, snow-capped rocky island in the far northern Arctic Ocean. “I take possession of it in the name of the president of the United States,” he proclaimed. For the decades that followed, this roughly 60-square-mile windswept patch of land in the East Siberian Sea bore the name Bennett Island on official maps of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Today, it is known as Ostrov Bennetta and is only accessible with special permission from the Russian military.  

In 1926, the U.S. yielded the land in the face of aggressive Soviet maneuvers to annex it. This was shortly after the last time a U.S. president tried and failed to invade Russia, including parts of eastern Ukraine.

Just over 100 years ago, in the waning months of World War I, Woodrow Wilson directed 13,000 U.S. troops into Russia to restore the territorial integrity of Imperial Russia by challenging the Soviet Red Army. It was an unmitigated disaster. Fighting stretched on for two years after the Armistice. In 1920, when our last troops straggled home from Russia’s frozen Arctic north and from deep within its Siberian interior, most had no idea why they had been there in the first place. 

Today, the heroic tale of the USS Jeannette and the cautionary story of The Polar Bear Expedition are all but forgotten. Even Princeton has stripped Wilson’s name from its school of foreign affairs. But you can still find the graves of some of the former U.S. Army 339th regiment in White Chapel Cemetery outside Detroit, where they encircle the statue of a menacing polar bear.

Recalling these parts of our nation’s obscure history in Russia is important, and no less today.  As President Biden and the foreign policy establishment push for America to defend Ukraine’s borders, we must consider our own. And no, not the one with Mexico. 

Far east of Ukraine’s eastern front and far west of Washington, D.C., the United States and Russia meet today along a line that slices some 1,600 nautical miles through the Bering Sea, forming the world’s longest maritime border. At its closest point (not Sarah Palin’s backyard) it divides settlements on the Diomede islands — one Russian, the other American — that lie only two miles apart.

I follow such things because I’ve spent 30 years doing business throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union and representing U.S. interests as a senior official in the U.S. Treasury. I had a unique start. As a seventh grader, I started learning Russian as part of a special program in a public school outside Baltimore. I stayed with it and when I first visited the Soviet Union as an exchange student in college, I was told I sounded like a Ukrainian. This was thanks to my high school teacher, a Jewish “refusenik” from Odessa. As a second-generation Hispanic American, I took it as a compliment. From her, we also learned of the Holodomor Genocide and “The Gulag Archipelago.” Today, fewer than one in 1,000 U.S. high school students receive any Russian instruction. 

Last year, following a career in energy and natural resource investing, I was appointed by former President Trump as a commissioner of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government that provides advice to the president and Congress on Arctic matters. However, in September, Biden abruptly liquidated the Arctic commission. In return for our service, we were fired without notice and anonymously slandered by the White House for “lacking relevant expertise.” At the time, I was the first commissioner in the agency’s 37-year history to speak fluent Russian, the language of the world’s largest Arctic nation. 

So, while maybe few Americans give regular thought to our border with Russia, most might be surprised to learn there is no treaty in force that secures it.  

Yes, that’s right, our common border with Russia is largely based on a shared working understanding that has remained in place between our nations since the Russian Federation became the successor state to the USSR in 1991. Though a negotiated agreement does exist, the treaty is unratified. It’s not a signed deal. 

Over the past 30 years, Russia’s Duma, their version of Congress, has never consented to the 1990 U.S.-USSR Maritime Boundary Agreement. Negotiated under President George H.W. Bush, it met opprobrium there and claims that, under duress from the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia was surrendering territory to the United States. 

Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet leaders credited with the agreement, became targets of rage from hardline Soviet circles, culminating in a failed coup attempt in August 1991. The following month, with Gorbachev back in place, Congress rushed through its approval, 86-6. Yet, without Russian confirmation, the agreement has drifted in place ever since. 

Notably silent in the agreement, though, are the lieutenant commander’s since-named De Long Islands, as well as Wrangel Island, legendary for hosting earth’s last wooly mammoths until about 4,000 years ago, and other small spits of land. The polar bears who cross back and forth from there to Alaska don’t seem to mind, however. The matter remains a peon in U.S.-Russia relations, one that is known only to history buffs, intrepid Arctic travelers and scientists, and to those charged with managing our country’s foreign affairs. 

Joe Biden may remember, however. He was there and took an active part in the debate at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joking with then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) as the latter emphasized that a vote in favor of the treaty would in no way prejudice potential future U.S. claims to the islands. The late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) also took care to emphasize this, stating, “I doubt that the State Department will make use of the opportunity to press U.S. claims to the five islands — even though the right to do so is preserved.” For its part, Alaska’s legislature even once sought reparations for the islands.

Seventy percent of the Bering Sea now sits under United States control, encompassing some of our nation’s richest fishing waters, potential offshore resources and key choke points for future Arctic trade and transit. It also includes about 13,200 square nautical miles of formerly disputed territory, more than five times the size of Delaware.

Traffic across the Bering Strait these days is no longer limited to marine wildlife and vessels landing King crab. Increasingly, Arctic liquified natural gas from Russia’s high north moves to Asian customers, most importantly China and Japan, and soon Vietnam. They offer Russia a valuable counterweight to its existing base of NATO customers, which are served by pipelines, including perhaps shortly, Nord Stream 2

So, while the State Department declaratively states that “The United States has no intention of reopening discussion of the 1990 Maritime Boundary Agreement,” will Russia continue to feel the same, especially as we challenge its borders elsewhere? We may soon find out.

Thomas Emanuel Dans, CFA, is a co-founder of Amberwave Partners, an investment manager; former counselor to the Under Secretary for International Affairs at U.S. Treasury; and commissioner of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission

Tags Arctic Donald Trump Joe Biden

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