Wrangel Island Controversy Resurfaces With a Vengeance

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 175

Wrangel Island (Source: The Moscow Times)

As the long-running dispute between Moscow and Tokyo over the status of the Kuril Islands (“Northern Territories dispute”) shows, Russian officials and commentators tend to react hysterically to any suggestion that land their government considers part of Russia belongs to anyone else. Some rare exceptions have occurred, as when Alaska, but not the US government, laid claim to an island in the Arctic, and the Russian Foreign Ministry kept quiet, but these exceptions are so infrequent that they only serve to prove the rule (Window on Eurasia, March 16, 2019). When tensions between Russia and the West are high and when claims on Russian territory can be presented as reflecting the views of the US government, however, Moscow’s reaction is usually extreme, especially because many in the Russian capital appear to believe that any such claims are part of a broader effort to promote the disintegration of the Russian Federation.

This is very much the case of a new back and forth between Russia and the United States over Wrangel Island, a largely unpopulated site that is at the eastern gateway of the Northern Sea Route. The island has long been a disputed issue between the two countries. The controversy was recently renewed with a vengeance on November 4 when an American columnist suggested that the US should “reclaim Wrangel Island,” a place that the author said is “American land” that was illegitimately “seized by Lenin’s gunboat Red October in 1924” (Arctic.ru, November 7).

That brought an immediate rejoinder from Russian State Duma deputy Fedot Tumusov who declared that the Kremlin would never allow the US to occupy “an inch” of Russian land, adding for good measure that, instead, the Kremlin should compel the US to “return” Alaska to Russia, an action that Tumusov said would be justified (Gazeta.ru, November 5). Moscow commentators, including Vladimir Malyshev, then explained why Russians were so upset. They claimed that the US article enjoys official backing in Washington and is part of an expanded American effort to seize control of the Arctic, block Russia’s Northern Sea Route and ensure China cannot move in—as well as simultaneously promote the disintegration of the Russian Federation (Stoletie.ru, November 9).

In the current environment, this terse exchange should have surprised no one. It has roots both in the distant past and in more recent events. Until the beginning of the 20th century, no country had laid claim to the unpopulated island. Then, a series of explorations by various national teams— Canadian, American and Russian—opened the way for geopolitical competition. The Canadians organized expeditions to Wrangel Island in 1914 and 1921; the Americans were involved in the latter effort, but the Soviets expelled both in 1924 based on a tsarist claim to the island made in 1916. Finally, in 1926, the Soviet government declared that the isolated island was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a claim Moscow did little to back up save establishing a serious military presence there. Thus, leaving open the possibility that Russia’s control of Wrangel could be challenged.

During the Cold War, some in the West argued that the US should challenge Russia and wrest the island away for itself. (For an example of one of the more expansive of such claims, see Salom, “The United States Claim to Wrangel Island: The Dormancy Should End”). But Washington did not pursue this possibility, though US policymakers frequently sought to hold discussions with their Soviet counterparts about the status of the seafood-rich waters around the island, something the Soviets viewed as interrelated. In the Mikhail Gorbachev era, the two sides inched toward a treaty on claims about the sea, though it did not specifically mention Wrangel (Un.org, June 1, 1990).

But Russia never officially ratified this agreement. As a result, in June 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker signed an agreement with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze specifying that the two countries would abide by the treaty’s provisions even if they were never ratified. Since then, Washington has repeatedly said it makes no claim to the island (State.gov, May 20, 2003). Russian writers, however, continue to condemn the 1990 accord as a betrayal and demand that Moscow officially denounce it, raising the possibility of disputes regarding the Arctic waters and making control of Wrangel that much more important for the Kremlin. The most recent of such demands only came this past summer (Realtribune.ru, June 21).

In the 1990s, attention to Wrangel ebbed; and after Moscow subsequently declared it a protected natural reserve, even more considered the issue settled. But three developments have changed that: First, the Northern Sea Route has become vastly more important in Moscow’s plans and control of Wrangel is key to controlling access to its eastern reaches, especially as China is challenging Russia there. Additionally, recent events have shown that Moscow lacks the icebreakers and other ships to maintain its dominance in the region, making control of Wrangel that much more essential from the Kremlin’s point of view.

Second, over the past decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to project power into the Arctic, made vast claims to the seabed and militarized the region, including installing military facilities on Wrangel Island in an apparent violation of Russia’s earlier commitments and international environmental agreements (see EDM, April 9, 2020, November 15; Sobbkor.ru, September 23). Moreover, Russian analysts have expressed concern that the US is preparing its military to better function in the Arctic, something that they feel could involve a US attempt to seize Wrangel (Topcor.ru, April 29).

And third, in the wake of Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine, Russia is feeling increasingly isolated in the Arctic and is even thinking about leaving the Arctic Council, as it has effectively been sidelined by the other council members (see EDM, June 1, 6; Fondsk.ru, November 14).

As the US government has repeatedly said, it has no claims on Wrangel; but in the current environment, Moscow refuses to believe that. In the short term, this most likely means that Russia will continue to view all US and Western actions in the Arctic as posing a threat to its control of Wrangel; and in the longer term, it almost certainly means that the Kremlin will position more military muscle on Wrangel, despite the demands Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is placing on its armed forces.