Putin can see Wrangel Island from his house

Wrangel Island is a godforsaken patch of land several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle between the Chukchi and East Siberian seas.  The closest mainland is Northern Siberia.

While a number of people visited the island over the years, including native Chukchis, Russian fur traders, and German seafarers, nobody ever bothered to put in a claim for the place until an 1881 expedition by the Corwin claimed it for the U.S.  An expedition by the Rodgers later that year that included renowned naturalist John Muir conducted a thorough survey.

In 1916, the island was seized by Imperial Russia with no protest from the U.S. – it’s likely that nobody recalled that it was American.  The Russians renamed it Ostrov Vrangelya.

In the ’20s, a Canadian group attempted to claim the island out of the blue, oddly enough utilizing several American citizens to do it.  The brief diplomatic squabble that ensued was the last anyone heard of Wrangel for half a century.

The Soviets exploited the island’s few resources (furs, mostly) with their standard brutality – one local governor was executed for corruption during the ’30s.

The status of Wrangel today is confused.  It is covered under no agreement between the U.S. and Russia (including the still unsigned U.S.-Russian Maritime Boundary Agreement).  Some maintain that the island remains a U.S. possession.  Others insist that it belongs to Russia.  Whatever the case, the State Department has consistently refused to push any claims for Wrangel, effectively gifting the island to Russia.

Which turns out to have been a mistake, considering recent reports that Vladimir Putin is now constructing both an army and navy base on the island.

Apart from questions of ownership, there’s the matter of what the Putin government thinks it’s doing.  Wrangel is one of the most barren spots of land on earth, a place battered by 90-mph winds where the winter temperature never rises above zero.  The record has clearly demonstrated that nobody values the island as such – neither the British, the Russians, nor the Germans bothered with a claim, and the U.S. failed to do anything to guarantee its tenancy.  Apart from the likelihood that Putin is interested simply in insulting the United States – not beyond the realm of possibility – there’s only one thing that such bases could conceivably defend: Russian claims to the Arctic sea bed.  Several years ago, the Russians put forward a claim to most of the Arctic based on the reported discovery of an undersea ridge stretching roughly from downtown Murmansk all the way to the North Pole, thus extending the Russian “continental shelf” to the middle of the Arctic Ocean.  This novel interpretation of offshore rights has enabled the Russians, like the Chinese in the South and East China Seas, to carry out a real-estate grab on the largest scale conceivable, and for the same reason – undersea oil and gas.  The Chinese have been building bases to defend their claim with wild-eyed abandon over the past year (actually dredging up islands to accomplish this).  The Wrangel bases would be a fine method of establishing de facto sovereignty over the Arctic.  Simply put, Wrangel Island presents Putin with yet another opportunity to tell the world at large to go to hell.

Don’t expect Obama or Kerry to do anything about this.  When they hear “North Pole,” they think “Santa Claus.”  The more astute among us will recognize that advances in technology allowing the exploitation of resources previously inaccessible has opened up a new era of land grabs of a magnitude unwitnessed since the late 19th century.  Sooner or later, there will need to be a reckoning.

You think Tina Fey will put together a skit on this?

Wrangel Island is a godforsaken patch of land several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle between the Chukchi and East Siberian seas.  The closest mainland is Northern Siberia.

While a number of people visited the island over the years, including native Chukchis, Russian fur traders, and German seafarers, nobody ever bothered to put in a claim for the place until an 1881 expedition by the Corwin claimed it for the U.S.  An expedition by the Rodgers later that year that included renowned naturalist John Muir conducted a thorough survey.

In 1916, the island was seized by Imperial Russia with no protest from the U.S. – it’s likely that nobody recalled that it was American.  The Russians renamed it Ostrov Vrangelya.

In the ’20s, a Canadian group attempted to claim the island out of the blue, oddly enough utilizing several American citizens to do it.  The brief diplomatic squabble that ensued was the last anyone heard of Wrangel for half a century.

The Soviets exploited the island’s few resources (furs, mostly) with their standard brutality – one local governor was executed for corruption during the ’30s.

The status of Wrangel today is confused.  It is covered under no agreement between the U.S. and Russia (including the still unsigned U.S.-Russian Maritime Boundary Agreement).  Some maintain that the island remains a U.S. possession.  Others insist that it belongs to Russia.  Whatever the case, the State Department has consistently refused to push any claims for Wrangel, effectively gifting the island to Russia.

Which turns out to have been a mistake, considering recent reports that Vladimir Putin is now constructing both an army and navy base on the island.

Apart from questions of ownership, there’s the matter of what the Putin government thinks it’s doing.  Wrangel is one of the most barren spots of land on earth, a place battered by 90-mph winds where the winter temperature never rises above zero.  The record has clearly demonstrated that nobody values the island as such – neither the British, the Russians, nor the Germans bothered with a claim, and the U.S. failed to do anything to guarantee its tenancy.  Apart from the likelihood that Putin is interested simply in insulting the United States – not beyond the realm of possibility – there’s only one thing that such bases could conceivably defend: Russian claims to the Arctic sea bed.  Several years ago, the Russians put forward a claim to most of the Arctic based on the reported discovery of an undersea ridge stretching roughly from downtown Murmansk all the way to the North Pole, thus extending the Russian “continental shelf” to the middle of the Arctic Ocean.  This novel interpretation of offshore rights has enabled the Russians, like the Chinese in the South and East China Seas, to carry out a real-estate grab on the largest scale conceivable, and for the same reason – undersea oil and gas.  The Chinese have been building bases to defend their claim with wild-eyed abandon over the past year (actually dredging up islands to accomplish this).  The Wrangel bases would be a fine method of establishing de facto sovereignty over the Arctic.  Simply put, Wrangel Island presents Putin with yet another opportunity to tell the world at large to go to hell.

Don’t expect Obama or Kerry to do anything about this.  When they hear “North Pole,” they think “Santa Claus.”  The more astute among us will recognize that advances in technology allowing the exploitation of resources previously inaccessible has opened up a new era of land grabs of a magnitude unwitnessed since the late 19th century.  Sooner or later, there will need to be a reckoning.

You think Tina Fey will put together a skit on this?