Two Russians Cross the Bering Sea in a Boat to Escape the Draft

Gambell, St. Lawrence Island (Walter Holt Rose, CC BY SA 4.0)

Published Oct 6, 2022 3:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard is used to intercepting maritime migration in the Straits of Florida and Southern California, but this week it received an exceptional and unusual illegal-arrival tipoff from the middle of the Bering Sea. Two Russian nationals had managed to make it to St. Lawrence Island from the ultra-remote Chukchi Peninsula, Russia's northeasternmost district.

Using a small boat, the two men had braved the Bering Sea to make the ocean crossing to Gambell, a community on the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island. The men told some of the local residents that they had fled Russia to avoid military service, according to KTUU - and they had traveled all the way from the town of Egvekinot, Chukotka, 300 miles away to the northwest.

Pussian President Vladimir Putin has launched a widespread military conscription drive to shore up his forces in Ukraine, and the program has been criticized inside Russia for pulling ineligible citizens into the draft - particularly in Russia's remote regions. 

The two men were held temporarily, and the U.S. Coast Guard flew them off the island in an HC-130 SAR airplane on Tuesday. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has taken the individuals in custody and is handling the case.  

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said Wednesday that the arrival of Russian citizens was likely a "one-off" and unlikely to be repeated. The weather in the northern Bering Sea is unforgiving: average temperatures at Gambell are below freezing from November to April and wind speeds can easily top 30 knots. 

A spokesperson for Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said that the senator had a call with the Department of Homeland Security's leadership about the unusual arrivals, and CBP is now "going through the process to determine the admissibility of these individuals" to the United States.

“This incident makes two things clear: First, the Russian people don’t want to fight Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Second, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia, our state has a vital role to play in securing America’s national security," said Sen. Sullivan in a statement. "This is why Senator [Lisa] Murkowski and I have been pressing officials in Washington D.C. so hard on the need to prioritize capabilities in the Arctic -- including infrastructure, Coast Guard assets, ports and strategic defense assets.”