President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea is reigniting talk in Russia of taking back Alaska from the United States, which purchased the territory from a czar for $7.2 million nearly a century and a half ago.
Most of the talk is tongue-in-cheek, but it comes at a time of heightened sensitivity in the West over whether Russia is planning further incursions or land grabs.
A recent petition written in clunky English on the official White House website seeks Alaska’s secession and return to Russia.
So far, it has generated more than 37,000 signatures — or more than a third of the 100,000 needed to get the Obama administration to formally respond.
According to the website, the petition was created by “S.V.” of Anchorage on March 21. But The Moscow Times wrote Tuesday that the petition was actually uploaded by a pro-Kremlin outfit called Government Communication G2C, which was trying to show flaws in the White House petition system rather than get Alaska back.
In Russia, a digitally altered photograph showing a group of protesting “Alaskan” penguins holding up Russian signs that read “Crimea is ours,” “Alaska is Next” and “Only Putin” has proved very popular online.
That penguins aren’t native to Alaska was apparently lost on the photo’s unidentified creator. But his or her intent appears to mock the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, given that some of the penguins are holding party banners.
On the March 23 episode of BBC One’s Andrew Marr Talk Show, Vladimir Chizhov, who is Russia’s ambassador to the EU, also brought up Russia’s historical claim to Alaska to another guest that day, U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona.
“We do not have any — I would say — expansionist views,” Chizhov said, when pressed about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
When the moderator persisted, Chizhov responded: “Should I tell Sen. McCain to watch over Alaska? … It used to be Russian.”
He quickly added: “I’m joking, of course.”
But it’s no joke to some Russian officials and groups. Putin’s annexation of Crimea resonated with many Russians, who see him as having righted a historical wrong. Similar sentiments are fueling Russian legal claims to oil-rich Alaska.
Last year, an obscure group called The Little Bees filed a claim with the U.S. government demanding a cancellation of the Alaska sales agreement and millions of dollars in compensation.
The plaintiffs claimed the payment the U.S. made to Russia was illegal and that legalization of gay marriage also violated the American-Russian contract.
Several Russian news outlets in the past week reported on a claim for a small part of Alaska by the mayor of the Siberian town of Yakutsk, who says he has uncovered documents showing that Spruce Island actually belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The mayor has petitioned Putin, the Russian Parliament and the Foreign Ministry for the island’s return to the church, rather than to Russia.
As for the Alaska secession petition drive, the Obama administration had no comment on its merit:
“We’re not in a position to comment on the substance of a response before it has been issued,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin M. Hayden told NPR.
That won’t happen unless the petition receives 100,000 signatures by April 20.