ANCHORAGE, Alaska– Two Russian indigenous Siberians were so afraid of going to war in Ukraine that they risked everything to take a small boat across the treacherous Bering Sea to reach American soil, Alaska’s senior US senator said after a call with the two.
The two, identified as men by a resident, landed near Gambell on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait earlier this month, where they are seeking asylum.
“They feared for their lives because of Russia targeting minorities in order to be drafted into service in Ukraine,” US Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said Saturday during a candidate forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage .
“It is very clear to me that these individuals were scared, so scared of their own government that they risked their lives and went across these open waters in a 15-foot skiff,” Murkowski said when answering a question on Arctic policy .
“It is clear that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is focused on military conquest at the expense of his own people,” Murkovsky said. “He has one hand on Ukraine and the other on the Arctic, so we have to keep our eyes peeled for the Arctic.”
Murkowski said she recently met with the two Siberians, but gave no specifics as to when and where the meeting took place, or where their asylum process stood. She was unavailable after the forum for follow-up questions.
Murkowski’s office announced their asylum application on Oct. 6, saying the men had reportedly fled one of the coastal communities on Russia’s east coast.
A Gambell village elder, 87-year-old Bruce Boolowon, is believed to be the last surviving member of the Alaska National Guard who helped rescue 11 US Navy men who were in a plane shot down by Russian MIGs in 1955 was shot down over the Bering Sea The plane crashed on St. Lawrence Island.
Gambell, an Alaskan Native community of about 600 people, is located about 58 kilometers from Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula in Siberia.
Although one of the Russians spoke English fairly well, two Russian women from Gambell were brought in to translate. Both women married local men and became naturalized US citizens, said Boolowon, who is a Siberian Yupik.
Russians landing in Gambell during the Cold War were commonplace, but the visits weren’t nefarious, Boolowon said. Because Saint Lawrence Island is so close to Russia, people routinely traveled back and forth to visit relatives.
But these two men seeking asylum were unknown to the people of Gambell.
“They were foreigners and didn’t have passports, so they put them in jail,” he told The Associated Press last week.
The two men spent the night in jail, but Gambell townspeople brought them food, both Alaskan Native dishes and items they had bought at a grocery store.
“They were pretty full; they ate a lot,” Boolowon said.
“The next day, a Coast Guard C-130 with some officers came and picked them up,” he said, adding that it was the last he heard from the Russians.
Since then, officials have kept a low profile.
“The individuals were transported to Anchorage for inspection, which includes a screening and screening process, and then processed under applicable U.S. immigration laws under the Immigration and Nationality Act,” a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said in an email last week he was asked for an update on the asylum procedure and whether and where the men were being held.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, said it was very unlikely that any information about the Russians would ever be released.
“The US government is supposed to keep this all confidential, so I don’t see why they would tell anyone,” she told the AP.
Instead, it would be up to the two Russians to make their situation public, which could endanger their families in Russia. “I don’t know why they want to do that,” Stock said.
Thousands of Russian men fled the country after Putin announced in September a mobilization to call up some 300,000 men with military experience to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces.
Messages sent to the Russian consulate in San Francisco last week and again on Saturday were not returned.