Two Russians who crossed the Bering Strait, landing on western Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island earlier this week had been seeking asylum to avoid Russia’s draft in its ongoing war on Ukraine.
“The Russian nationals reported that they fled one of the coastal communities on the east coast of Russia to avoid compulsory military service,” said Karina Borger, a spokesperson for Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
The individuals were transported to Anchorage for inspection, which includes screening and vetting, and were then processed in accordance with US immigration laws, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security told CNN.
The Russian Embassy in Washington said its diplomats will hold a “telephone conversation” with the two male citizens, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
The pair’s arrival in Gambell, Alaska, follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call last month for “partial mobilization” of the country’s population, prompting an exodus of Russian men out of the country, with cars queuing to cross the border into neighboring Finland, Georgia and Mongolia.
Protests of the draft have erupted in ethnic minority regions, and some military enlistment offices have been set on fire. The mobilization announcement also prompted anti-war protests across Russia.
The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine meanwhile is faltering, with aggressive pushback from Kyiv’s forces, including in regions that the Kremlin claims to have annexed in violation of international law. Experts have previously warned that some troops serving in Russia’s war are already struggling with low morale and equipment issues – and that newly mobilized soldiers risk rushing to the front with insufficient training.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said during a Wednesday night news conference that the arrivals had been a surprise and that officials “don’t anticipate a continual stream of individuals”
“We have no indication that’s going to happen, so this is maybe a one-off,” the Republican governor said, warning of a storm hitting areas of northwest Alaska and adding that “any type of transiting the Bering Strait for the next couple days could be dangerous.”
At its narrowest point, the distance between mainland Russia and Alaska is 55 miles, according to Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.
CNN has reached out to the Alaska governor’s office.
Murkowski and Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan have called for stronger border security in the state.
“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 Sullivan.
“This is why Senator 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.”
CNN’s Ben Finley and Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.