Russians avoiding military service reach Alaska, seek U.S. asylum

Two Russians who said they fled the country to avoid military service have requested asylum in the U.S. after landing in a small boat on a remote Alaska island in the Bering Sea, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office said Thursday.

As well, customs officials say number of Russians trying to enter U.S. through Canada jumped in August

A pair of Russians have turned up on a remote Alaska island in the Bering Sea, reportedly fleeing compulsory military service. (The Associated Press)

Two Russians who said they fled the country to avoid military service have requested asylum in the U.S. after landing in a small boat on a remote Alaska island in the Bering Sea, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office said Thursday.

Karina Borger, a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican senator, said in an email that the office has been in communication with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, and that "the Russian nationals reported that they fled one of the coastal communities on the east coast of Russia to avoid compulsory military service."

Thousands of Russian men have fled since President Vladimir Putin announced a mobilization on Sept. 21 to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine. While Putin said the move was aimed at calling up about 300,000 men with past military service, many Russians fear it will be broader.

The numbers who have fled are not entirely clear. The independent Novaya Gazeta Europe reported on Sept. 26 that 261,000 men had left since the mobilization was declared, citing a Kremlin source. The report could not be independently verified.

Russia has denied some reports in Russian media saying 700,000 Russians had fled the country since the announcement, but countries such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland have reported significant numbers of arrivals. Some eastern European countries began turning away Russians with tourist visas, while airline tracking sites have documented increases in flights out of the country, with destinations including Turkey and Israel.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol authorities say that in August, Russians without legal status tried to enter the U.S. from Canada on 42 occasions, up from 15 times in July. The number for one year ago, August 2021, was nine.

Russians more commonly try to enter the U.S. through Mexico, which does not require visas. Russians typically fly from Moscow to Cancun or Mexico City, entering Mexico as tourists before getting a connecting flight to the U.S. border. Earlier this year, U.S. authorities contended with a spate of Russians who hoped to claim asylum if they reached an inspection booth at an official crossing.

Senators call for plan in case more arrive

It is unusual for those fleeing to take the direct Alaska route.

Spokespersons with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection referred a reporter's questions to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security public affairs office, which provided little information on Thursday. The office, in a statement, said the people "were transported to Anchorage for inspection, which includes a screening and vetting process, and then subsequently processed in accordance with applicable U.S. immigration laws under the Immigration and Nationality Act."

Senators Lisa Murkowski, left, and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans representing Alaska, are shown in a May 2017 file photo in Washington, D.C. Both expressed concern after learning of the arrival this week of two Russian men to a remote Alaskan community. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

The agency said the two Russians arrived on Tuesday on a small boat. It did not provide details on where they came from, their journey or the asylum request. It was not immediately clear what kind of boat they were on.

Alaska's senators, Republicans Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, on Thursday said the two Russians landed at a beach near the town of Gambell, an isolated Indigenous community of about 600 people on St. Lawrence Island. Sullivan said he was alerted to the matter by a "senior community leader from the Bering Strait region" on Tuesday morning.

Gambell is about 320 kilometres from the western Alaska hub community of Nome and about 58 kilometres from the Chukotka Peninsula, Siberia, according to a community profile on a state website. The remote, 161-kilometre-long island, which includes Savoonga, a community of about 800 people, receives flight services from a regional air carrier. Residents rely heavily on a subsistence way of life, harvesting from the sea fish, whales and other marine life.

Sullivan, in a statement, said he has encouraged federal authorities to have a plan in place in case "more Russians flee to Bering Strait communities in Alaska."

Travellers walk on a road between Georgia and Russia on Sept. 28 in Zemo Larsi, Georgia. Russia announced a partial mobilization of reservists a week earlier, and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands have fled to several countries since. (Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)

"This incident makes two things clear: First, the Russian people don't want to fight Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine," Sullivan said. "Second, given Alaska's proximity to Russia, our state has a vital role to play in securing America's national security."

Murkowski said the situation underscored "the need for a stronger security posture in America's Arctic."

As initial details of the situation were emerging on Wednesday, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he did not expect a continual stream or "flotilla" of people traversing the same route. He also warned that travel in the region could be dangerous as a fall storm packing strong winds was expected.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last month that Russians who flee the war "may apply for asylum in the United States and have their claim adjudicated on a case-by-case basis," but the arrival of two potentially eligible for military service could prove another thorny issue in U.S-Russia relations. Currently, supporters of WNBA star Brittany Griner and Canadian-American Paul Whelan are calling on Joe Biden's administration to secure their release from Russian prisons.

With files from CBC News and Reuters