National Geographic recently published an article titled Wrangel Island Russian Refuge. Wrangle lies in the Arctic Ocean, close to Alaska, but closer to Russia. As far as mankind knows, Americans were the first to set foot on the Island (sometimes spelled Wrangell, but let’s leave that conundrum for another time) – that happening in 1881 when a landing-party stepped-off the USRC Corwin (US Revenue Cutter) and planted the American flag on soil that is today, according to some registries, an International Biosphere Reserve…belonging to Russia. While Nat Geo acknowledges America’s part in the discovery of the island, they fail to reveal the full truth of it. With nothing before you but the Russian Refuge article, you would never guess a stealth maneuver has created a roiling controversy.
The Island is named for Russian explorer Baron Wrangel who had heard of the island but didn’t set eyes on it, let alone a foot. The U.S. had reason to believe we owned the island(s) and to back that up, there is a Treaty ceding land to the U.S. and the GiveAway “Agreement” ratified by the U.S. Congress but never signed by Russia. While the later document is an “Agreement” our State Department refers to it as a “Treaty.” Never mind the truth.
There is a concern about Alaskan fishing rights as well as thousands of miles of “rich sea beds” at stake. Today Alaska says their state was never consulted, and did not consent before the giveaway that Russia DID NOT accept. AND HERE’S THE KICKER, the original maps used to draw the boundary lines governing the Agreement are lost. Neither side can produce the maps, and as you can guess, both sides dispute what belongs to their side.
Wrangel Island is not a desirable place to live unless you are a polar bear or other Arctic animal or a scientist studying an ecosphere that has lain undisturbed, never completely encased in ice, and never completely under water – lying in the coldest part of our planet just 88 miles northeast of Siberia.
Since ships first set sail in the harsh and often frozen ocean of the Arctic, until 1881, no one was certain Wrangel was an Island. Some thought it a continent, some thought it a myth. It is was often, usually, enshrouded in fog with, if you were lucky, a mountain top the only land to sight, but Captain Calvin Hooper and his crew aboard the Corwin settled the question once and for all.
So explorers planted an American flag, named it the island of New Columbia with Scottish-American John Muir aboard to document the finding in a San Francisco newspaper.
Not until about 1913 did new visitors arrive – from Canada, Britain and eventually the Russians in 1921. A small group of Russians were taken to the island and left there – whether willingly or not, I haven’t discovered.
From that time, it has been assumed that Wrangel Island was a part of the Soviet Union, yet there is that pesky 1867 Treaty and the 1990 Agreement.
The Agreement exists, signed by a U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in 1990 and ratified by Congress in June 1990, and signed by President G. H. W. Bush. Russia has not signed on, originally declaring that they would receive too little from it.
Secondly, it is important to know that the Agreement was negotiated completely in secret as far as we know. It began with Henry Kissinger when he was Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford. Ford left office in 1977. The U.S. ratification didn’t happen until June 1, 1990 under President G. H. W. Bush. ‘Ratification’ does not mean that Congress created legislation. It means that an ‘agent’ presented the language and Congress ‘ratified’ (consented to) it. Source
The 1990 Agreement refers to an 1867 Treaty. First came the 1867 Treaty wherein the U.S. purchased what was then Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, an area about twice the size of Texas. Article 1 in the 1990 Agreement refers to Article 1 of the 1867 Treaty/Convention:
1. The Parties agree that the line described as the “western limit” in article 1 of the 1867 Convention, as defined in article 2 of this Agreement, is the maritime boundary between the United States and the Soviet Union.
2. Each Party shall respect the maritime boundary as limiting the extent of its coastal State jurisdiction otherwise permitted by international law for any purpose.
His Majesty the emperor of all the Russias agrees to cede to the United States, by this convention, immediately upon the exchange of the ratifications thereof, all the territory and dominion now possessed by his said Majesty on the continent of America and in the adjacent islands, the same being contained within the geographical limits herein set forth, to wit:
The eastern limit is the line of demarcation between the Russian and the British possessions in North America, as established by the convention between Russia and Great Britain, of February 28-16, 1825, and described in Articles III and IV of said convention, in the following terms:…(beginning at the pertinent information for this article)
[ceded to the U.S.] …thence, from the intersection of that meridian, in a southwesterly direction, so as to pass midway between the island of Attou and Copper island of the Kormandorski cuplet or group in the North Pacific ocean, to the meridian of one hundred and ninety-three degrees west longitude, so as to include the territory conveyed the whole of the Aleutian islands east of that meridian.
A year or so ago, Joe Miller, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Alaska brought up the “Seven Island Giveaway,” here as well. He believed the Obama administration is actively working to get Russia to sign-on – just one more Obama strategy to thwart energy in the U.S. I believe the intimation was that the Obama administration, and specifically the State Department under Hillary Clinton, was actively involved. Is the Kerry State Department involved now? I don’t know.
I see nothing new that has happened since, other than the National Geographic article leaving a clear impression that Russia owns, at least, Wrangel Island an no one is questioning or searching for the truth.
Is Congress doing anything about an Agreement that wasn’t an Agreement as Russia agreed to nothing? Perhaps the Nat Geo article is just that, an article – an uninformed article, or an article of half-truths.
Russia has informed the U.S. that it “continues to perform” its rights without signing the Agreement, which the State Department says is a “treaty,” but not titled so and not ratified by Russia.
Lest you think dredging this up is just some conservative, TeaParty-type of American Imperialism (as does FactCheck.org), in 1987 the Chicago Tribune said the “Agreement” was the “most serious foreign policy blunder since the Panama Canal giveaway.” In September 2004, the BBC, freshly roused by a Sustainable Development Conference took the side of Russia. Wouldn’t you know. They saw the Agreement as giving the U.S. millions in fishing rights and a mineral-rich continental shelf. Russian publications said the U.S. violated the boundaries that official maps are not available for consult, courtesy of some very sloppy diplomatic record keeping on both sides – or perhaps purposeful record keeping. Apparently Russia felt they were getting the wrong end of the deal, so they didn’t sign. Are we quietly insisting that they do – it’s the dirty oil, you know. (Not that the U.S. insisting anything has weight today.)
What we learn from this story is that a Secretary of State can engineer giving away sovereign land with no input from the U.S. Congress or the state holding ownership. The other side is, if the co-ordinates of the 1867 Treaty referring to the “western” and “eastern” boundaries clearly put all of the disputed islands on the Russian side, that’s a problem for the U.S. But then…apparently the style of map used can make a difference and the maps are no where to be found, and the style of map is not named. AND there are the explorers who claimed these islands for the U.S. AND Russia has not ratified. AND how about the unconfirmed ‘rumors’ that the Obama administration is working to get Russia’s signature on the 1990 Agreement? One last question: if the 1867 Treaty set out the boundaries, why did we need the 1990 Agreement?