Two Russian nationals have been detained by US officials after arriving in a small boat on St Lawrence Island in Alaska.
According to the two US senators who represent the state, the men landed at a beach in the village of Gambell and requested asylum in the country.
A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson said the duo’s asylum claim was currently being processed. Thousands have fled Russia to avoid being conscripted for war in Ukraine.
Gambell – home to less than 500 permanent residents – sits on the north-western cape of St Lawrence Island. The island is located some 36 miles (56km) from Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula, meaning it is closer to Russia than it is to the Alaskan mainland. According to local media, Gambell residents can see the Russian territory of Siberia across the sea.
A local town clerk told the KTUU news station that the men had sailed there from the city of Egvekinot in north-eastern Russia, a journey of about 300 miles (480km) by sea, and have since been flown off the island. DHS said the men came ashore “in a small boat on Tuesday” and had been flown to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, for “vetting and screening”.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said their arrival “was a surprise to us”. “We don’t anticipate a continual stream of individuals or a flotilla of individuals. We have no indication that’s going to happen, so this may be a one-off,” he added.
Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan said community leaders in Gambell had contacted him about the men’s arrival on Tuesday. Mr Sullivan said he was urging federal authorities “to have a plan ready… in the event that more Russians flee to Bering Strait communities in Alaska”.
“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,” he wrote in a statement on Thursday.
His colleague from the state, Senator Lisa Murkowski, said the incident “underscores the need for a stronger security posture in America’s Arctic”. Both have pushed for expanding strategic defence capabilities and infrastructure in the state to combat threats Russia poses in the region.
Citing a Kremlin source, a Forbes Russia report this week claimed as many as 700,000 men may have left the country since President Vladimir Putin announced a partial troop mobilisation on 21 September.
The mass exodus comes as Russian troops have faced heavy losses and morale-crushing defeats on the battlefield. But while most men have fled over land to neighbouring Kazakhstan, Georgia and Finland, as well as other European countries, the arrivals in Alaska mark a first.