Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WikiLeaks and the mystery of the Wrangel Island cables

Wrangel Island - US NOAA photo

Is the United States government preparing to save the inhabitants of Wrangel Island from Russian domination?  It looks like we can't rule that out until WikiLeaks releases some more cables.

Wrangel Island belongs administratively to the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug of the Russian Federation. This rocky island has a weather station and two permanent Chukchi fishing settlements on the southern side of the island...

According to some US individuals, including the group State Department Watch,  eight Arctic islands currently controlled by Russia, including Wrangel Island, are claimed by the United States. However, according to the United States Department of State no such claim exists. The USSR/USA Maritime Boundary Treaty, which has yet to be approved by the Russian Duma, does not address the status of these islands.

However, it was revealed that the island was one of the most frequently-addressed areas in State Department Wikileaks Cablegate leak.
The last line is almost an understatement.   Seven thousand US State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks (6,999 cables, to be precise) are labeled with the topic "Wrangle Island." By contrast, "Afghanistan" was the topic of 7,095 cables.   The Wrangle Islands were the topic of as many cables as "Saudi Arabia," "Canada," and "Cuba" put together!

Of course, we contacted Sanjuro, a frequent contributor to JOTMAN.COM who speaks fluent Russian,  about Wrangel Island.   Sanjuro responded:
That's interesting, to say the least. Control of the Arctic territories is firmly embedded in the national psyche in Russia, and even the slightest mention of US claims would stir even the moderate nationalists like nothing before.  Perhaps the Russians feel that losing a significant territory in the Arctic could cause a domino effect - there are many other Arctic territories that Russia claims its own, but currently has little ability to protect. A practical fear that there's something afoot in the Arctic direction is one of the few things that could consolidate (if only for a while) this nation at loss.

Not everybody knows where Wrangel Island is, but surely nearly everyone in Russia has heard of it. The Wrangels were a well-known Russified German aristocratic family, most of all famous for the White Russian general who tried to defend Crimea from the Red Army at the end of the Civil War (1920) - so basically, it's a household name. The Arctic exploration aspect of that famous family was recognized in the Soviet Union - there was a famous children's book "The Adventures of Captain Wrungel" (wrungel being contraption of vrun - liar, someone who makes up things (from v. vrat' to lie, to tell stories) , and the surname Wrangel most likely in reference to the other famous member of that family). Both the book and especially an animated series based on it were wildly popular in the late Soviet Union.

The "Arctic exploration - Civil War" connection is very prominent in the Russian history and in the current discussion. Admiral Alexander Kolchak is the best known figure in that regard, and the theme was revived a couple of years ago when the Russian TV dramatized his life.

If in the US, there was, for instance, an island off Alaska named after a famous American explorer and/or a Civil War hero, and it somehow became a matter of territorial dispute... - well you can imagine it
As it happens, Wrangel Island was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- a designation that has been known to spark international conflict.

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