Threats invoking nuclear rhetoric out of Russia appear to be picking up again, at a moment Washington continues to ramp up weapons shipments to Ukraine's military, and as the Biden administration is pledging to back efforts to charge Russian officials before an international criminal court.
As we detailed earlier, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and current deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council warned of the "wrath of God" if the US leads efforts to establish an international tribunal for investigating Russian war crimes in Ukraine. "The idea of punishing a country that has one of the largest nuclear potentials is absurd. And potentially poses a threat to the existence of humanity," he stated Wednesday.
But another top official's threatening words are also grabbing headlines, given how unusual the statement is. Russia’s lower house speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, suggested that Alaska could be targeted by Russia next in a scenario of continued US provocations. He essentially said that Russia could take it back as "Alaska previously belonged to Russia."
Specifically he was responding to reports that the Biden administration is seeking to seize Russian assets abroad, also in conjunction with European authorities. According to a translation, Volodin warned the US that it "instead ought to remember that Alaska previously belonged to Russia," in statements carried in Russian media on Wednesday.
"Let America always remember, there is a part of [Russian] territory: Alaska," he said, according to Hromadske, subsequently translated in The Daily Beast. "So when they start trying to dispose of our resources abroad, before they do it, let them think: we also have something to return."
Another official threw his support behind the theat. State Duma Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy went so far as to propose holding a referendum on Alaska - akin to the Crimea referendum of 2014.
As for the idea of "returning" Alaska, this is in reference to the huge northern land mass abutting Canada and what eventually became the 49th US state as having been colonized by the Russian Empire starting in the early 18th century. Additionally, the earliest form of Christianity to reach the local Aleut natives was Russian Orthodoxy - which is still prominent in Alaska - brought by Russian missionaries during that period. Russian culture's imprint on the local natives has continued to this day.
Russia sold the vast territory to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million - which in today's terms would be equivalent to somewhere north of $140 million. The territory was formally admitted as a US state in 1959.
While this talk of 'returning Alaska' appears tongue-in-cheek, there has been past public discussion in Russian media over whether Moscow could one day gain Alaska back. For example, related to the Crimea crisis, NPR noted back in 2014:
President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea is reigniting talk in Russia of taking back Alaska from the United States, which purchased the territory from a czar for $7.2 million nearly a century and a half ago.
...A recent petition written in clunky English on the official White House website seeks Alaska's secession and return to Russia.
So far, it has generated more than 37,000 signatures — or more than a third of the 100,000 needed to get the Obama administration to formally respond.
Over the past years, airspace off Alaska and the Bering Sea has been scene of Russian and US air force encounters and intercepts, which has included Russia sending long-range bombers to fly miles off the coast, typically just within international airspace.