Alaska Has Become the Front Line for U.S. Global Tensions

On February 10, an American warplane shot down an unidentified object off the coast of Alaska, after judging that it could be a threat to civilian aviation.

It came just six days after a Chinese spy balloon was downed just east of South Carolina, over the Atlantic Ocean. This was followed by the shooting-down of two more unidentified objects on February 11 and 12, over Yukon, Canada, and Lake Huron.

The incidents took place amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and both China and Russia. Alaska is the closest American state to both rival powers, separated from Russia by the Bering Strait, which is just 55 miles across at its narrowest point.

F-22 warplane pictured over Alaska
Stock photo of an F-22A Raptor flying over Anchorage, Alaska, in 2012. The state has become an important theater for U.S. competition with both Russia and China. Keith Draycott/GETTY

Esther Brimmer, a senior fellow in Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told Newsweek about the importance of Alaska in the confrontation with both of America's main geostrategic rivals.

Brimmer said: "Alaska is America's gateway to the Arctic. Home to over 730,000 residents, and Air Force, Army, Coast Guard and Space Force bases, America's largest state offers strategic vantage points for watching incoming threats. The United States and the Russian Federation face each other across the Bering Strait, a narrow international waterway linking the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

"In the 21st century, China has taken a greater interest in the Arctic region including building ice-breaking ships. On land and sea, there are environmental treasures and energy resources. The air above provides routes for commercial airlines and other aircraft," Brimmer added.

William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador and senior fellow at the RAND Corporation think tank, told Newsweek that Alaska also serves as a key staging post for protecting the contiguous United States.

Courtney said: "Alaska has several important military facilities, including radars and interceptor missiles for defense against North Korean ballistic missiles fired at the continental U.S.

"If the object shot down were an intelligence collector, its advantage over low earth orbit observational satellites could be long dwell-time over target, which could be important for dynamic targets, or the possibility of obtaining higher-resolution images than satellites can. Thus far, however, the mission of the object has not been clarified."

Over the past year, following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a number of Russian political figures have suggested Alaska should be returned to Moscow's rule.

In July, Vyacheslav Volodin, chair of the State Duma and an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said that Russia could try to retake Alaska in retaliation for U.S. asset seizures from prominent pre-regime Russians.

Earlier this February, Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of Russia's Institute of the Middle East think tank, said his country could try to restore its borders from the 1815 Congress of Vienna, meaning "Alaska is ours again."

Courtney said that, while retaking Alaska isn't taken seriously within the Kremlin, the ambitions of Russian imperialists extend beyond the borders of Ukraine.

He added: "Ultra-nationalists and revanchists [those who seek to regain territory] occasionally assert that Russia should obtain the return of Alaska, but few, if any, leaders in authority in Moscow view this idea as serious or feasible. That such ideas are occasionally heard is a sign of how, in recent years, Russian hardliners have gained greater, and harmful, influence in Putin's regime.

"While regaining Alaska is an absurd notion, Kazakhstan is genuinely concerned that such revanchists are pressing the Kremlin to annex some of its regions which contain significant ethnic Russian minorities," Courtney said. "Others of Russia's neighbors, seeing its aggression in Ukraine, are deeply worried what this might portend for them."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian foreign ministry for comment.