Century Plaza in downtown Roanoke features column-like sculptures to Roanoke's seven sister cities. The one to Pskov, Russia is third from the left, with the blue top. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

All politics is local, the saying goes, and the current horror in Ukraine is no exception.

Foreign policy is no longer the sole province of national governments, or sometimes any government at all.

The hacker group Anonymous claims on Twitter to be at work shutting down Russian websites.

Delta Airlines has severed its agreement with the Russian airline Aeroflot that allowed passengers to book seats on each others’ flights.

Some places that serve Russian vodka no longer are, according to the Associated Press. In Vermont, the Magic Mountain ski lodge posted a video showing an employee pouring its supply of Stolichnaya down the drain.

And now we see some American governors instituting their own foreign policies of a sort: The governors of Ohio (Mike Dewine), New Hampshire (Chris Sununu) and Utah (Spencer Cox) took actions Saturday to stop the sale of Russian vodka. By the time you read this, that number of vodka-dumping governors could rise. Good for them. Russia won’t give up because it’s selling less vodka to Americans but free nations shouldn’t help finance Putin’s brutality on his neighbors, even if it’s only the price of a bottle of vodka.

The sculpture to Pskov, Russia, one of Roanoke’s seven sister cities. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued a potentially broader order. In a statement released Saturday afternoon, Youngkin announced that he’s taking three actions. He’s “directed an immediate review of state procurement of any and all goods and services involving Russian companies” – which presumably would also include Russian vodka at state-owned liquor stores. And he’s “urged the Virginia Retirement System and university endowments to divest any Russian holdings immediately.”

Do they have any such holdings? I have no idea. If they do, Youngkin’s order is a good one, even better than getting rid of some vodka. If they don’t, it’s at least symbolic solidarity with Ukraine, a country that, whatever its failings might be, has desperately wanted to shake off its Soviet past and become part of the West. Twice in the past few years, I’ve had the honor of meeting with a delegation of Ukrainian journalists who had come to the United States to learn about how a free press works. On the first visit, I was still with The Roanoke Times. The Ukrainians were in the newsroom, looking through copies of the paper and talking quietly amongst themselves in Ukrainian – until they came across a picture of Vladimir Putin in the paper. I don’t know Ukrainian but I didn’t need to at that moment to understand how they felt about him. I applaud Youngkin for taking these two actions, even if they turn out only to be empty gestures.

His third action, though, is more curious – and misguided. He called on “The City of Norfolk and the City of Roanoke to end sister city partnerships with Russian cities.”

Youngkin makes a mistake here, perhaps several. The first is a technical one: I don’t know about Norfolk, but in Roanoke the sister city relationships aren’t a function of city government – they’re a function of a private, nonprofit group, Roanoke Valley Sister Cities. When Youngkin says he’s “called for Virginia Mayors to terminate sister-city partnerships with Russian cities,” he’s calling on Roanoke’s mayor to do something he has no power over.

Roanoke’s sister cities

  1. Florianopolis, Brazil
  2. Kisumu, Kenya
  3. Lijiang, China
  4. Opole, Poland
  5. Pskov, Russia
  6. St. Lo, France
  7. Wonju, South Korea

The bigger problem, though, is this: The purpose of these sister city arrangements is to promote what we once called “people-to-people diplomacy.” Should we really be severing those ties? Or trying to increase them? Our enemy here isn’t the people of Russia, it’s the thuggish dictatorship of Putin and his oligarch cronies. Every minute that goes by we see the incredible bravery of Ukrainians as they stand up to Putin’s invading army. But we also see the bravery of Russians who have taken to the streets to protest the actions of their own government. One human rights group says that 2,692 Russians have been arrested so far. I doubt they’re being read their Miranda rights. Maybe we need more ties with ordinary Russians, not fewer?

The Roanoke Sister Cities Committee on Saturday released an open letter to Youngkin that underscored these sentiments:

Roanoke Valley Sister Cities, Inc., appreciates your concern for the people of Russia, especially the citizens of our Sister City, Pskov.  We value our partnerships with our seven Sister Cities on four continents.  We are committed to promoting mutual understanding, friendship, and peace as President Eisenhower envisioned in his 1956 White House Summit on Citizen Diplomacy.  Through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation, we can advance our mission – one individual, one community at a time.

This is not the time to tell our friends in Pskov that we want to sever our ties with them.  While we may not agree with the politics in Russia, or in the countries of any of our Sister Cities for that matter, we do not get involved with politics nor take a political stand on any issue.  Our people-to-people relationships are the best way for us to demonstrate to the people of Pskov and Russia at large that the citizens of the Roanoke Valley and the American people are not their enemies, nor do we consider them to be ours.

In years past, the Roanoke-Pskov Sister City committee “has furnished medical supplies and equipment for hospitals, orphanages and hospice in Pskov,” according to the committee’s website. There was an agreement between Ferrum College and the Pskov Pedagogical Institute (now Pskov State University) that meant “Russian students have received full scholarships for a semester of study at Ferrum College, while Ferrum students have worked, studied and interned in Pskov.” (Pskov is still listed as an option for Ferrum’s study abroad program). Wouldn’t it be great if there were more Russians who have studied in the United States and got chance to see democracy and free markets up close?

An irony: I’m told that Roanoke’s relationship with Pskov has been dormant for years, so there’s not much here to sever.

At the moment, that sister city status with Pskov – a city of about 203,000 near the border with Estonia and Latvia – appears to be completely symbolic. In downtown Roanoke, there are seven sculptures to the city’s seven sister cities. (I originally called them statues but someone who knows more about art than I do corrected me — statues depict people or animals; sculptures depict something else.) And, yes, the Russian flag flies in downtown Roanoke as part of a display of the national flags of those seven sister cities. Does Youngkin believe Roanoke should take down that sculpture and haul down that flag? It’s hard to see how that inflicts any pain on Putin.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.