Every day we are seeing pictures of war in Europe. More than half a million Ukrainians have fled their country. There is no doubt that Russia is the aggressor in this war, invading a sovereign nation, and Putin is violating international law with a brutal and bloody assault on the Ukrainian people.
The United States is offering humanitarian aid, weapons, and technical assistance, cutting off Russian assets and bank accounts in our country, and talking with our NATO allies about what might come next. And the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States received a bipartisan standing ovation during Biden’s State of the Union this week in a rare show of Congressional unity.
Many in the US rightfully feel a need to show support for Ukraine and find ways to punish Russia for this war. It is appropriate to cut off commerce, financial flows, and contracts that will bring economic pain to Putin and his supporters in an attempt to get them to come to the negotiating table and end the violent attack on innocent lives.
Other gestures, however, are less appropriate. On Monday night, Mayor Vi Lyles announced that city staff is considering ending Charlotte’s long-standing Sister City relationship with Voronezh, Russia, due to the country’s acts of war against Ukraine. The connection began in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine and other Soviet satellites gained independence, and the Russian economy opened to world markets.
Over the past three decades, Russians from Voronezh have visited Charlotte, and Charlotte delegations have visited Voronezh in what is best termed citizen diplomacy. The economic impact has been minimal. The goodwill and understanding generated has had much more impact. There have been Russian art exhibits, cultural exchanges, religious exchanges, students hosted, and face-to-face meetings that have helped erode stereotypes and let people see that we are more alike than we are different.
Citizen diplomacy — through which American businesspeople, students, teachers, and community members meet and get to know citizens of other countries — is an important aspect of building a more peaceful world. In fact, the US Department of State runs an International Visitor Program every year that brings thousands of emerging foreign leaders to the US to meet ordinary Americans and understand our people and our systems better.
More than 500 current or former chiefs of state or heads of government have been through this program. These visits produce goodwill, deeper understanding of different countries and cultures, and help erode those divisions that lead to wars.
Many of the exchanges with our sister cities are with student programs. These middle and high school students are still forming their views of “the other.” When they form friendships with those in other countries, it has lasting impact on their views and helps remove bias and prejudice in their dealings across ethnic, racial, gender, religious and other differences as well.
I have seen this work’s impact on many students, including my own children, one of whom attended a school in a sister city. When I led a Charlotte delegation to our Chinese sister city, Baoding, in 2017, very little was mentioned about global tensions. We learned about Chinese history and culture, and broke bread with many who were eager to hear about Charlotte and the US from a personal perspective. Those we met gained an understanding of Americans that was warm, personal, and different from the images put forth by media coverage.
It is understandable that Charlotte wants to sever ties with Voronezh, but this decision will not be felt by Putin or any of the Russian oligarchs who support him. Recently, the Charlotte Sister Cities program has been re-invigorated by a new group of volunteers, eager to build relationships with others in an increasingly polarized world. These efforts are the best way to avoid future wars, to put a human face on suffering, and to build relationships that make the image of conflict and war personal. This increased humanizing of those who are different affects our own domestic polarization as well.
If the city feels compelled to make some show of support, then they might suspend the relationship, but they should not sever it. There will be a time when Russians can travel again, and we should give those ordinary citizens a chance to show us how they are not Putin, and that we are more alike than we are different. Let’s give peace a chance, Charlotte.
Jennifer Roberts is the former mayor of Charlotte, former board chair of International House, and a former US diplomat.