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Berlin’s city tie-up with Moscow ‘unacceptable,’ says Ukrainian mayor

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Sign up here.

It is “unacceptable” for Berlin and other cities to keep partnership ties with Russian cities despite the invasion of Ukraine, the mayor of Melitopol told POLITICO.

Ivan Fedorov, the elected head of the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city who was taken hostage for several days by Russian troops in March, argued that Berlin and other cities with such agreements must cut ties immediately given the Kremlin’s invasion and allegations of war crimes.

“Berlin and all other cities must break their ties with Russia,” Fedorov said in a phone interview. “They invaded our country and killed our women and children … How can you continue to be friendly and cooperate with them, with Putin?”

The German capital’s friendship and cooperation partnership with Moscow dates back to 1991 and the city has no plans to terminate the arrangement, a spokesperson for the Berlin senate chancellery said.

Fedorov said Moscow’s forces had cut off humanitarian links to Melitopol. While he regained his own freedom through a prisoner exchange, Fedorov said a number of his constituents have been forcibly deported to Russia.

The mayor said he was aware and grateful that Berlin is providing shelter to Ukrainian refugees but that this was “not enough.”

“Either you’re with Ukraine or you’re with Putin,” he said. “It’s a simple question: We need a simple answer.”

Governing Mayor of Berlin Franziska Giffey argues that the invasion of Ukraine was an action taken by Putin, not the Russian people, and that maintaining the 31-year-old city partnership helps to keep lines of communication with pro-democracy groups open.

“Change within the political system in Russia can only come from inside,” said the spokesperson for the Berlin senate chancellery.

Sister-city partnerships are themselves a product of another conflict. Post World War II, cities like Coventry, which was devastated in the Blitz, established partnerships with similarly hard-hit municipalities like Stalingrad in the Soviet Union, and Kiel and Dresden in East and West Germany.

Those diplomatic ties carried symbolic weight as Europe rebuilt, and paved the way for greater urban diplomacy efforts, including larger networks like Eurocities or C40 cities, a coalition tackling issues linked to climate change.

But sister-city partnerships aren’t purely symbolic. They also involve direct cooperation between municipal administrations — which in Berlin’s case involves working with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, a Putin ally.

They also lead to interactions with high-ranking Kremlin officials. In 2018, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov participated in an event celebrating the two capitals’ cooperation on social issues.

In March Kai Wegner, leader of the Christian Democratic Union in Berlin’s state parliament, questioned the appropriateness of maintaining friendly relations with Moscow and called on the partnership to be suspended, saying: “Anyone who attacks other countries cannot be our partner.”

While Berlin’s mayor has refused to budge, other cities have already taken steps to curtail relations with their Russian counterparts.

Coventry suspended its 80-year link with Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) in March to express its “horror at what is happening.”

In the U.S., Chicago and Dallas broke off their partnerships with Moscow and Saratov, respectively, while Japanese metropolises like Tokyo and Hiroshima chose to suspend exchanges with their counterparts in Russia.

Although Berlin’s decision has raised eyebrows, it is in line with the position of Sister Cities International, the Washington-based organization that oversees the majority of these partnerships.

In reaction to the sudden rush of mayors seeking to end their links with Russia, the organization’s president, Leroy Allala, recently begged local leaders not to do so.

“While suspending or ending a sister city relationship to register disapproval of a foreign government’s actions may seem, on the surface, like a positive policy protest action, it has the complete opposite effect — closing a vital and, ofttimes, last channel of communication with vulnerable or isolated populations,” Allala wrote in an open letter to the organization’s members.

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