Towns and cities, when countries go to war

By Dr Catherine Danks

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised difficult questions for how the international community should respond. To maintain the usual links and interactions might appear to condone Russia’s actions while the escalation of tensions runs the danger of precipitating a more widespread conflict in Europe and perhaps even superpower confrontation. Discussions about possible human corridors, ceasefires, and ultimately peace, take place at the state level. We tend to focus on relations between states, and alliances of states but the C20th and especially the post-WWII period saw the rapid burgeoning of links between town and cities. These civic links are variously known as twinning, partnership, sister city, or friendship arrangements and typically involve a formal agreement. The purpose of these agreements is generally to develop mutual friendship and understanding, typically they have encouraged the exchange of information and visits, the development of educational and cultural ties. Overall, the hope has been that more interactions would make conflict less likely. It has to be said, that some twinning agreements have proved more dynamic and enduring than others and some have become dormant without being formally ended. Town and cities have generally seen twinning and friendship agreements as ‘good things’, but don’t necessarily have the resources or the will to maintain and develop them.

Britain’s first twinning agreement with a soviet city was between Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Coventry in 1944 before the war ended. The two cities recognised the suffering they had endured and the mutual support they had given. Manchester and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) signed a friendship agreement in 1962 and were due to mark its 60th anniversary in September 2022. However, Manchester has now suspended its friendship agreement with St. Petersburg in response to the invasion of Ukraine. The Coventry-Volgograd link, which is not just the first but one of the most active links has also been suspended. The Bishop of Coventry cautioned against ending the twinning relationship and argued that it should be used “to bring to the attention of our Russian friends the seriousness of the current situation and our horror at what is happening.”

Plymouth while initially condemning the invasion of Ukraine announced that they did not intend to end their twinning relationship with the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk arguing that this, ”would send the wrong message”. A Plymouth City Council spokesperson said: “Following the Novichok poisoning on UK soil in March 2018, Plymouth City Council agreed to revoke any invitations to Russian officials. And that they did not want to punish the people of Novorossiysk “for the barbaric actions of their government.” However, by early March Plymouth had moved to suspend  but not cut its ties with Novorossiysk.

Doncaster, Nottingham, Wakefield, and County Durham have gone one step further and ended rather than just suspended their agreements. Doncaster  has ended its agreement with Ozyorsk. Nottingham has ended its links with Krasnodar and the Belarussian city of Minsk. Similarly, Wakefield has ended its agreement with Belgorod and County Durham has ended its agreement with Kostroma. However, in these last two cases the links were already inactive. The Wakefield council leader noted that it had been “dormant” for many years and for County Durham and Kostroma, there have “been no active projects . . .for some time.”

If civic links are still seen to be an important means to develop international understanding, that they have a role to play in establishing and re-establishing contacts between peoples, what conditions will be needed in order to “unsuspend” relations?

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