US states move to punish Russia for Ukraine war

Sanctions are popular politically but Russian Americans worry the measures are stoking anger against their community

Demonstrators carry flags during a rally in support of Ukraine in Santa Monica, California. AFP
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State and local governments across the US are working to punish Moscow over its war against Ukraine by pulling investments from Russian companies and introducing other measures such as banning the sale of Russian vodka.

The measures are broadly politically popular, but some Russian Americans are wary that in its eagerness to show solidarity with Ukraine, the US may be driving anger towards Russians in general rather than at President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

Some of the local sanctions seem minor compared to what the US and other countries are doing to isolate Russia from the global economy, but the cumulative effect nonetheless will add to Mr Putin's economic woes.

In the southern state of Georgia, House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, received a bipartisan standing ovation on Monday when he told representatives he would seek to have the state's retirement funds quickly divested from any Russian assets.

“I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t want one penny of Georgians’ money going to subsidise Vladimir Putin,” Mr Ralston said. “While our role in international affairs is limited, we make clear we stand with those who want to live in peace.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed an executive order forbidding her state from doing business with Russia and ordered state agencies to divest money and assets from companies or institutions aiding the country.

“We strongly condemn the action of Putin and Russia for this unprovoked attack, which is now leading to atrocities against innocent human beings,” Ms Hochul said.

But the tough anti-Russia line has unsettled some Russian Americans, who wonder if new measures are stoking anti-Russian sentiment.

In Washington, a famous vodka bar called the Russia House was vandalised at the weekend, with red bricks lobbed through the windows.

Local police told The National the incident has been categorised as “anti-political, race/ethnicity/ancestry” and is being investigating as a hate crime.

About three million Russian Americans live in the US.

Michael Levitis, who hosts a Russian-language radio show in the New York area, said the large Russian-speaking community, which consists of people from across the former Soviet Union, is concerned it may face a backlash akin to what Muslim Americans dealt with in the months after the September 11 attacks.

“I haven't seen any overt physical attacks on the members of our community,” Mr Levitis, who immigrated to the US as a young child in 1988, told The National.

“But from the politicians, there's a lot of anti-Russian sentiment … people are afraid we're going to be conflated with Russians overseas and we will suffer as collateral damage.”

Some state measures have been largely symbolic.

At the weekend, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration lit the front of the state capitol in the yellow and blue colours of Ukraine’s flag.

Cities across the US, including Washington, have made similar displays.

Sales of alcohol in some parts of the US is tightly regulated by state agencies.

Officials in Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia — all states that control the sale of alcohol — have directed Russian-sourced alcohol to be removed from store shelves, joining a pro-Ukrainian movement begun by some bars and other private businesses.

Virginia's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stores announced the decision to remove Russian-sourced vodka on Sunday.

“The decision is already in effect and we have pulled seven Russian-sourced vodka brands from our inventory,” Carol Mawyer, director of communications at ABC, told The National.

In Texas, Governor Gregg Abbott asked restaurants and retailers “to voluntarily remove all Russian products from their shelves".

Pennsylvania politicians on Monday said they will file legislation requiring state pension funds to pull investments connected to the Russian government and its critical supporters.

In a memo to fellow state senators, Democrat Sharif Street said Pennsylvania “must wield our economic power to ensure that Russia faces grave consequences for their flagrant violations of international law and human co-operation".

In Arkansas, politicians also have filed proposals authorising state banks to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs and to require a boycott of Russian-made goods.

Other states are taking similar measures and some governors are even asking cities to sever goodwill sister-city partnerships with Russia.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has called for an end to capital Des Moines' sister-city relationship with Stavrapol Krai, Russia, and a strengthening of its relationship with Cherkasy Oblast, Ukraine.

Several states meanwhile have expressed a willingness to provide housing to Ukrainian refugees.

The Washington state House and Senate each have added amendments to their budget proposals setting aside $19 million to provide services and temporary housing to refugees who come from Ukraine.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: February 28, 2022, 9:31 PM