Santa Clara County has severed its ties with the Russian government in Moscow.
In a largely symbolic act, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate its sister county/city relationship between Santa Clara County and Moscow. The vote comes nearly a month after Russia initiated an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that has killed hundreds of residents and forced millions to flee the country.
Supervisor Otto Lee, a combat veteran, said he understands on a visceral level the pain and suffering of the Ukrainian people.
“While we cannot vote to bring peace directly, we can certainly show some solidarity and support today,” Lee said. “I believe we must add our voice to help end this atrocity.”
Santa Clara County established a county-city sister relationship with Moscow in 1994. County Executive Jeff Smith said the relationship between governments has floundered and is largely nonexistent. But he noted there’s also a county commission that engages with a sister commission in Moscow, and that relationship has been fruitful.
The concept of a “sister city” describes a partnership between communities in different countries. Originally created in the 1950s to foster peace, sister cities have also helped promote tourism, eduction and trade. San Jose has at least eight sister cities, and Santa Clara County has sister cities in Florence, Italy and Hsinchu, Taiwan.
The board’s actions come two weeks after San Jose officials voted to not break ties with its sister city Ekaterinburg in Russia. Instead, the City Council approved sending the city a letter of peace and support encouraging its residents to stand against President Vladimir Putin.
Lee raised concerns that terminating the relationship with Moscow could effectively discontinue the work being done by the Moscow commission in Santa Clara County, which is dedicated to building relationships with people in Russia, not the government.
Supervisor Susan Ellenberg appreciated Lee’s caution, but said there’s an urgent need for the county to make a statement against the war. She noted Russian forces have shelled maternity wards and hospitals.
“I do agree the statement should be clear we can’t continue these relationships right now,” Ellenberg said. “I think we have to stand with the resilient and brave people of Ukraine.”
Supervisor Joe Simitian recommended a substitute motion that would make it clear the county is severing ties with the Russian government, leaving open the possibility of continued communication between regular people in Santa Clara County and Moscow. But he objected to issuing a tepid statement.
“Anything less than a full-blown and immediate denunciation by virtue of a clear statement will only be misconstrued, misrepresented and misused by those who are hoping people of good will look the other way,” Simitian said.
Several community members joined supervisors in condemning the Russian invasion, but pleaded with them to not disrupt communication between regular people.
“We at Sister Cities International as a policy oppose closing a vital and often last channel of communications between vulnerable and isolated people,” said Tim Quigley, chairman of Sister Cities International, a nonprofit that strengthens international ties between cities.
Nancy Madison, chair of the Santa Clara County/Moscow Sister County Commission, said it’s important to not take any actions that could jeopardize the commission’s access to grants that allow it to host Russian delegations.
“That has been our primary funding mechanism and we cannot lose that,” she said.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who visited Moscow, Ekaterinburg and Kyiv years ago, said the local government must find ways to support Ukrainians and anti-war Russians in the South Bay. She also noted Santa Clara County does not have any formal sister cities or counties in Ukraine.
“I think we ought to think about a partnership with Ukraine in a more formal way,” she said.