Some Chattanooga council members leery of partnership with war-torn Ukrainian city

One compares Russia to the Eye of Sauron, worries it will menace the Scenic City

City of Chattanooga / Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly shakes hands with Yuri Bova, the mayor of the city of Trostyanets in Ukraine, during the 2023 Cities Summit of the Americas.
City of Chattanooga / Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly shakes hands with Yuri Bova, the mayor of the city of Trostyanets in Ukraine, during the 2023 Cities Summit of the Americas.


At the onset of their invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces plowed through a small city of approximately 19,000 people roughly 20 miles from the country's northeastern border.

After weathering a 31-day occupation in early 2022, Trostyanets is now back in Ukrainian hands, but the war has decimated roads, torn up buildings, damaged telecommunications infrastructure and left residents without services, according to Bloomberg.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly met Trostyanets Mayor Yuri Bova at the 2023 Cities Summit of the Americas in April. Bova was one of several Ukrainian mayors who attended the event, and Kelly's administration is now suggesting a partnership with the city designed to connect leaders with the technical expertise that could help them rebuild.

However, some members of the Chattanooga City Council, who will be voting on the deal in the coming weeks, expressed reservations about the proposal, and they want more information about what it would specifically require from Chattanooga.


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"We need to know exactly what the details are and the terms of this relationship," Council Member Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, said in a phone call Thursday. "Until then, I think we need to be extremely cautious entering into any relationship in a volatile region of the world. This tiptoes, in my mind, into foreign policy."

Kelly's office said this partnership would be consistent with relationships Chattanooga has with its sister cities -- a list that includes Gangneung in Korea, Hamm in Germany, Wuxi in China and Nizhny Tagil in Russia, the last of which began in 1996. The mayor is forming a working group to determine how to roll out aid for the Ukrainian city and is accepting applicants for the committee. The city has stressed no taxpayer dollars would be involved in this effort.

(READ MORE: Ukraine keeps up pressure following Russian declaration of victory in Bakhmut)

"It's not an overstatement to say that what's happening in Ukraine is an existential moment for western democracy," Kelly said in a news release Tuesday evening. "It is both a terrible tragedy in its own right and a wake up call for the western world to support those who, like Americans in 1775 and 1812, are simply fighting for freedom from tyranny. It's really as simple as that. Chattanooga has a long history of answering the bell for the cause of freedom, and I'm sure our generosity will once again rise to the occasion."

Ledford raised concerns about the proposal during a council meeting Tuesday, asking what would happen if Ukraine loses the war.

"I think we need to slow down and think about what we're doing and think about the unintended consequences," he said. "I, for one, took an oath to defend the United States Constitution, state of Tennessee and to abide by the city charter. I'm not qualified on foreign policy. ... To have this show up so quickly in the middle of such hot tempers and hot situations in the news gives me great concern about forming a relationship on such unsettled terms."

  photo  Local residents pass by a damaged Russian tank in the town of Trostyanets, east of capital Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2022. The monument to World War II is seen in background. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
 
 

Ledford added he questions whether Chattanooga officials and the council have the expertise to navigate the situation if things go wrong.

Jermaine Freeman, Kelly's interim chief of staff, responded that the administration doesn't feel it's a bad idea for Chattanooga to help another city build roads and bridges. The cultural exchange could also connect the city with artists and athletes from Chattanooga.

"To the extent that we can provide engineers that can help cities to build their infrastructure or provide some other sort of consulting support, we generally think that that's a good thing to do," he said. "Now, we understand that the international situation between Russia and Ukraine is a precarious situation, and that is far outside of our control and far outside the control of this country in general.

"We are not looking to build diplomatic relations with the country of Ukraine," Freeman added. "We are not looking to build diplomatic relations with the country of Russia. We are only looking to build relations with the town itself."

The meeting between Kelly and Bova was facilitated by a branch of the federal government, Freeman said -- the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"We felt like our security concerns were adequately addressed because of the presence of USAID," he said.

Council Vice Chair Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, told city staff Tuesday that Ledford raised valid questions.

"When I was given the heads-up ... I didn't hear anything about artists and athletes or engineers so much as EPB," Hill said. "When I hear EPB and our fiber, while not a trade secret, it is something that is inherently valuable to our community. As we build our network out, cybersecurity is incredibly important and ever more difficult to maintain."

Hill said the city can't predict the outcome of the conflict.

"We don't want to turn the Eye of Sauron in the form of Russia to Chattanooga," Hill said, referring to the symbol for the main antagonist in "The Lord of the Rings" who the movies portray as a searing, all-seeing eye. "We've seen the cyber espionage that happens at the hands of that government. I agree with Councilman Ledford that we need to be very thoughtful about this."

(READ MORE: The calculus of war: Tallying Ukraine toll an elusive task)

The security of Chattanooga's network and of the telecommunication company's customers are its top priority, EPB spokesperson Sophie Moore said in an email Tuesday.

  photo  City of Chattanooga / Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly and Director of Special Projects Ellis Smith, foreground, speak with Trostyanets Mayor Yuri Bova and representatives from the United States Agency for International Development.
 
 

"EPB was invited to sit in on a presentation by Trostyanets, but we have not played any role in drafting the document or made any commitments," she said.

In a phone call Thursday, Hill said she hasn't read the memorandum of understanding yet and didn't have an informed opinion, but she said Ledford brought up points she hadn't considered.

"On the face it, I think it's a neat idea, and as a city councilperson, I just need to make sure we're thinking about the long-term security of our city," she said.

The agreement council members will be considering in the next couple of weeks states the two cities seek "to strengthen direct contacts between business entities" and intend "to develop long-term economic, scientific, technical, cultural and tourist cooperation."

The seven-page document, which is also written in Ukrainian, details the kind of information the cities will share. Their "spheres of cooperation" include urban development, regional planning, economic initiatives, artistic expression and athletics.

Ukraine was a major player in the third-party logistics sector before the war, and the conflict caused ripple effects that affected the industry in the United States, said Ellis Smith, the mayor's director of special projects.

"Ukrainians broadly have been strong partners with one of Chattanooga's most vibrant sectors for many, many years," he said. "It's really about getting back to that. All wars end."

EPB has a consulting business it's been operating across the nation and globe for years, Smith added. Chattanooga knows how to build good fiber optic networks, he said, and can lend a hand in a city shattered by war.

"Just as we're training people over there on F-16s and Patriot missiles and M-1 tanks and Javelin anti-tank missiles, I think there's certainly room to share best practices from a telecommunications standpoint," he said. "These are not secrets."

In a letter to Kelly, Bova said Trostyanets is a tourist center in Ukraine's Sumy region, with huge historical and cultural potential.

"The town has been a constant generator of innovative ideas in the development of small towns, promoting the ideas of democracy and European governance," Bova wrote. "Unfortunately, the Russian military aggression has made harsh adjustments to the life of the whole of Ukraine."

(READ MORE: Ukrainian refugees safe, but not at peace, after year of war)

During its occupation, Trostyanets became the main headquarters for one of Russia's armies, Bova said, causing significant damage to the town.

"Despite all our difficulties, our community is making every effort to restore and improve its life and establish international relations," Bova said. "It's very important for us that the future partnership be bilateral and that both cities will see results."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.


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