State Watch

Vodka, pensions, sister cities: Governors move to punish Russia

Governors in states across the country have ordered agencies and asked businesses to cut ties with Russia in largely symbolic stands with Ukraine and against Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression.

They’ve asked local leaders to end so-called sister city relationships with Russian municipalities, moved to divest from Russian assets held by state pension funds and taken steps to get Russian vodka off store shelves.

The governors of four states — New Hampshire, Utah, Pennsylvania and Ohio — have ordered or formally requested that state-run liquor outlets halt sales of Russian vodka. Virginia’s state-run liquor agency said it, too, would pull seven brands of Russian products after Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) called on state agencies to support Ukraine.

“We see what’s happening. People are losing their lives. It’s unprovoked aggression, and if New Hampshire can do their part and take these products off of the Russian shelves — I don’t know who’s buying that garbage anyways right now, frankly — it’s a good thing, and it’s a step that we can make,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) told reporters on Sunday.

“Russia’s ruthless attack on a sovereign nation is an egregious violation of human rights,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) said in a statement. “Utah stands in solidarity with Ukraine and will not support Russian enterprises, no matter how small the exchange.”

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Saturday called chief executives at interest groups representing restaurants, package companies and retailers to ask that they remove Russian-made products from their inventory.

In Virginia, Youngkin ordered state agencies to review contracts to identify any tax dollars that might be spent buying Russian goods or services. He asked the cities of Norfolk and Roanoke to end sister city relationships with Kaliningrad and Pskov, respectively, and he called on the state’s employee retirement system to divest from Russian companies.

Several other states also moved to divest from Russian assets held by state pension funds.

Colorado’s public employee retirement fund said it would sell off a $7.2 million investment in Sberbank, a Russian state-owned bank that is the target of international sanctions led by the United States.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed an executive order Sunday ordering state agencies to pull money out of any Russian investments, though it was unclear what, if any, Russian assets state agencies held. New York City held about $271 million in Russian investments as of last week, and city Comptroller Brad Lander (D) said Sunday he would identify Russian assets the various boards overseeing pension assets should or could sell.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) said his state would also “fully divest” from Russian firms.

Katie Byrd, Kemp’s spokeswoman, said the governor’s office last week began “reviewing and taking actions to ensure Georgia taxpayer dollars are not being used to subsidize Russia,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The moves are largely symbolic drops in the bucket, but they are among the only steps a state can take as Western nations place more disruptive sanctions on Russia’s financial system and central bank.

The United States imported $1.4 billion in vodka last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, the liquor industry’s leading interest group, but just $18.5 million of that came from Russia itself.

“Some of the popular vodka brands consumers may think are Russian are not produced in Russia,” said Lisa Hawkins, the group’s spokeswoman.

Russian vodka imports have dropped 79 percent since 2011. The United States imports most of its vodka from France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Latvia. Among the most popular brands associated with Russia are Stoli, which is made in Latvia, and Smirnoff, which is owned by the London-based company Diageo and distilled in Illinois.

In a letter to the state Liquor Control Board, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said he recognized the distinction between “products that are sourced from Russia — as opposed to being Russian themed but produced elsewhere.”

Governors in several states ordered buildings and landmarks to be illuminated in blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s national flag. Hochul ordered a dozen landmarks to be lit in solidarity with Ukraine, including the World Trade Center and Grand Central Terminal. Rhode Island’s state capital building was similarly lit up overnight.

Bob DaSilva, the mayor of East Providence, R.I., took to Twitter to ask residents to loan the city a Ukrainian flag that would fly at city hall.

“In solidarity with the brave citizens of Ukraine and with freedom defenders here and abroad I would like to fly their flag at East Providence city hall,” DaSilva tweeted. “If you have a flag that you are willing to loan the city, please contact me.” 

Tags Brian Kemp Chris Sununu Glenn Youngkin Greg Abbott Kathy Hochul Tom Wolf Vladimir Putin Vodka

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