Connect with us

homepage news

Whitman-Walker celebrates 40 years

Pioneer in D.C.’s battle against AIDS evolved into community health center



Whitman-Walker, End HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Whitman-Walker Health’s annual Walk to End HIV. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Whitman-Walker Health, D.C.’s preeminent community health center serving the LGBT community, is set to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its incorporation on Jan. 13, 1978 as the then Whitman-Walker Clinic.

Its current executive director, Don Blanchon, points out that the organization that became Whitman-Walker — the Gay Men’s VD Clinic, an arm of the then Washington Free Clinic — was founded in November 1973 and began operating in the basement of D.C.’s Georgetown Lutheran Church.

A timeline posted on Whitman-Walker’s website shows that the Gay Men’s VD Clinic, which began as an all-volunteer operation, hired its first full-time staff in 1976. In 1977, according to the Whitman-Walker history write-up, leaders of the fledgling clinic broke away from the Washington Free Clinic and began to develop “their vision for a new, diverse health care organization.”

At the time the group incorporated as Whitman-Walker Clinic in 1978 the D.C. Department of Human Resources provided it with $15,000 in funding, marking the first in a long history of city financial support for Whitman-Walker.

Blanchon, who did not become Whitman-Walker’s executive director until May 2006, said he has since learned from others familiar with its early years that its founders set a precedent for its mission and value system that remain in place today.

“At the end of the day, before there was ever HIV and AIDS, there was an ideal that the gay community needed a different type of health care that was affirming of who they were,” he said. “And that was all the way back to 1973.”

He notes that since then Whitman-Walker has broadened its health care work to cover the full diversity of the LGBT community, with greatly expanded programs and services for the transgender community in recent years.

Blanchon said today’s Whitman-Walker Health has an operating budget of nearly $103 million and a staff of 290 employees.

World AIDS Day, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Before there was ever HIV and AIDS, there was an ideal that the gay community needed a different type of health care,’ said Whitman-Walker Executive Director Don Blanchon. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Although Whitman-Walker broke new ground in its first decade as an LGBT clinic, those familiar with its 40-year history say it established itself as one of the city’s most well-known healthcare institutions beginning in 1983, when the AIDS epidemic hit D.C. in full force.

Two years earlier, D.C. gay attorney Jim Graham was elected president of the Whitman-Walker board in 1981, the same year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Report published an account of how young gay men were being stricken with a rare form of pneumonia normally contracted by elderly people with compromised immune systems.

Whitman-Walker Clinic staff on June 15, 1984. (Washington Blade archive photo by Jim Marks)

The CDC report was the first of a series of updated reports that later identified the condition afflicting gay men and other population groups as HIV/AIDS. It was at that time that Whitman-Walker assumed a leadership role in addressing the epidemic in the District of Columbia.

Among other things, it launched an AIDS education program along with counseling and direct services for people with AIDS. A short time later it began its “Buddy” program that recruited scores of volunteers to help people living with AIDS at a time when little or no official government programs existed to take on that role.

On April 4, 1983, Whitman-Walker organized the first D.C. AIDS Forum at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Hundreds of gay men turned out for the event and heard Dr. Richard DiGioia, a local physician whose practice catered to the gay community, talk about the disease’s symptoms and the early and mostly ineffective treatment options available at that time.

In 1984, the Whitman-Walker board named Jim Graham as the clinic’s new executive director. Graham has been credited with spearheading Whitman-Walker’s rapid growth as one of the nation’s leading AIDS service organizations.

During his first years at Whitman-Walker’s helm, Graham used his skills as a lawyer to provide legal help for gay men and others with AIDS who often were rejected by their families and faced workplace discrimination before becoming too sick to hold a job. Blanchon calls Graham the father of Whitman-Walker’s highly regarded Legal Services program, which currently enjoys legal support from attorneys with some of the city’s most prominent law firms.

Under Graham’s leadership, Whitman-Walker bought several buildings along or near the 14th Street, N.W. corridor north of downtown. Among the purchases were its headquarters at 1407 S Street, N.W., just off 14th Street. In 1985 the Robert N. Schwartz House was opened as the city’s first home for people with AIDS, becoming one in a series of houses Whitman-Walker purchased to house people with HIV/AIDS.

From left, Whitman-Walker President Mary Jane Wood, former head of the D.C. Council Commission on Health Polly Shackleton, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Effi Barry and Whitman-Walker Administrator Jim Graham attend the dedication of the new clinic facility on June 23, 1987. (Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle)

Most of the houses were financed by donations from the community and through bequests from gay men who died of AIDS and named Whitman-Walker in their wills.

As part of its continued expansion, Whitman-Walker opened facilities in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, bought a building in Anacostia where it opened the Max Robinson Center, its first AIDS service facility located east of the Anacostia River.

In 1993, Whitman-Walker opened its Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center, named in honor of the famed actress turned AIDS activist, in another building it purchased at 14th and R Streets, N.W. The new facility received international press coverage when Taylor attended its opening ceremony that was carefully planned by Graham.

Jim Graham speaks with Elizabeth Taylor at the opening of the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center in 1993. (Washington Blade photo by Kristi Gasaway)

Graham resigned as executive director in January 1999 to take office as a member of the D.C. City Council, to which he was elected in November 1998. Around the time of his departure changes in the course of the AIDS epidemic began to take a financial toll on Whitman-Walker, according to those familiar with its operations at that time.

With scientific advances in anti-retroviral drugs that began to effectively curtail the virus in those who were infected, patients began to live longer and required more services for longer periods of time. The longstanding assumption that AIDS was a death sentence was replaced with the new world order that it had become a mostly non-fatal chronic disease.

While this was hailed as a wonderful development by Whitman-Walker’s large staff and vast network of programs and supporters, observers said it had an adverse impact on fundraising and other streams of income that the clinic and AIDS service group had relied upon for nearly 20 years.

As expenses for long-term treatment of patients increased, donations from the Whitman-Walker AIDS Walk, its largest single fundraising event, began to decline along with individual private donations. Some believed this was due in part to the assumption that the need to give money to AIDS causes was lessened due to the medical progress and improved treatments that stopped people from dying.

By 2005, Whitman-Walker faced its most serious financial crisis when news surfaced that it might not be able to make its payroll for the first time in its history. Part of the crisis stemmed from the dual developments of the city’s long bureaucratic delays in reimbursing health clinics, including Whitman-Walker, for health related services they provided for the city. At the same time, federal funds associated with the Ryan White CARE Act were curtailed or delayed.

The crisis prompted the board to close several programs, including its food bank and some of its sites in Virginia and Maryland. At the initiative of then-D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), who was one of two gay Council members at the time, the D.C. government provided a one-time grant of $3.2 million to Whitman-Walker, a development that some observers believed helped it avoid having to shut its doors entirely and possibly declare bankruptcy.

In the midst of these developments, Whitman-Walker’s board in late 2005 adopted a series of changes and reforms to strengthen its financial viability, including a decision to change its structure from a mostly AIDS service organization to a community health center known officially as a Federally Qualified Health Center.

The new structure, which took effect in 2006, immediately enabled Whitman-Walker to accept far more private and government health insurance plans, decreasing its reliance and dependence on private donations and government funding.

In March 2006, the board announced it had hired Blanchon to become the new executive director beginning May 1. Blanchon had formerly served as CEO of a managed care health plan in Maryland and as vice president for Medicaid and Medicare programs for a medical management company.

Whitman-Walker Health’s Don Blanchon attends the Walk to End HIV. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Some in the LGBT community initially expressed concern that Blanchon, with the board’s full approval, would turn Whitman-Walker into a less community oriented “HMO” using profit-making techniques to undo Whitman-Walker’s longstanding role as a progressive, LGBT clinic. But others, including Blanchon, argued that the changes were needed to enable Whitman-Walker to continue its longstanding mission while becoming far more financially secure.

By March 2007, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) approved Whitman-Walker’s designation as a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), a status that enabled it to accept private insurance and Medicaid from the large number of the patients it had been treating.

“We’re blessed in the District of Columbia to have 98 or 99 percent of the population with some type of health insurance,” Blanchon told the Blade in an interview last week. “And so it would be foolish if not irresponsible for Whitman-Walker not to take health insurance,” he said.

“If 99 out of 100 people who walk through the door have some kind of coverage – CareFirst, Medicare, Medicaid — why would we say we shouldn’t take that?” he said. “That’s crazy. That’s not a good use of people’s money.”

Blanchon noted that the decision by the board to become a Federally Qualified Health Center requires that Whitman-Walker take in and provide services to all people in the community and the city, not just members of the LGBT community. But he said that requirement does not and has not changed Whitman-Walker’s mission of serving as an LGBTQ community health center that’s open to everyone.

In the years following the 2005-2006 changes, Whitman-Walker rebounded financially to a point in 2010 when it closed its fiscal year with a surplus for the first time in a decade. In 2012, one year after it changed its name to Whitman-Walker Health, it announced it finished its fiscal year in 2011 with another still larger surplus.

Today, Blanchon says that while Whitman-Walker Health is in good financial shape it still faces hurdles as circumstances in the city and in the nation continue to change. With the aim of remaining financially strong and to continue to expand its services to more people in the LGBT and broader community, Blanchon notes that Whitman-Walker in recent years entered into arrangements to acquire its new, expanded medical building at 1515 14th Street, N.W., which it leases, and to redevelop the Elizabeth Taylor Building through a partnership with a real estate developer.

Whitman-Walker Health, gay news, Washington Blade

City officials attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Whitman-Walker Health’s new facility on June 4, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Taylor building site is currently being transformed into a large mixed use development, with space for Whitman-Walker along with residential apartments and retail and commercial space.

Blanchon points out that Whitman-Walker will remain the majority owner of the Taylor Building site while at the same time benefiting from the tremendous appreciation in its value brought about by the transformation of the 14th Street corridor in the years since Jim Graham helped orchestrate Whitman-Walker’s purchase of that building.

In addition to buying the building itself, Graham arranged a short time later for Whitman-Walker to buy two adjacent buildings and the land in the entire block on which the buildings were located.

While the benefit of the appreciation will help Whitman-Walker remain financially viable in the future, Blanchon said it has created what he says is a false image that Whitman-Walker no longer needs community donations and support because of “all this building we’re doing” between the Taylor Building project and the new leased building at 1515 14th Street, N.W.

“And the reality is nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. Among other things, Blanchon said income generated from the Taylor Building project will be used to expand and upgrade its presence east of the river in Anacostia. He said Whitman-Walker would soon be announcing plans for expanding the Max Robinson Center.

“So the board has made what I think is a really prudent decision,” he said. “This is completely a reinvestment of economic value…What we’re saying is this is analogous and it’s consistent with our values, which is we’ve benefited from something and we need to reinvest that in the next place where there is need.”

Abby Fenton, Whitman-Walker’s Chief External Affairs Officer, said Whitman-Walker would be announcing a series of events and activities scheduled for the coming months as part of an ongoing celebration of its anniversary, including an “anniversary gala” scheduled for Sept. 22.

Blanchon, meanwhile, said he was hopeful that the anniversary events will draw attention to Whitman-Walker’s future role in providing for healthcare needs of the LGBT community as well as its work in the past.

In discussing what he called the dark days of the AIDS epidemic Blanchon said people should never forget the role that Whitman-Walker’s many leaders, supporters, and volunteers played in responding to the epidemic.

“That is fundamentally one of the most compassionate and most human responses that you’ll ever see in the face of tragedy,” he said. “And it’s unbelievably powerful. It’s unbelievably emotive. It’s unbelievably sad and painful to so many of us.”

But while AIDS continues to be a serious problem facing D.C. and the nation, Blanchon said Whitman-Walker must adapt to the changes that have taken place over the past 20 years if it is to remain relevant to the community it serves.

“As poignant, as important as our community role was during the epidemic, with all due respect, we don’t live there now,” he said. “And that can’t solely define us anymore. We have to be defined by what the LGBTQ community needs from us now and in the future,” he continued. “And what are we willing to do with their continued support, financially, and their time, their talents? And it has to be about moving forward.”

Whitman-Walker’s 40th anniversary events

Whitman-Walker Health has released the following list of events it says it will hold this year between Jan. 20 and Oct. 27 to celebrate its 40th anniversary.


Jan. 20: 8-11 p.m. 40TH ANNIVERSARY DANCE PARTY – Dance party at Town to celebrate WWH’s birthday


Feb. 21: 8-10 a.m. MAX ROBINSON PANEL DISCUSSION – Join local journalists as they remember Max Robinson and also talk about their own careers as African-American reporters in D.C. The event will be held at the The Lincoln Theatre. Discussion will be moderated by Max Robinson’s former co-anchor Gordon Peterson. Panel will include Maureen Bunyan (confirmed).


May 23, 2018 GOING THE EXTRA MILE – Join us for our an annual cocktail reception at The Hamilton honoring our pro bono legal volunteers, recognizing our allies, and raising money to continue to provide free legal services to our underserved neighbors.


June 2, 2018 CAPITAL PRIDE WOMEN’S KICK-OFF PARTY at Big Chief with Mautner Project of Whitman-Walker Health


Sept. 22, 2018 40th ANNIVERSARY GALA Join us at the Marriott Marquis Hotel for our big event. An opening cocktail reception with passed hors d’oeuvres will kick off the evening. Following the reception, the gala will extend into a seated dinner and speaking program reflecting on our past, present and future.


Oct. 27, 2018 THE WALK TO END HIV Join us for our most important most fun fundraising event of the year. The Walk & 5K to End HIV is a fundraising walk and 5K timed run benefiting Whitman-Walker Health.


homepage news

New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings



The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

Continue Reading

homepage news

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund



Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
Continue Reading

Eastern Europe

Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move



Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

Continue Reading

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade