How American religious conservatives fought LGBT rights in Ukraine
US Christian conservatives have attempted to shape the country’s conversation on LGBT rights through their locally registered affiliates
- An investigation by “Bellingcat Anti-Equality Monitoring” suggests that Steve Weber, longtime head of the Ukrainian branch of the Christian Broadcasting Network, a US media juggernaut, initiated the creation of the “Alliance Ukraine for Family”, a “pro-family” umbrella organisation whose members run nationwide anti-LGBT campaigns and oppose anti-discriminatory changes to laws.
- Public records in Ukraine link Steve Weber to American veteran pastor turned lobbyist Dale Armstrong who in 2018 was involved in an effort to oust US Ambassador Yovanovitch.
- In 2015 CBN and American Pastors Network, a self-described “network of biblical and faith based pastors and church liaisons ” inserted themselves into the discussion about the possible introduction of marriage equality anti-discriminatory protections for LGBT people into Ukraine’s Constitution.
- CBN Ukraine introduced American conversion therapy practitioners to Ukraine through its CBN Family Academy project initiated by Weber. It remains active to this day.
- A CBN spokesman told Bellingcat that the network “regrets the lapse in oversight” regarding its Ukrainian affiliate
This year has seen several blows to LGBT rights in Ukraine. In June, the Law Enforcement committee of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, voted down a proposed law which would have enhanced liability for hate crimes and hate speech motivated by anti-LGBT bias or bias on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The following month, a draft bill was submitted to parliament proposing a ban on “homosexual propaganda”, a term used by opponents of LGBT rights to denote all and any LGBT events in public. “Participation in public LGBT life in Ukraine is becoming more dangerous,” concludes the 2020 report by the LGBT Human Rights Nash Mir Centre, a Ukrainian NGO.
Threats to the advance of LGBT rights in Ukraine, and activists come alongside growing ties between anti-LGBT forces and transnational religious conservative groups, who are uniting in common cause. While recent reports by Right Wing Watch, openDemocracy, Buzzfeed and others have drawn attention to the involvement of influential American conservatives in Ukraine, Bellingcat’s findings suggest that may play an even greater role than previously understood.
An investigation by Bellingcat conducted throughout 2019 and 2020 suggests that an important node in this new network is CBN Ukraine, the Ukrainian branch of the Christian Broadcasting Network, an American media giant.
In the years since Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution of 2014, American conservatives have inserted themselves into the country’s fierce debate around anti-discrimination laws. CBN Ukraine appears to have been instrumental in the launch of a sprawling umbrella organisation which unites Ukraine’s leading anti-LGBT actors, organising nationwide campaigns to ban LGBT events and struggling tooth and nail against legal protections for LGBT people.
Winning hearts and minds
According to its website, CBN “is a global ministry committed to preparing the nations of the world for the coming of Jesus Christ through mass media”. As a report by the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America put it, CBN is “the most established media empire in an ecosystem of conservative evangelical outlets”, which “provides credibility and material for more extreme actors in right-wing media” and a platform for anti-LGBT groups to push their narratives to a large audience.
It is also well-resourced: per CBN’s own financial records, as of 2019 the organisation had total assets worth US$243 million. According to its website, CBN “proclaim[s] the Good News in 149 countries and territories, with programs and content in 67 languages”.
One of those countries is Ukraine. The news network has been present in post-Soviet space since the early 1990s, where its activities were led by the American citizen Steve Weber, who stepped down from its role in early 2020 (however, according to CBN Ukraine Weber continues to work on “pro-family initiatives” he launched in the country).
CBN operates in Ukraine through Association Emmanuel (Асоціація Милосердя “Еммануїл” in Ukrainian), a local affiliate whose name is used interchangeably with CBN Ukraine throughout this article. According to Weber, by 2015 CBN Ukraine employed 150 people from Ukraine, with 90 percent of its budget coming from the USA and 10 percent from domestic sources.
Prior to that year, CBN Ukraine, Weber, and a group of religious conservative leaders in Ukraine busied themselves laying the foundations for Alliance Ukraine for Family (Громадська Спілка “Альянс “Україна за сім’ю” in Ukrainian), hereafter referred to as “the Alliance”. The Alliance would soon play an important role in various anti-LGBT initiatives in Ukraine; Weber’s involvement in the Alliance is attested both by Ukrainian anti-LGBT activists and CBN Ukraine’s own announcement in subsequent years.
The Alliance was formally founded by two Ukrainian NGOs, the All Together! Civic Movement (“Всі Разом!” in Ukrainian) and the Family Charitable Foundation (“Сім‘я” in Ukrainian). These organisations are led by Ruslan Kukharchuk and Adrian Bukovynsky respectively, influential anti-LGBT activists who have consistently advocated a ban on “homosexual propaganda”. They found an important ally in Pavlo Unguryan, a member of the Ukrainian parliament representing the Motherland Bloc (2008-2012) and then the People’s Front Party (2014-2019). Unguryan co-authored one of several bills to support such a ban and backed related proposals. Unguryan has been one of the Alliance’s most visible representatives in recent years; in an interview with Bellingcat last year, the Alliance’s director Vladislav Sila described Unguryan as one of its prominent members who represented the organisation publicly at “family-themed events”.
The Alliance, which claims to unite “more than 150 pro-family organisations”, appears to have made its mark on the anti-LGBT movement in Ukraine. A proposed “National Family Strategy” developed by the Alliance states a goal to “prevent the passage of laws and amendments to them which directly or indirectly violate the interests of the natural family”. Notably, in July 2017 CBN Ukraine published a press release from Unguryan’s office about the unveiling of the strategy.
For several years, members of the Alliance organised influential National Family Forum events which were attended by top state officials, alongside clerics and other prominent civic figures. For example, the 2019 National Family Forum was attended by the Ukrainian president and a host of religious and public figures. It resulted in a resolution which called on the government of Ukraine to “render impossible propaganda of deviant behaviour” at public events accessible to children and teenagers, “stop attempts to ratify” the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, and remove the terms “sexual orientation”, “gender” and their derivations from laws, regulations and stop using them in education.
Until 2019, the Alliance was also part of the expert council of a cross-party parliamentary group dedicated to the “spirituality, morality, and health of Ukraine”. The group was led by the aforementioned Pavlo Unguryan, who is no longer an elected parliamentarian, and at one point reportedly had over 100 members; it appears to now be inactive.
Meanwhile the All Together Civic Movement, one of the Alliance’s two founding organisations, currently leads a nationwide anti-LGBT campaign active since at least 2015 which has in recent years resulted in dozens of local councils across Ukraine adopting near-identical resolutions based on a template provided by All Together. These demand that the government remove the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from laws and official documents, reiterate calls to ban “propaganda of deviant sexual behaviour”. They also demand to preserve the current definition of marriage in the Constitution of Ukraine as a union between a man and a woman.
Notably, a 2015 report on Kukharchuk’s site, suggests involvement of the Alliance at the earlier stages of the campaign, showing the director of the Alliance Sila and one of its prominent members Orlov, alongside Kukarchuk at a protest in front of Ukraine’s parliament on July 15 where demands “to ban propaganda of homosex [sic]” and others were voiced. In a video interview given during the rally, Kukharchuk referred to the Alliance as its organiser.
In 2020, All Together led a campaign to thwart the recent bill (3316) proposing protections from hate crimes on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. The parliament’s law enforcement committee recommended that the bill be rejected, citing opposition from religious groups and NGOs as a justification. Following that success, All Together has since moved on to campaign in support of another bill (3917) banning “homosexual propaganda”.
Another sign of the prominent role members and founders of the Alliance play in Ukrainian politics is Kukharchuk and Unguryan’s involvement, albeit in a personal capacity, in the supreme governing body of the influential religious conservative organisation Sobor (Собор in Ukrainian), which supported the 2019 National Family Forum. Sobor is co-led by Oleksandr Turchynov, who served as acting President of Ukraine in 2014 and led the country’s National Security and Defence Council from 2014 to 2019. Turchynov, once a baptist pastor, continues to play a role in Ukrainian politics, and reportedly leads the “crisis centre” of the European Solidarity party of former President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. Sobor’s website lists Unguryan as Turchynov’s “first deputy” and Kucharchuk as his “deputy” in the organisation.
Sobor’s name can be translated as both “cathedral” and “union”. It is an umbrella organisation which describes itself as a coalition of Ukraine’s most influential evangelical and Protestant churches, launched between late 2018 and early 2019 in order to “preserve and spread Christian values in Ukrainian society and counter the total offensive of immorality and other negative phenomena threatening our country’s future.” One of its stated goals is to “decisively counter the obtrusion of gender and LGBT ideology upon Ukrainian society.”
Turchynov has worked hard to that end. This June, in his capacity as leader of Sobor, the former acting president of Ukraine spoke against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on the grounds that it “creates unjustified advantages for LGBT communities” and “destroys family values traditional for the Ukrainian people”. Rejecting same-sex marriage, he added, was “God’s position”. Accordingly, Sobor also opposed the recent bill (3316) on the definition of hate crimes.
With links of this calibre it may not be surprising that prominent members of the Alliance also enjoy international connections, among them several high-profile American evangelicals. In recent years they have appeared at public events alongside the likes of Ralph Drollinger (described by Right Wing Watch as “the Trump cabinet’s Bible study teacher”) and Brian Brown, president of the World Congress of Families. The latter also described Unguryan as his “new friend” in a March 2019 Facebook post.
Pavlo Unguryan is something of a fixture at National Prayer Breakfasts at Washington DC and runs a Ukrainian version of the event. In a December 2019 interview, Unguryan said that he was first invited to the US National Prayer Breakfast in the USA under President George W Bush.
He has met American politicians known for their evangelical stances, such as Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback whose confirmation in 2018 drew criticism from LGBT rights groups. Unguryan has also met Bob McEwen, leader of the Republican-aligned conservative Council for National Policy (CNP), boasting in a 2019 interview of attending a CNP meeting in the USA and inviting McEwen and Republican Congressman Tim Walberg to his own Prayer Breakfast in Ukraine.
Unguryan continues to break bread with new friends in high places: this year, he appeared at the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, and appears in photos from the event alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
“You’re a role model for me!”
Government records indicate that the Alliance is registered at Velyka Vasylkivska Street 131-A, in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. This also happens to be the exact address of CBN’s Ukrainian headquarters. But it is more than a shared address which links the two organisations.
Steve Weber, CBN’s longtime head in the post-Soviet space, is not mentioned in official records related to the creation of the Alliance. However, CBN’s Ukraine branch (not to mention other conservative religious media outlets in Ukraine) have consistently stated over the years that Weber played a crucial role in the launch of the Alliance.
Weber’s opposition towards LGBT rights is well-documented. In 2013, he told Russia’s TBN TV channel, a partner of CBN Ukraine at the time, that “same-sex marriage may become the first step towards vice. It would be natural if people started to wonder why they can’t marry their mother, sister, or brother. We’re free, so why can’t we marry our favourite dog?”
In a speech opening the All Together forum in 2018, Weber encouraged the crowd to use their “workplaces” to achieve influence over society, an approach apparently encouraged by CBN Ukraine. He referenced the “Seven Mountains” which according to Right Wing Watch refers to seven spheres of influence (government, media, business, entertainment, arts, family, and religion). Weber stressed that a “different” Ukraine would appear once Christians ascended “every mountain [of influence]” in the country, citing the USA as a troubling precedent in the case of failure. “We’re talking about the last 30 years. In the arts, they bombarded [viewers] with movie after movie where they showed them as ordinary people who just love each other… Then all of a sudden we have the  Supreme Court ruling that we have to change the meaning of the word ‘marriage’” lamented Weber.
“Civic organisations have come together to form the national movement ‘Ukraine for Family’, reads a July 2014 entry on CBN Ukraine’s website, listing “Association Emmanuel” (CBN Ukraine) among the participants of the founding meeting alongside groups led by Kukharchuk and Bukovynsky, including Kukharchuk’s tellingly-named “Love against Homosexuality” group, and others. The same entry acknowledged the movement’s intention to “work with public opinion”, “cooperate with” the authorities, and “expose the strategies of the LGBT movement”. That entry also stated that the “union” was “informal” at the time and was created to “consolidate efforts and form a common agenda”.
Moreover, in early 2015, CBN’s Ukraine Digest listed the creation of the Alliance as a “major accomplishment” of 2014, stating that “Steve Weber, the president of Association Emmanuel participated in the founding of the Alliance Ukraine for the Family”. Meanwhile the Russian version of the same digest stated that the group was created “on the initiative of the President of the Emmanuel Association Steve Weber.” That same year, an April 2015 statement from CBN Ukraine’s press office publicised the “official presentation” of the Alliance, describing Weber as “the initiator of [its] creation”. Weber also gave a speech at the event in which he declared that homosexuality “kills families and entire countries”. Per public records, the Alliance was formally registered in Ukraine in September 2015.
Likewise, CBN Ukraine’s website also contained an undated entry dedicated exclusively to the Alliance, crediting Weber with initiating the group created in order to “advance family values.” These acknowledgements of Weber as “initiator” of the Alliance continued over the years, including in an early 2019 article on CBN Ukraine’s website.
At the time of the Alliance’s creation, CBN Ukraine already had lasting ties to the country’s key anti-LGBT figures. For example, Unguryan spoke at CBN Ukraine’s 20th anniversary in 2012, while Kukharchuk worked for CBN Ukraine as a video anchor.
“You’re a role model for me!” wrote Kukharchuk in a Telegram post on April 2 this year in which he praises Weber and notes that they first met in 2004. “Steve has always been somewhere nearby […] If somebody asked me to paint a portrait of a Christian, I’d send them over to meet Steve Weber”, he continued.
The admiration appears to be mutual. “It’s been a blessing to call you my friend,” Weber wrote to Kukharchuk in a Facebook post in 2012, the same year when the latter was pushing for a ban against “homosexual propaganda”.
One avenue of cooperation between CBN Ukraine and Kukharchuk has been the latter’s “Novomedia forum, an annual event first held in 2011 on the initiative of the Novomedia Association of Journalists. This association, founded by Kukharchuk in 2004, states among its goals the “facilitation of the assertion of Christian ethics in society through media”.
The Novomedia forum links top Ukrainian media figures with religious conservatives from Ukraine and abroad. A 2018 report by openDemocracy described the forum as “illustrative of the communications strategies of internationally-connected ultra-conservatives.” The forum’s website lists CBN-Emmanuel as a “friend of the forum” and CBN Ukraine’s site mentions that it was a “strategic partner” for the 2015 Novomedia forum. Weber and senior CBN Ukraine figures have presented at the event.
In the aforementioned April 2020 Telegram, post Kukharchuk described Weber’s involvement in the Novomedia forum and the Novomedia” Association of Journalists. “I met Steve and got acquainted with him in 2004 when I started out with the Novomedia Association of Journalists,” wrote Kukharchuk. “We met, talked, I invited him to our first conference. Since then he has been a regular participant of Novomedia events – as a speaker and partner”.
Thus Kukharchuk’s charm offensive, with a little help from CBN, has been a success. In November 2019, Iuliia Mendel, the spokeswoman for the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, was present at the Novomedia forum” as a guest speaker. Furthermore, Mendel presented an award at a Novomedia Awards ceremony that apparently coincided with the forum, according to the Novomedia Association’s website.
Bringing conversion therapy to Ukraine
CBN Ukraine’s activities concerning LGBT rights in Ukraine involved other local actors beyond the Alliance. In 2014, Steve Weber launched the Territory of Responsibility project, which was renamed the CBN Family Academy in 2019. The project runs the “Restoring Wholeness” School of Counselling, which focuses on “helping LGBT people restore their identity in Christ”. Weber is the chair of the organisation’s board. According to CBN Family Academy site, Weber believes that “sex is a gift of God intended per the original design for the marriage between a man and a woman” and that sexual problems can be “solved through restoration of personal wholeness”.
The Territory of Responsibility project saw CBN Family Academy cooperate with Restoring Wholeness Ministries, an Arizona-based organisation which believes that “heterosexuality is God’s original intent for our sexuality, and anything outside this relationship framework is a brokenness which can be restored”.
Restoring Wholeness Ministries is a member of the Restored Hope Network, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an example of “conversion therapy practitioners and supporters […] simply rebranding under new names”. The liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America describes this network as “a coalition of ministries across the country the promote and practice conversion therapy”.
Initiatives like these have been roundly criticised by international organisations. In June 2020, the United Nations released a report calling for a ban on conversion therapy, describing the practice as “inherently degrading and discriminatory” and rooted in the belief that LGBT people are inferiior and must modify their identity to remedy that supposed inferiority.
For its part, the Restored Hope Network protests that neither it nor its members or affiliates practice “conversion therapy”, which it dismisses as an “ideological term used by the LGBTQ activist community and their supporters who seek to link compassionate spiritual care and talk therapy with horrible, clearly disreputable practices”. According to Media Matters, the Restored Hope Network instead promotes the practice using the euphemism “change allowing counselling”.
Restoring Wholeness Ministries’ involvement with CBN in Ukraine goes back at least to 2014 when its Director Wynn Cameron Thompson participated in the then Territory of Responsibility (now CBN Family Academy) event in Kyiv. Thompson visited the country on several occasions, contributing to CBN Ukraine’s efforts aimed at LGBT people. Notably, in June 2018, Thompson visited Ukraine to attend a CBN Family Academy roundtable discussion entitled “LGBT: Chase them away, acknowledge them, or help them?” It included a presentation by Kukharchuk on “homo-propaganda” in which he stated his belief that homosexuality was a “mental disorder” and a “national security threat”.
“Most of these people don’t feel remorse”, Kukharchuk told the crowd assembled by CBN Ukraine’s Territory of Responsibility. “They feel no need to be liberated… [They want to] aggressively force [homosexuality] upon your kids in schools and kindergartens because they’re incapable of reproduction. So their main goal is to get new, fresh meat into the constantly dying community of homosexuals,” he continued.
In 2019 Cameron Thompson went to Ukraine with a “mission trip” that, he wrote, included speaking “at the CBN Chapel and then a live webinar on children and LGBTQ”. Thompson wrote that during the trip he spent time in Kyiv on the invitation of Steve Weber, adding a photo with the CBN’s top man in Ukraine.
Thompson’s work appears to be continuing apace in 2020. He recently wrote that in the second quarter of this year, he gave online lessons to “a group of around 30 non Christian sexologists in Ukraine on understanding same-sex attraction.” This was likely in reference to his lecture to the Association of Sexologists and Sex Therapists of Ukraine on “working with homosexuals”. According to the same association’s post on Facebook, working with individuals “who want to change their sexual proclivities” was discussed.
The association itself appears to be aligned with anti-LGBT groups with ties to CBN Ukraine. For example, its executive director Mykhailo Shevchenko is described as a “resident” by the Cabinet of Experts, a project of Kukharchuk’s aforementioned anti-LGBT organisation All Together, which apparently seeks to promote carefully curated anti-LGBT “experts” in Ukrainian media. In a March 23 interview published by All Together, Shevchenko described the concept of gender as a “marketing ploy for political groupings” adding that “Western funds give grants if they hear [an applicant using the word] gender”.
When compared to statements by its head Svitlana Iskruk, CBN Family Academy’s stated goal of helping LGBT people “restore their identity in Christ” sounds less confrontational.
Commenting on the Kyiv Pride Parade in June 2018 Iskruk, a longtime associate of Weber who also uses the surname Kucherenko, fumed about the participation of foreign diplomats in the march. “The US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and 40 diplomats from different countries participate in this ‘march’. This is definitely not a Ukrainian event, it’s an act of intrusion…” wrote Iskruk in a June 17 Facebook post that year.
In a public Facebook post on June 20, 2018, Iskruk urged to “defend children from the LGBT and gender ideology”, calling for a protest in front of Ukraine’s parliament two days later. The protest happened to be organised by Vitaliy Orlov, a prominent member of the Alliance.
Two days later, Iskruk interviewed Orlov, who called on the government to ban pride parades and “homosexual propaganda”. CBN Ukraine published a video of their discussion on its Facebook page, which was viewed thousands of times.
“A seedbed for conservative values”
Public records also tie CBN’s Weber to another American actor who targeted LGBT rights in Ukraine. Weber, per public records, sits on the board of the Armada Union (Об’єднання Армада in Ukrainian), an organisation co-founded in 2015 and led by Dale Armstrong, a veteran American pastor turned lobbyist. That organisation also lists Vasylkivska 131-A as its official address. The Armada Union is affiliated with the Armada Network, an international “apostolic ministry” led by Armstrong. Armstrong, who has been active in Ukraine for many years, has also been involved with another local organisation, Our Right (Наше Право in Ukrainian) which also lists Velyka Vasylkivska 131-A as its official address.
Armstrong serves as the international director of the American Pastors’ Network (APN), whose president Sam Rohrer in September 2019 described the LGBT rights movement as “aggressive and well-financed”, with “strong influence over gate-keeping positions in media, law, entertainment, and education.” According to Right Wing Watch Rohrer, who visited Ukraine several time over the years, believes that the US Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling against discrimination on the basis of sexuality invites God’s judgment.
In early 2020, Buzzfeed reported that Armstrong had played a role two years previously in passing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter from Ukrainian Christian groups demanding the firing of then ambassador Marie Yovanovitch due to her support for LGBT rights in Ukraine. Among the signatories of the letter presented in the Buzzfeed article were the Alliance, Kukharchuk’s All Together, and Bukovynsky’s Family Charitable Foundation.
Furthermore, in a July 2019 blog post which was later deleted, Armstrong elaborated on the Yovanovitch letter and alleged that he had friendly meetings with Ukraine’s influential Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, former Acting President Turchynov, Republican Senator Rob Portman, among other Ukrainian and US officials.
Armstrong’s post is important as it documents his focus on engaging with Ukrainian officials and cultivating new leaders for the country. To this end, he adds that his Our Right NGO was created “to work specifically in civil government” and that the Armada Union was created “in order to have an organization where we can develop these new leaders”.
In one instance, writing about another lecture he gave on “God and Government” while “literally 30 kilometers from the front line”, Armstrong described his audience of Ukrainian students as “the seedbed of conservative values which will preserve and bring revival to eastern Europe and Europe as a whole”.
“Our politicians must recognize that the liberal threat of Europe to the West is just as real and equal an Enemy as the Russian Bear to the East”, Armstrong also wrote in the post.
The pastor is candid about his plans for Ukraine. “Representative government has to become aligned with Biblical principles,” he stated in a 2015 speech. While it may not be possible to verify all the meetings Armstrong mentions in his blog post, public records confirm that he has some prominent connections. Per public sources, Our Right is led, and Armada was represented during the registration process by Vitaliy Hren, the well connected founder of the Association of Christian Jurists of Ukraine, who is now a member of Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission.
A constitutional controversy
If demanding the dismissal of the US ambassador seemed a bold move, Armstrong and his fellow travellers had even more ambitious plans. In the years running up to the open letter, they took their fight against LGBT rights to one of the highest stakes battles in Ukrainian politics: constitutional reform.
When then President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko appointed a commission to assess possible constitutional amendments in March 2015, the anti-LGBT lobby mobilised.
In June of that year, CBN Ukraine sponsored a high-profile conference on constitutional reform and Ukraine’s “civilisational choice” which targeted Ukrainian lawmakers, government officials, and Ukrainian diplomats. The conference was an opportunity for representatives of the international Christian conservative right, including Armstrong, to rub shoulders with influential people in Ukrainian society. Among them was Ukraine’s first President Leonid Kravchuk, then a member of Poroshenko’s constitutional commission. Attendees were treated to a speech by John Eidsmoe, a conservative legal scholar from the Foundation for Moral Law. The organisation was founded by Roy Moore, a vehement opponent of same-sex marriage who, according to CNN, said in 2005 that “homosexual conduct” should be illegal.
“Your Constitution, Article 51, provides that ‘Marriage is based on the free consent of a woman and a man.’ Unfortunately, the United States Constitution contains no such provision, and as a result, the definition of marriage has been the subject of much consternation in America”, said Eidsmoe in his speech.
Eidsmoe did not respond to Bellingcat’s requests for comment on his involvement in the “pro-family movement” in Ukraine. But according to the website of the American Pastors’ Network (APN), his participation in the conference was part of APN’s “ongoing Biblical and constitutional assistance” to Ukraine, in which APN’s President Sam Rohrer also played a role. The APN team “met with members of the media, constitutional lawyers, members of parliament and key political figures on the essential elements regarding the writing of a new constitution”, explained the APN’s site.
In fact, the APN even reached out to the next generation of Ukrainian politicians and public figures. In late August of 2015, Armstrong’s Our Right organised an essay competition for Ukrainian students entitled “Why does Ukraine need a new constitution”. It was announced by none other than Vitaliy Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv and former world heavyweight boxing champion.
The website of Klitschko’s political party Udar and that of Kyiv’s city administration described Our Right as the event’s organiser. “The purpose of this contest is to find talented, smart and creative young people, who will in the future become leaders in various spheres of society and will benefit Ukraine”, Klitschko said, according to Udar’s site.
However, APN presented the contest in a different light, writing in September 2015, that it “planned an essay contest for high school seniors and college students, in an effort to help them understand the biblical principles behind the U.S. Constitution”.
Udar’s and Kyiv’s city administration sites also wrote that the contest was supported by the American International Republican Institute (IRI) in Ukraine and the local NGO Chesno, among others.
Whether or not the contestants saw it that way, APN appeared to play a leading role in the contest; in late October 2015 the winners were greeted on stage by APN’s President Sam Rohrer, in a ceremony at Kyiv City Council’s Column Hall attended by Volodymyr Stretovych, one of the co-authors of the Ukrainian constitution. The ceremony was even presented by the late legal scholar Viktor Musiyaka, then a member of the constitutional commission. CBN Ukraine’s Steve Weber was in the front row at the ceremony. According to Our Right, over 50 winners of the contest received monetary prizes.
The winners and finalists were treated to a speech by David Barton, a prominent figure on the American religious right. In a glowing Facebook post, Barton wrote that Ukrainian students were awarded for “for their contributions to the movement to create a new constitution here — one built on Godly values and the rule of law, modelling much of the original intent of the American constitution”.
Notably, weeks after the award ceremony, Our Right thanked CBN’s Weber in a Facebook post dedicated to the event. “A special thanks to David Barton, Sam Rohrer and Steve Weber for sharing their lives and ministries with us!”, Our Right wrote.
As the year dragged on, so did politicking over constitutional reform. In September, 40 members of the US congress urged the Ukrainian parliament to support anti-discrimination protections on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Rohrer was outraged.
“This recurring effort to leverage other sovereign nations to embrace the LGBT agenda as equal to fundamental God-given natural rights is arrogant and misdirected”, he fumed. “Do they even care what God thinks of the USA urging the acceptance of the LGBT agenda by an entire country? [Do they think] He will stand idly by?”
The Alliance also kept busy during this period. In December 2015 its director Vladislav Sila and Kukharchuk participated in a high-profile conference (entitled “the status of minorities and indigenous peoples in Ukrainian law in the context of the preparation of proposed changes and additions to the Constitution of Ukraine”) on constitutional reform led by Deputy Head of the Constitutional Commission Volodymyr Butkevych and sponsored by USAID. According to a transcript of the event seen by Bellingcat, they introduced themselves as representatives of the Alliance and categorically opposed all suggestions of marriage equality and the inclusion of the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the constitution.
Although it is hard to assess if efforts detailed above played a role, or to what extent, anti-discrimination provisions to the Constitution were shelved, despite support from human rights groups.
United for division
Bellingcat’s findings should inform a deeper understanding of anti-LGBT actors in Ukraine and their ties to like-minded American groups. Many of these individuals are touted and promoted at high profile conservative events in the USA; American religious conservatives visit Ukraine to return the favour. These appearances with American legislators, officials, and private donors are being used by anti-LGBT actors to boost their standing inside Ukraine, aiding their ability to network and advance their cause.
CBN declined Bellingcat’s request for an interview with Steve Weber. CBN spokesman Chris Roslan, who responded to Bellingcat’s requests for comment, stated that the organisation had not been aware of Weber’s involvement with the Alliance and anti-LGBT figures in Ukraine until Bellingcat brought them to their attention.
“CBN regrets the lapse in oversight regarding the Ukraine office that led to an erosion of standards and breakdown in best practices. We have taken immediate steps to rectify the matter in the Ukraine [sic] and to ensure this does not happen again. These measures include an in-depth review of our internal practices and policies with every CBN office worldwide”, read the network’s response.
In February 2020, per a CBN Ukraine Facebook post, Weber was replaced by Kostyantyn Lytvynenko as the head of the CBN Ukrainian office.
Roslan told Bellingcat that Weber was only involved with the predecessor to the Alliance. According to CBN, “around 2013, Steve initiated, in part, an informal gathering of roughly 15 charities and public service organizations with the aim of strengthening families in Ukraine”. That movement and the Alliance “are two different things”, stressed CBN.
Furthermore, CBN’s head office continued, “roughly a year after Steven initiated the informal Ukraine for Family Movement, another group stemming from that gathering registered a new NGO (Alliance Ukraine for Family Civic Union) with the Ukrainian government”. The organisation apologised “for taking part in the initial meetings”.
When asked why CBN Ukraine shared an address in Kyiv with the Alliance, CBN responded that it merely leased office space to the organisation. Furthermore, while CBN admitted that Weber had spoken at public events alongside Unguryan, Bukovynsky, and Kukharchuk, it emphasised that they “have no affiliation with CBN”.
In a telephone conversation with Bellingcat in late 2019, the Alliance’s director Vladislav Sila confirmed that his organisation did indeed rent office space from CBN, which offered “very favourable terms” (Sila had not provided Bellingcat with a copy of the rental agreement by the time of publication).
Sila stated that he initiated the creation of the Alliance and invited Weber to join at an early stage. Weber seldom took part in its meetings, Sila continued, but was a “constructive” presence when he did. Sila acknowledged that Weber “published information” on “his electronic resources” at the Alliance’s request and provided the Alliance with premises to hold meetings, among other assistance.
Its director went on to describe the Alliance as an “amorphous” organisation whose members have differing views of “pro-family movements and values”. Accordingly, Sila explained that while some projects such as the “Family Forums” or “National Family Strategy” may be publicly attributed to or associated with the Alliance, they are not necessarily backed by all its members nor represent a unanimous position. Members of the Alliance may back whatever initiatives they see fit, or decide to opt out: “It’s purely voluntary”, Sila told Bellingcat.
Sila stated that LGBT [sic] was a divisive issue for the Alliance.
Weber advocated a “more balanced approach”, added Sila: “Steve said that instead of attacking [LGBT people] it was important to help families”.
In contrast, Sila continued, some in the Alliance believed that Kukharchuk’s “harsh” stance on the issue “created conflict” and reflected negatively on the organisation.
Kukharchuk told Bellingcat in late 2019 in a telephone conversation that Weber was part of “a group of people” which initiated the Alliance alongside himself, Bukovynsky, Vitaly Orlov and several others. He described Weber and the Emmanuel Association as “our friends”, describing Weber as “integrated” into the “pro-family context” and involved “in one way or another in some organisational processes” concerning the Alliance. However, Kukharchuk also claimed that neither Weber nor CBN Ukraine played any decisive role in the Alliance and emphasised that Weber is “not involved in socio-political processes at all […] It is other people and organisations that are involved in the public activities and street events”.
A convinced anti-LGBT firebrand, Kukharchuk stressed in his comments to Bellingcat that Ukraine’s “pro-family” religious organisations were merely reacting to LGBT “aggression” which threatens “the rights of people and basic freedoms”. He then claimed that religious conservatives countering LGBT rights represented the majority of Ukrainians.
Kukharchuk’s goal, as he put it, is an “independent, sovereign” Ukraine influenced by Christian values. The leader of All Together stressed that he has no need of borrowing ideas from abroad: neither American religious conservatives nor the Kremlin. In fact, he continued, his efforts to ban “homosexual propaganda” in Ukraine actually predated similar efforts in Russia, which passed a law against “gay propaganda” in 2013.
“This isn’t copying the Russian experience. I don’t know if they’ve arrived at this on their own or if they copied the Ukrainian experience, but it was definitely not the other way around”, he declared.
He is equally dismissive of the idea that American religious conservatives played any formative role in Ukraine’s anti-LGBT movement.
“This is a uniquely Ukrainian story”, Kukharchuk told Bellingcat.
Some information on APN’s activities in Ukraine, including ties between Armstrong’s Armada Union and CBN’s Weber, etc. were also reported by the Ukrainian LGBT Portal. Bellingcat would like to acknowledge the importance of their findings, which we were able to independently verify for this report.