Passport

How Sexual Profiteers Are Trying to Cash in on Ukraine's Misery

When every single editor of an Internet publication receives a press release claiming that growing numbers of eastern European women are seeking the protection of Western "sugar daddies" because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it's a difficult thing to ignore.

So it was this week when SugarDaddyForMe.com sent nearly the entire staff of Foreign Policy an email with a decidely explosive headline: "Crimea Crisis Triggers Flood of Women from Eastern Europe Seeking Sugar Daddies, According to Dating Website." The press release went on to say that the women were leaving because of "the current geopolitical environment" -- a clear nod to the chaos in Ukraine since Russia sent troops into Crimea in late February and early March.

For a textbook example about how to make a buck off of resurgent Russian militarism and human desperation, look no further.

SugarDaddyForMe is a site that does exactly what its name implies. It serves as a portal for women seeking men hoping to "spoil" them. In exchange, women are encouraged to do the same for the male clientele. The site is quick to caution that it doesn't condone prostitution, but its intent is easy to discern: Women seeking cash and perhaps companionship can use the site to find what might be generously described as "doting" men. "Predatory" might suffice as a harsher, but more accurate, description.

"SugarDaddyForMe brings together successful, generous sugar daddies and attractive young sugar babies that love to be pampered and supported," the company writes on its website. "A sugar relationship is very simply a relationship based upon mutual spoiling...and what's wrong with that?"

According to statistics provided by the company, women in Ukraine have flocked to the site during the month of March. In December and January, roughly 200 women -- "sugar babies," in the parlance of the site -- signed up in each of the two months. In February, when protesters forced the resignation of former President Viktor Yanukovych, 314 women signed up. In March, after Russian troops took control of Crimea, that number jumped to 593.

The site won't say it outright, but the obvious implication is that Ukrainian women are fleeing Russian troops and trying to leap into the waiting arms of Western sugar daddies. "The crisis in eastern Europe points out only one of the many situations causing economic insecurity that women all around the world and right here in the U.S. often still face today," Gautam Sharma, the site's founder, says in the press release. "And the assistance of a supportive man can sometimes be of great value and comfort to a woman in her time of need. A Sugar Daddy can provide a safe haven for a woman when she has nowhere else to turn. He can be a mentor and help someone he cares for get back on their feet to start a more successful and happier life, and what's wrong with that?"

That last rhetorical question, both anticipating backlash and inviting the reader to whitewash the enterprise, seems a favorite of the site's communications strategists.

Critics of sites such as SugarDaddyForMe describe them as hubs for sex trafficking, a charge they vehemently reject. Whether these sites in fact encourage trafficking -- whether there is in fact anything "wrong with that" -- turns on the nature of the relationships between sugar daddies and sugar babies. Incredibly, Peter Stolz, the site manager for SugarDaddyForMe, offered to provide FP with chat transcripts between the site's users and prospective sugar babies in Ukraine. But those conversations -- the veracity of which can't be verified -- don't quite paint a picture of desperate women seeking a way out of warzone. In one such conversation, a woman from Odessa informs an American man that she has been living "dangerously" since Russia invaded -- and, yes, she puts the word dangerously in scare quotes.

Sugarbaby wrote: (Thu, 20 Mar 2014 02:54:42 -0700)
how are you?

Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 00:39:23 -0700)
I am great how about you?

Sugarbaby wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 01:58:20 -0700)
i'm good, thanks. where do you live? you can write to: XXXXXX@yahoo.com

Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 02:15:58 -0700)
I live in Phoenix Arizona. How about you? I see you're from Ukraine.

Sugarbaby wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 03:12:08 -0700)
I live in Odessa. close to Crimea (you might have heard about the situation in the area). I would love to see Phoenix.  what do you do every day?

Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 04:46:50 -0700)
I have fun every day and what about you?

Sugarbaby wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 08:58:37 -0700)
every day is different. lately I live "dangerously". with the Russian military in the area and all. do you want to meet?

Sugardaddy wrote: (Fri, 21 Mar 2014 09:22:18 -0700)
Sure that would be nice

We know very little about this woman from Odessa and whether things worked out with her sugar daddy. We also don't know with certainty whether she in fact used the word "dangerously" in an ironic sense. It's difficult to read any other way, but perhaps she meant it in earnest.

What we do know is that a bunch of Internet entrepreneurs were willing to share a private conversation involving a potentially vulnerable woman to market their site. Many words come to mind when thinking about how to describe that. "Shameless" may be the best one, and we don't mean it ironically.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Ukraine has had very real humanitarian impacts. Thousands of refugees have left Crimea in recent weeks, particularly ethnic Tatars. The Ukrainian government has gone so far as to set up a hotline for individuals looking to leave the peninsula. Many of those fleeing Crimea have made their way to Western Ukraine. Authorities in the city of Lvov report that some 2,000 have already requested temporary residency there.

But the proprietors of SugarDaddyForMe don't seem too concerned about the appearance of attempting to cash in on a humanitarian crisis. "We are a for-profit business after all," Stolz wrote in an email.

Let this be your postcard from a moment in late-stage capitalism, circa April 2014.

sugardaddyforme.com

Passport

‘Cuban Twitter’ and Other Times USAID Pretended To Be an Intelligence Agency

Foreign governments have long accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of being a front for the CIA or other groups dedicated to their collapse. In the case of Cuba, they appear to have been right.

In an eye-opening display of incompetence, the United States covertly launched a social media platform in Cuba in 2010, hoping to create a Twitter-like service that would spark a "Cuban Spring" and potentially help bring about the collapse of the island's Communist government.

According to an Associated Press investigation, the project ultimately failed to foment political unrest, but it did turn out to be a useful way for Havana to secretly gather intelligence on the political leanings of the 40,000 Cubans who used it. It was a digital Bay of Pigs, but it was funded by USAID, an arm of the government dedicated to doing good work in bad places, not by the CIA.

Though better known for administering humanitarian aid around the world, USAID has a long history of engaging in intelligence work and meddling in the domestic politics of aid recipients. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the agency often partnered with the CIA's now-shuttered Office of Public Safety, a department beset by allegations that it trained foreign police in "terror and torture techniques" and encouraged official brutality, according to a 1976 Government Accountability Office report. USAID officials have always denied these accusations but in 1973, Congress directed USAID to phase out its public safety program -- which worked with the CIA to train foreign police forces -- in large part because the accusations were hurting America's public image. "It matters little whether the charges can be substantiated," said a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report. "They inevitably stigmatize the total United States foreign aid effort." By the time the program was closed, USAID had helped train thousands of military personnel and police officers in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries now notorious for their treatment of political dissidents.

Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID, defended the Cuba program Thursday, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. "Sometimes the work we carry out is carried out discreetly, in the context of keeping the people who are doing this work safe," he said. "It doesn't make it covert, but it does make it discreet." Meanwhile, agency spokespeople have repeatedly insisted that USAID is "a development agency, not an intelligence agency."

In recent years, USAID's alleged political meddling has been more subtle. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez frequently and famously accused the United States of covertly trying to overthrow him, but only after his death did evidence emerge to support his seemingly paranoid claims. A WikiLeaks cable released in 2013 outlined the U.S. strategy for undermining Chavez's government by "penetrating Chavez's political base," "dividing Chavismo," and "isolating Chavez internationally." The strategy was to be carried out by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, the same office responsible for developing "Cuban Twitter," and involved funding opposition organizations in Venezuela.

USAID's previous efforts to potentially weaken Cuban President Raul Castro's hold on power came to light in 2009, when Cuban authorities arrested USAID contractor Alan Gross and later convicted him for "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state." Gross had been secretly outfitting the island's small Jewish community with communications and satellite equipment as part of a program funded by USAID. Castro called Gross a spy, which wasn't true, but bringing in the equipment broke Cuban laws regulating their citizens' Internet access. During his 2011 trial, Gross characterized himself as "a trusting fool" who had been manipulated by his employers. "I was duped. I was used. And my family and I have paid dearly for this," he said. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison anyway.

These incidents have fed a narrative, embraced by some foreign governments, that USAID acts as a cover for U.S. intelligence programs. In recent years, an array of countries have accused USAID of interfering in their domestic politics or attempting to undermine their power. In 2013, Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled USAID officials from his country on the grounds that the agency had conspired against his government by allegedly "manipulating" social movements in the country. He also charged that that a previous USAID program that sought to help coca farms switch to new crops was politically motivated.

Russia expelled the agency in 2012 for similar reasons. Its foreign ministry argued in a statement that USAID "attempts to influence political processes through its grants," while President Vladimir Putin blamed U.S.-funded NGOs for inciting protests against his re-election.

And in February, Kenyan Cabinet Secretary Francis Kimemia claimed that his government had evidence that USAID had hired activists to organize anti-government protests in Nairobi, in an effort to "topple" the government.

There is little evidence, at least so far, to verify those charges. But the new Cuba scandal won't help USAID repair its tattered reputation.

John Moore/Getty Images