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Volodymyr Kulikov Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, USA

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Mykhaylo Simanovskyy Global Disinformation Lab, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, USA

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Abigail Eichenberg Global Disinformation Lab, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, USA

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Ksenija Angelina Braese Global Disinformation Lab, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, USA

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Abstract

This article explores the communication strategies of multinational corporations in response to the Russo-Ukrainian War and the public pressure to divest from the Russian domestic market. By content analyzing official statements from the top 50 revenue-generating multinational corporations in Russia, the article identifies patterns in corporate narratives about the war, their actions and concerns, and potential solutions. The findings reveal that most companies declare scaling down their presence in Russia while maintaining certain basic obligations, prioritizing employee safety, and expressing concerns about the global economy. While few explicitly condemn Russia's aggression, many adopt neutral language to avoid naming Russia as the aggressor. Corporations emphasize the importance of diplomacy, adherence to international law, and the pursuit of peace, but often avoid proposing concrete solutions. Despite variations across industries, countries of origin, and decisions to stay or leave Russia, the differences in statements were not significant. The uniformity of corporate statements and evidence that companies frequently do not follow their declared promises suggest potential “bluewashing” – making vague or false claims of social responsibility or anti-war stances to improve their public image. These findings emphasize the need for multinational corporations to develop sincere and original wartime communication strategies.

Abstract

This article explores the communication strategies of multinational corporations in response to the Russo-Ukrainian War and the public pressure to divest from the Russian domestic market. By content analyzing official statements from the top 50 revenue-generating multinational corporations in Russia, the article identifies patterns in corporate narratives about the war, their actions and concerns, and potential solutions. The findings reveal that most companies declare scaling down their presence in Russia while maintaining certain basic obligations, prioritizing employee safety, and expressing concerns about the global economy. While few explicitly condemn Russia's aggression, many adopt neutral language to avoid naming Russia as the aggressor. Corporations emphasize the importance of diplomacy, adherence to international law, and the pursuit of peace, but often avoid proposing concrete solutions. Despite variations across industries, countries of origin, and decisions to stay or leave Russia, the differences in statements were not significant. The uniformity of corporate statements and evidence that companies frequently do not follow their declared promises suggest potential “bluewashing” – making vague or false claims of social responsibility or anti-war stances to improve their public image. These findings emphasize the need for multinational corporations to develop sincere and original wartime communication strategies.

1 Introduction

On March 16, 2022, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the United States Congress for help and pointed to something that all Americans could help with. Zelensky asked the American people and decision-makers to stop buying the products of businesses that continue to fund Russia's war machine. “All American companies must leave Russia […] – said Zelensky, – leave their market immediately because it is flooded with our blood […]. Peace is more important than income” (Edmondson 2022). He sent a similar message to French and other foreign companies still doing business in Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine (Zelensky 2022b). He also appealed to Ukrainians, asking them to put pressure on firms to halt operations in Russia “so that they can't sponsor the killings” (Zelensky 2022a). The challenge was accepted, with thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations initiating public campaigns to shame companies continuing their business in Russia after February 24, 2022.

Still, over a year after this persistent appeal, most multinational corporations (MNCs) that were operating in Russia before the invasion have not completely divested from the Russian market. They have resisted public pressure for various reasons. All of them are under scrutiny, attracting media and public attention. As a result, companies must handle public relations and explain their decisions, which may result in backlash from one or both conflicting sides.

This paper investigates patterns in corporate communication regarding the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. It concludes that multinational corporations primarily focus on explaining the commitment to fulfill their basic obligations, ensuring employee safety, and expressing concerns about the global economy. While some companies explicitly condemn Russia's actions and call on it to halt operations, many choose neutral language that avoids naming Russia as the aggressor. Most call for diplomacy and express hopes for peace, but few offer concrete solutions or mention the need for respecting the international rule of law.

To explain our research behind this conclusion, we first outline the context in which multinational companies operating in Russia make decisions and communicate with the public. Next, we explain how we analyzed corporate narratives about the war. Finally, we summarize the content analysis of official statements from multinational corporations about the conflict and present our general conclusions.

Several concepts and methodological approaches informed this study. From the corporate communication perspective, we explored how companies communicate with their stakeholders (Cornelissen 2020). The concept of corporate social responsibility (Jones 2023) provided insights into discussions on business ethics and the role of business entities in armed conflicts (Slim 2012).

2 Context: economic sanctions and public pressure on MNCs operating in Russia

In response to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Western countries imposed economic sanctions on Russia (Babina et al. 2023; Pajuste – Toniolo 2022: 16). The sanctions were aimed at weakening Russia's 1.8 trillion USD economy (11th in the world) so that it would not be able to finance the war in Ukraine (European Council 2023; U.S. Department of Treasury 2023). As of August 21, 2023, 17,582 sanctions were imposed against individuals and entities (Castellum.ai 2023). However, these sanctions are not producing the expected results. Russia's GDP only contracted by 2.1% vs. the 8–14%, predicted by experts in March 2022 (Mahlstein et al. 2022). The impact of sanctions has not been immediate, as evidenced by the continuing resilience of the Russian economy. While the measures did succeed in slowing down its economic growth, they fell short of posing an insurmountable challenge to Russia's formidable war machine.

The Russian economy's resilience in the face of sanctions can be attributed to several factors. The Russian government implemented harsh measures early on, such as restricting cash withdrawals and mandating that exporting firms sell a significant portion of their foreign currency earnings. Russia had a stable trade and budget surplus, driven mainly by high energy prices. Russia also continued to benefit from economic partnerships with several large economies, including China, India, and Turkey (The Economist 2022).

In addition to the economic sanctions imposed by the governments, many Ukrainian politicians, academics, and public activists urged international companies to withdraw from Russia or to embrace “self-sanctions” (KSE Institute 2023). They used a variety of methods to put pressure on these companies, including nudging, shaming, boycotting, and protesting in front of their headquarters (Alin et al. 2022).

While many international corporations have publicly expressed their support for Ukraine and condemned the invasion, the vast majority of them continue to operate in Russia. According to the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), as of September 4, 2023, only 273 out of the 3,407 analyzed companies fully withdrew from Russia (for more on KSE's database see Mylovanov et al. 2023). In contrast, 1,226 companies paused their operations, 524 reduced current activities and stopped new investments, while 1,384 continued operations, and several among them even increased revenues in Russia (KSE Institute 2023; Schwarz-Goerlich – Sims 2023). Another study by Simon Evenett and Niccolò Pisani found that by November 2022, only 8.5% of EU and G7 companies had divested from at least one of their Russian subsidiaries, meaning the majority of these companies remained in Russia (Evenett – Pisani 2022).

Table 1 presents the status of multinational corporations in Russia as of September 4, 2023, using data from KSE's database. KSE categorizes companies into four groups. Companies continuing their activities are labeled as “stay.” Those that have scaled down their operations are termed “wait.” Businesses that have suspended or announced a full withdrawal are designated as “leave.” Finally, companies that have concluded their departure from Russia, either through asset sales or liquidation, are identified as “exited.” (Onopriienko et al. 2023: 6). Notably, Chinese firms showed the least interest in divestment. On the other hand, Finnish, British, American, and Dutch companies, backed by their governments' consistent support for Ukraine, were the most proactive in divesting. Despite the official pro-Ukrainian stance of their respective governments, the majority of Italian, German, and Japanese firms continued to operate in Russia without significant changes.

Table 1.

Distribution of MNCs according to KSE's status and country of headquarters and industry

Note: Green represents the lowest value, while red represents the highest value.

Source: Kyiv School of Economics (2023).

When examined by industry, the vast majority of pharmaceutical and healthcare businesses remain in Russia. In stark contrast, most of the companies in IT and financial sectors were quick to suspend their operations and fully withdraw from the Russian market. Interestingly, despite being highly recognizable and potential targets for boycott campaigns, most consumer goods and food brands have chosen to maintain their presence in Russia.

2.1 Impact on financial performance

The evidence on the impact of leaving or staying in Russia on corporate financial performance is contentious. According to research by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and other members of the Yale School of Management, companies that scaled back their operations in Russia tended to perform better than those that did not (Sonnenfeld 2022). In contrast, Marc Berninger et al. (2022) concluded that companies deciding to leave Russia show lower returns than those continuing their operations, and firms that have not yet made a final decision have the lowest return. Similarly, the study by the Kyiv School of Economics in May 2023 found that companies, which resumed their operations in Russia without announcing any divestment plans kept their income consistent with previous levels. On the other hand, companies that announced their intention to exit experienced a decline of nearly 50% in revenues. Notably, companies acquired by local Russian owners showed a slight uptick in financial performance. This might be due to minimized exit losses or the reactivation of previously inactive assets (Onopriienko et al. 2023: 3). As for Russian companies, Ajai Gaur at el. (2023) analyzed longitudinal data on sanctioned Russian firms from 2014 until 2020 and found that sanctions “did not have a persistent negative effect on the economic performance of Russian firms.”

Another study by Glambosky and Peterburgsky (2022: 1) found that divestment announcements from Russia led to adverse market reactions. However, companies recovered their initial losses over the two weeks following these kinds of disclosures. Heikki Aaltonen (2023) demonstrated that although an announcement of withdrawal from Russia positively impacted the companies' financial performance, the effects were not statistically significant in the long run. However, financial results may differ in the short- and long-term perspectives.

2.2 Public pressure and corporate response

Operating in Russia presents a serious challenge for multinational corporations. Navigating conflicting interests, including those between national branches, stakeholders, and stockholders, poses a significant hurdle. The potential reputational costs and pressure to meet quarterly and annual financial reports add to the complexity of the task. Divesting from Russia is not an easy endeavor, and public pressure to stop doing business in Russia has had limited success.

Despite public pressure and reputational risks, most companies have opted to continue operating in Russia, citing contractual obligations, employee responsibilities, and a desire to avoid punishing ordinary citizens. Some firms have expressed their concerns that their assets may fall into the hands of socially irresponsible entities such as Chinese state-owned companies or associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Alin et al. 2022; Pajuste – Toniolo 2022). It is uncommon, but some companies admit that they continue to operate in Russia for profit. Alfred Ritter GmbH & Co. KG, a German family-owned company, is an example. They acknowledged that stopping deliveries, would result in a significant production shutdown and have serious effects on them as an independent, medium-sized family company (Handelsblatt 2022).

Another obstacle to exiting, is that divesting is getting more difficult because room for maneuver is reduced. The Russian government has implemented measures such as market shutdowns and laws permitting the confiscation of overseas assets, resulting in a more intricate process for investors seeking to divest (DeWinter-Schmitt et al. 2022: 487; Pajuste – Toniolo 2022: 21). In April 2023, the Russian government introduced an additional levy for foreign companies planning to exit the country. This comes on top of the requirement for these companies to sell their assets at a 50% discount and obtain government approval before leaving (Bloomberg News 2023). As Balyuk and Fedyk (2023: 1) posit, there is a dilemma whether the reputational damage from staying in Russia is more harmful than the operational risks of leaving.

Several laws initiated by President Putin and rubber-stamped by the Russian parliament in fall 2022 put companies at risk of being complicit in war crimes and have made it virtually impossible for them to remain apolitical. The “partial mobilization” law, along with several other laws threatening managers with criminal prosecution for the non-fulfillment of state defense orders, announced in September 2022, was a milestone since it required all companies operating in Russia to assist with military efforts and pay salaries to mobilized employees (Pajuste – Toniolo 2022: 21). Recent scandals involving the Austrian Raiffeisen Bank and French Auchan demonstrate that the danger of being accused of direct complicity in war crimes is very real (Weil-Rabaud et al. 2023).

The Ukrainian Governmental National Agency on Corruption Prevention listed 38 companies (as of September 6, 2023) as “sponsors of terrorism,” including the American Procter&Gamble, French Leroy Merlin, and German Metro (National Agency of Corruption Prevention 2023). Being on this list has no legal consequences outside of Ukraine; it just means that the companies are monitored closely by the international company LSEG, owners of Refinitiv. Regardless, it puts a dent in the reputation of listed firms.

In trying to soften the discontent of Ukrainians, many companies have resorted to sending donations to international aid organizations working with Ukrainian refugees, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. For instance, PepsiCo said that it was going to suspend soda sales in Russia but continue to sell “daily essentials” while offering shelter to those leaving Ukraine at its headquarters in Poland (PepsiCo 2022). However, the attempt to pay off rather than divest from the Russian market has proven ineffective, as evidenced by the sharp conflicts it has caused within companies. For example, Oreo-producer Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Metro faced pushback from their employees in Ukraine and Eastern Europe who were outraged by the companies' decisions to maintain some degree of business in Russia (Sofia V. 2022).

The influence of shaming campaigns on corporate decisions is not easy to measure. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld declared that his team “helped galvanize nearly 1,000 companies to withdraw” in the first two months of the full-scale war (Sonnenfeld 2023). Tosun and Eshraghi (2022: 1) also argued in their article that several firms which “announced the suspension of their business operations in Russia did so following social media campaigns and threats of consumer boycotts.” However, these researchers did not present convincing evidence that the boycott campaigns determined the corporate decisions to stay or leave. Companies rarely acknowledge that their decision to leave the Russian market is due to shaming campaigns. The correlation between shaming campaigns and decisions to divest does not imply causation. We can attribute a company's decision to exit Russia to public shaming campaigns only in a few instances with a high degree of confidence. For example, Japanese clothing retailer UNIQLO closed its shops in Russia following significant criticism and a #boycottUNIQLO campaign. However, even in this case, the company cited “operational challenges” as the reason for its decision (Matsuyama 2022).

Historical evidence regarding the impact of boycott campaigns on corporate financial performance is controversial. But they show that such campaigns alone can rarely push a company from the market. Siew Teoh et al. (1999) analyzed the Apartheid boycott in 1996 and suggested that despite the widespread media coverage, political pressure had a negligible impact on financial markets, with the boycott perceived as a mere “sideshow”. Stefan Hoffmann (2013: 214), in contrast, argued that “managers have to take boycott campaigns seriously” because “they downgrade the company's reputation and stock prices.” Other studies highlighted controversial processes within boycott campaigns. For instance, a 2015 study by the RAND Corporation suggested that Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement could cost Israel up to $47 billion over ten years. However, critics contended that such efforts have failed to achieve their objectives, given that foreign investment in Israel tripled from 2006 to 2015, with the country's GDP doubled (Alin et al. 2022). Maurice Schweitzer (2020) argued that while possessing symbolic value, boycotts seldom yielded substantial economic impact. He attributed the lack of success to short-term commitment among individuals.

To sum up, neither state-imposed sanctions, nor pressuring multinational companies yield immediate outcomes. Still, they can be decisive if companies feel insecure due to supply chain disruption, financial market volatility, or aggressive protectionist policies in Russia. While public pressure alone typically does not prompt corporate disinvestment, it may contribute to an impact when used alongside other tools.

3 Corporate statements about the war: data

We examined the official statements of the 50 largest MNCs in Russia, based on their revenue in 2021 (Forbes.ru 2022). The list is based on Forbes' rankings, which include companies that were more than 50% owned by foreign corporations as of December 21, 2021. Half of the MNCs from the list have headquarters in the United States (12), Germany (8), and the United Kingdom (6). The others are distributed between these countries: France, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, China, Denmark, Latvia, and Spain. The 50 companies generated in Russia a total revenue of $119 billion in 2021, which is 21% higher than the previous year. As of May 1, 2023, half of these companies were still operating in Russia, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2.

Top 50 (by revenues) foreign companies operating in Russia

StatusNAverage number of staff 2021Average assets, USD millionPercentage of global revenue in Russia
Exited917,85754911.8%
Leave138,6481,2579.4%
Wait208,5591,4629.0%
Stay87,2491,1186.5%

For each company on the list, we utilized Google to find their statements using the query “[company name] statement | update on Ukraine | Russia.” We selected statements from either official websites or reputable news agencies like Reuters (as of May 1, 2023). In the latter case, we only coded segments enclosed in quotation marks, which indicated the exact words of a company representative. In some instances, companies updated their initial statements, typically adding a new statement to the page of the original one, so they constitute one document. However, when official statements were disseminated through agencies, they appeared in separate documents. For consistency, we combined updated statements from different web pages into one document per company. Consequently, we compiled 50 documents representing the official statements of these companies from February 2022 to May 2023. Figure 1 displays the 50 words that are mentioned most frequently after applying lemmatization and utilizing a standard stop word list.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

50 most used words from the corporate statements on the war in Ukraine

Source: authors.

Citation: Society and Economy 46, 1; 10.1556/204.2023.00024

Our research had some limitations regarding the sample selection. While we focused on large multinational companies, smaller firms may convey their position on the war differently. Furthermore, the Forbes list we used for our selection did not include financial companies, which could have impacted our findings.

The initial coding involved identifying and defining key concepts found on the websites. We organized these concepts into preliminary categories, such as temporality, conflict name, actions, concerns, and solution. Following this, we uploaded the statements to MAXQDA Analytics Pro and coded them using a mix of predefined and In-vivo codes. Our data analysis utilized inductive coding of official statements. This involved an iterative process where coding was influenced both by the issues that companies addressed and our research questions. As we encountered new information, we consistently updated and refined the categories. In the final analysis stage, we consolidated the categories into broader concepts.

Table 3 illustrates the distribution of codes based on the status of MNCs in Russia, as categorized by the Kyiv School of Economics as of May 1, 2023. Companies that remain in Russia tend to focus on the present when explaining their position, while those adopting a wait-and-see approach or continuing operations often discuss the future more than counterparts exiting the market. There is no significant difference in how the conflict is referred to among these groups. MNCs typically use neutral terms like “Ukrainian crisis” or “war in Ukraine.” Interestingly, companies in a waiting position often mention “invasion” without specifically identifying the aggressor.

Table 3.

Crosstab based on KSE status

Notes: column percentage based on the number of documents. Green represents the lowest value, while red represents the highest value.

Source: authors.

Regardless of their current status, companies across all groups claim to be scaling down their operations in Russia while fulfilling basic obligations and monitoring the situation. The presence of “fulfilling obligations” in statements from companies that have exited the market can be attributed to factors such as continuing to pay employees' salaries after stopping business operations, being in a transitional phase, or changing strategies from staying to exiting. An example of this can be found in Henkel's statement: “Given the ongoing developments in the war in Ukraine, Henkel has decided to exit its business activities in Russia. The execution process is now being prepared. Henkel will work closely with its teams in Russia to ensure an orderly process. In the meantime, Henkel's 2,500 employees in Russia will continue to be employed and paid.” (Henkel 2022).

Table 4 highlights the presence of contradictory elements in many corporate statements. In some instances, companies admit that Russia is engaging in an act of aggression against Ukraine, yet they still commit to fulfilling obligations to contractors or employees there. In other cases, companies provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainians while only scaling down their business activity in Russia, rather than leaving entirely. Additionally, many companies assert that the safety of their employees is the highest priority, but they do not divest immediately, even when they acknowledge that operating in Russia is becoming increasingly difficult.

Table 4.

Selected codes in code relational browser

Note: Green represents the lowest value, while red represents the highest value.

Source: authors.

To understand patterns in corporate communication based on their declared decision to stay or to leave, we grouped “leave” with “exited” and compared them to the combined “wait” and “stay” codes. Our initial hypothesis was that companies that had divested would adopt a more critical stance towards Russia and express their concerns more vehemently. However, contrary to this expectation, we found no significant distinction between the two groups. Both frequently referred to the conflict as the “war/crisis in Ukraine.” Both sets of companies pledged to scale back their business activities in Russia while still honoring their commitments there. Additionally, firms from both categories consistently promised humanitarian aid to Ukrainians and expressed concern for their employees' safety in both Russia and Ukraine.

Surprisingly, the “wait and stay” group, which we assumed would adopt a more neutral tone to avoid upsetting Russian officials, declared more pro-Ukrainian statements. For example, companies in this group used terms like “invasion” and “Russian attack against Ukraine” more frequently compared to the “leave or exited” group. They also pledged support and investment in Ukraine and expressed a stronger desire for peace more frequently than others.

Since we did not observe any significant differences in the narratives of groups based on their stated stance toward conducting business in Russia, the subsequent section will be organized around the themes addressed in the statements of all 50 companies.

4 Corporate statements about the war: content analysis

Many companies explain their decision to stay or leave Russia on economic and safety considerations. A few refer to moral and ethical concerns. For instance, Viterra Limited decided to divest from Russia because it no longer aligns with the company's long-term direction. Carlsberg made the difficult and immediate decision to exit Russia, believing it to be “the right thing to do in the current environment.”

In their statements, companies often refer to the “war” or “crisis” in Ukraine. They frequently express concern for the safety of their employees, and sometimes for all Ukrainians. These companies often communicate their decision to reduce their presence in Russia while fulfilling basic obligations. They may also occasionally offer vague statements expressing hope for peace. The statement by Grant F. Reid, CEO/Office of the President at Mars Inc., serves as an example of a standard statement. This statement expresses the company's strong disapproval of the events in Ukraine and outlines the various measures taken to support their Ukrainian associates. Mars Inc. prioritizes the safety of its employees and has actively provided shelter, financial security, and aid. The statement concludes by emphasizing the company's solidarity with the victims of the war and advocating for an immediate peaceful resolution. The full statement reads as follows (Reid 2022):

We are appalled by what is happening in Ukraine and are striving to provide our courageous Ukrainian Associates with the support they need. Their safety is our absolute priority and teams of Mars Associates have been working diligently to provide shelter, financial security and aid. In addition to donations of food that have been provided by Mars business units, we’re making an initial cash donation of $2 million in support of this humanitarian crisis. Working with Save the Children, we’re committing $1.5 million to help provide for the basic needs of children and their families in Ukraine and seeking refuge in border countries, as well as $500 thousand to Humane Society International to give assistance to pets and pet owners.

At the outset of the invasion we stopped all social media activity in Russia and Belarus, and we have decided to suspend all advertising in Russia and Belarus. Furthermore, we have suspended new investments in Russia.

We join the world in supporting the innocent victims of this war and calling for a peaceful resolution immediately.

Similar to the statement released by Mars Inc., many MNCs are adapting their communication and actions to address the Russia-Ukraine war by prioritizing employee safety, suspending or scaling back operations, providing humanitarian aid, complying with international sanctions, and making necessary business adaptations. These patterns demonstrate a commitment to corporate social responsibility and global citizenship, while also taking into account the evolving geopolitical situation.

Companies such as ADEO, Google, and Apple declare that they prioritize the safety and well-being of their employees, particularly those in Ukraine. In response to the conflict, firms like Apple and BMW said that they have stopped sales and exports to Russia, halted production, or divested from their Russian ventures. Meanwhile, Google, Nestlé, and Novartis emphasize that they are complying with international sanctions while continuing to provide essential products and services to local populations.

Many companies, including AB InBev, Danone, and H&M Group, are providing humanitarian aid and financial assistance to Ukraine and its war-affected regions. Google is updating its search mechanism and Maps, expanding security protections against cyber threats, and promoting information quality.

Several companies have announced changes to their accounting practices, earnings guidance, or divestments due to the war in Ukraine and its impact on their businesses. Carlsberg Group, for instance, has changed its accounting treatment of businesses in Russia and Ukraine and announced new earnings guidance due to the divestment of its Russian business.

Many corporate statements contain cliché phrases that companies often use to demonstrate their concerns about humanitarian crises and acknowledge compliance with international sanctions. Common phrases include “providing support to employees and their families,” “halting new investments,” “prioritizing the safety and support of employees,” “providing humanitarian aid,” “complying with sanctions,” and “monitoring the situation.” These expressions are frequently used by corporations to emphasize their responsibility toward society, navigating complex geopolitical situations in Eastern Europe. However, the repetition of such phrases may dilute their impact and limit the appreciation of the unique actions each company takes in response to a crisis.

When analyzing the most frequently used words in two contrasting groups (Figs 2 and 3), we found minimal differences. Both groups showed a slight emphasis on the terms “Russia” and “Russian” compared to “Ukraine.” Additionally, business-related terms like “business,” “market,” “operation,” and “employees” are among the most used in both groups. The similarity in their war-related communications could be due to the companies being assigned to groups based on their official statements rather than their action (though the latter are also considered). As we demonstrate later, a company's public statements might diverge from its actions. For example, Henkel publicly announced its departure from Russia and condemned Russia's attack on Ukraine, stating that “[a]gainst the background of the current developments of the war in Ukraine, Henkel has decided to exit its business activities in Russia. The execution process is now being prepared” (Henkel 2022). However, the gap between “preparing” and genuinely ceasing business activities can be vast, with some companies continuing their operations in Russia for several months (RosBusinessConsulting 2023). Consequently, the actual difference between the groups labeled as “exited” and “stayed” might be narrower than what is indicated in the KSE's database. Our analysis of corporate narratives underscores this subtle distinction.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Word cloud from the statements of the companies with the status “stay”

Source: authors.

Citation: Society and Economy 46, 1; 10.1556/204.2023.00024

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Word cloud from the statements of the companies with the status “exit”

Source: authors.

Citation: Society and Economy 46, 1; 10.1556/204.2023.00024

In the following part, we look at how companies communicate their position on the war, focusing on four topics: temporality, conflict name, proposed actions, and concerns and solutions.

4.1 Temporality

Most corporate statements focus on the present and the foreseeable future, addressing concerns and outlining actions such as monitoring the situation closely (LG), downsizing the workforce (IKEA), and ensuring employee safety (PepsiCo). Reflecting on the past, companies often express regret for losing their foothold in the Russian market. For example, PepsiCo's statement provides a detailed account of its history in Russia: “For over 60 years, PepsiCo has been a part of many Russian households. Our entry into the market during the peak of the Cold War established common ground between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, due to the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine, we are suspending the sale of Pepsi-Cola and our global beverage brands in Russia, including 7Up and Mirinda. We will also halt capital investments, advertising, and promotional activities in the country” (PepsiCo 2022).

Corporate statements about the war depict the future as highly uncertain. Companies like Kia Motors, Procter & Gamble, and Volkswagen express concerns regarding the future of the market and their employees. Carlsberg, for example, is worried about its financial results. Renault, McDonald's, and Volkswagen admit they cannot predict when they might return to the Russian market. Renault's CEO, however, hopes to “return to the country in the future, in a different context.” Volkswagen is concerned about the potential “massive negative effects” of a “long-term interruption to global supply chains,” particularly for European and German companies. They, along with Metro, are closely monitoring the situation in hopes of a peaceful resolution in Ukraine. Mars Inc. exemplifies courage in the face of uncertainty, stating that “[t]his is a fast-moving and uncertain situation – if we need to take further action, we will not hesitate to do so.”

Generally, companies tend not to provide extensive details. However, Uniper stands out by discussing its short-, medium-, and long-term plans concerning geopolitical risks and its relationship with the German government. BP CEO Bernard Looney's statement regarding the company's divestment from Rosneft, a Russian energy company, in February 2022, serves as an excellent example of clear communication about sacrificing short-term gains for long-term benefits. Looney called the decision “the right thing to do” and added (Looney 2022):

I am convinced that the decisions we, as a Board, have taken are not only the right things to do but also in the long-term interests of BP and our shareholders. While there will be financial consequences resulting in material non-cash charges in our next quarterly results, it is important to note that this does not affect our strategic progress update provided alongside our 2021 full-year results earlier this month. We are sticking with our plan.

4.2 Name of the conflict

The way a company refers to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, especially through the name it assigns to the events, can reveal much about its public messaging approach. The tone of subsequent statements will likely align with either condemnation, neutrality, or appeasement regarding Russia's involvement. Most companies opt for phrases like “war in Ukraine” or “crisis in Ukraine,” which have a more neutral connotation and do not directly emphasize Russia's role in the conflict.

A unique example of a company taking a stance through conflict naming can be seen in a statement by Arvind Krishna, Chairman and CEO of IBM (not on the top 50 Forbes list), on March 3, 2022. He said “Yesterday, I spoke with IBMers from around the world about the tragedy of the war in Ukraine – and I'd like to acknowledge that the correct word to use is ‘war,’ not ‘conflict.’ IBM does not condone violence or acts of aggression, and we condemn the Russian war in Ukraine” (Krishna 2022).

Referring to the situation as the “war in Ukraine” or “crisis in Ukraine” suggests that the events are rooted in Ukraine and may not necessarily involve external aggression. Many casual observers might use such terms without much consideration, but multinational companies pay close attention to the wording in their press releases and public statements. The second most common term for the events in Ukraine is “conflict,” which may identify the warring parties as Russia and Ukraine, or simply state that the conflict is occurring “in Ukraine,” thus not explicitly mentioning Russian external aggression. Some companies describe the conflict as “deadly,” “tragic,” or “political.” As a result, the name chosen by an MNC can convey various meanings, but it typically implies a certain degree of detachment from the situation.

Things get more definitive when Russia is identified as the perpetrator of the ongoing war. This is the case with a few other names that companies give to the conflict, such as “Russia's war against Ukraine,” “Russian invasion,” simply an “invasion,” or “Russia's attack on Ukraine.” However, when a company uses “invasion” to describe the conflict, it rarely attributes which country has initiated this invasion.

Passive voice is often common in formulating such sentences, “Since their country was invaded one year ago, many lost their lives, families, job, homes, everything” (Cargill). Interestingly, companies that claim to perform essential services, like those importing medications to Russia (Bayer) or baby foods (Unilever), condemn the Russian invasion in very explicit terms and demonstrate the non-profit nature of their ongoing and future temporary operations on Russia's market. They invoke ethical obligations to continue serving their Russian customers for at least some time before the market can adjust, and their goods and services would not be that essential. In other cases, companies express their concern for the humanitarian situation in Ukraine (while retaining limited operations in Russia, at least temporarily) and donate to the relevant causes while also being vocal about Russia's invasion.

4.3 Actions

A crucial aspect of public statements from companies operating in Russia involves their actions or planned responses to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Many of these companies emphasize their primary goal of continuing to fulfill basic obligations. In particular, agricultural and pharmaceutical companies, such as Danone and Novartis, often highlight their responsibility to address the essential needs of individuals on both sides of the conflict. For instance, Danone stated that: “We have decided to suspend all investment projects in Russia, but currently maintain our production and distribution of fresh dairy products and infant nutrition, to still meet the essential food needs of the local population” (Sacchi 2022).

In addition to fulfilling basic obligations, another frequently mentioned action is the ongoing monitoring of the situation and adapting actions accordingly. This approach demonstrates that companies are prepared to adjust their plans as the situation evolves, regardless of whether they have already taken significant steps concerning business operations. Moreover, the most common transformative actions in response to the invasion include suspending operations in both Ukraine and Russia, as well as halting the import and export of goods.

Rather than fully divesting from Russia, companies like Shell, Carlsberg, AB InBev, Danone, and Mars Inc. have committed to donating any profits from their Russian operations to humanitarian aid. This decision typically reflects a desire to address the humanitarian crisis while still meeting the company's basic obligations in Russia. Shell (2022), for example, stated:

We will commit profits from the limited amount of Russian oil we have to purchase to a dedicated fund. We will work with aid partners and humanitarian agencies over the coming days and weeks to determine where the monies from this fund are best placed to alleviate the terrible consequences that this war is having on the people of Ukraine.

Other common actions mentioned in corporate statements involve providing humanitarian aid and supporting employees.

Companies in all sectors, especially consumer goods firms, frequently mentioned suspending or reducing business in Russia. Automotive companies did the same, but they mentioned fulfilling obligations in Russia more regularly. This might be because companies in the automotive industry tend to have a large workforce there and feel responsible for those people. Companies in the electronics industry promised to invest in and support Ukraine more often than others. Meanwhile, companies in the food, alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical sectors were more inclined to promise humanitarian aid in general. Pharmaceutical companies, similar to the automotive sector, oftentimes promised to fulfill obligations in Russia, typically referring to providing the Russian population with essential goods. Several companies justified their supply of goods to Russia by labeling them as “essential.” Yet, some broadened this term to encompass items such as shampoo, aftershave, and confectionery. When a civic initiative B4Ukraine inquired about their criteria for deeming goods essential or non-essential, many companies were reluctant to provide clarity or specifics (B4Ukraine 2023: 4).

We did not observe significant differences in narratives by companies from different countries. However, there were three observations: US companies mentioned humanitarian aid and supporting Ukraine economically slightly more often than other nations' businesses. German companies frequently mentioned fulfilling their obligations in Russia. Additionally, US companies were slightly more inclined to promise a reduction or suspension of their business than those with headquarters in the UK or Germany.

4.4 Concerns and solutions

In the immediate aftermath of the February 24, 2022 invasion, most companies voiced their concerns for the safety of all those caught in the crossfires of the conflict and their employees in either country, choosing not to make distinctions between those in Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Many companies tended to use terms like “our people” (e.g., McDonald's), “our colleagues” (Metro), or “our local associates and their families” (Robert Bosch). In 11 statements, companies either explicitly mentioned the safety of their employees in Ukraine, or it can be inferred implicitly from the context. Only in the case of Japan Tobacco Inc. did the statement focus exclusively on Russian employees, emphasizing that the company remains committed to its workforce and plans to retain all employees for the foreseeable future.

Multinational oil company Shell, for instance, quickly emphasized the importance of ensuring the safety of its employees both in Ukraine and Russia. Similarly, other multinational corporations with significant business interests in Russia published statements with varying degrees of assertiveness, careful not to place blame. Only a few companies, such as Toyota, explicitly acknowledged the danger faced by those in Ukraine, thereby taking a clear stance against Russia. In a statement released on March 3, 2022, Toyota expressed concern for the safety of Ukrainians and hoped for a swift return to peace.

Besides voicing concerns for human life, many multinational corporations also highlighted their anxiety about the global macroeconomic situation due to a hot war in Europe. Some, such as Uniper, were specific about the dependence of the European market on “Russian commodity exports.” The term “uncertainty” appeared in many public statements, reflecting concerns about the unpredictability of the global market, which at the time of the initial invasion was still recovering from the shock effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies such as IKEA, Volkswagen, and McDonald's also expressed concerns about potential disruptions in the global supply chain and economic sanctions imposed by the West in the “coming months.”

MNCs are generally more cautious about suggesting solutions to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine rather than merely labeling it a war or a political crisis. None of the major MNCs have put forth any concrete peace proposals. The few mentions of potential solutions primarily focus on diplomacy and the pursuit of peace.

Most companies emphasize the importance of diplomatic efforts in restoring peace and express a general hope for a peaceful resolution. Only Unilever and Volkswagen explicitly state that the international rule of law should prevail, which aligns with Ukraine's preferred course of action and President Zelensky's Peace Formula. This is because a peace agreement without justice would maintain the existing frontlines, leaving Russia in control of approximately 20% of Ukrainian territory.

Regarding concerns, US companies most frequently mentioned the humanitarian crisis and the safety of their employees. In contrast, UK companies focused on the current geopolitical environment, while German companies underscored challenges related to financial and energy security in Europe. However, these differences were not particularly significant.

Companies across all sectors, with the exception of pharmaceuticals, expressed concerns for their employees. Alcohol and tobacco sector companies, more than those in other sectors, discussed financial losses, uncertainty, and disruptions in general, similar to automotive companies. Electronics and pharmaceutical sectors more frequently voiced concerns about the humanitarian crisis. Yet, for both variables, the differences were not pronounced and might be attributed to the small sample size.

5 Words and actions

Although many companies that have pledged to leave Russia or reduce their presence there have adhered to the promises made in their public statements, some companies have reneged on their previous commitments. According to the Yale School of Management's “CELI List of Companies Leaving and Staying in Russia” a handful of companies, including Nestlé, Shell, Unilever, and others, have failed to take actions in compliance with their initial promises. For example, in its public statements regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Nestlé promised that “[their] operations in Russia remain focused on providing essential and basic foods to the local people,” citing baby formula as an example of such essentials. In reality, Nestlé is continuing to distribute pet foods, desserts, chocolate bars, and other goods that are not usually considered basic and essential. Similarly, Unilever also continues to sell consumer goods in Russia under the label of essential goods. Shell is another company that did not uphold its public statements. The company pledged to suspend new purchases of Russian commodities, but they are continuing to fulfill existing contracts and are receiving large amounts of Russian gas (Yale School of Management 2023).

Several multinationals, aiming to retain their Russian market share and assets while dodging public criticism, have adopted a smokescreen strategy: they rebrand their branches and products in Russia. For instance, Henkel AG, a flagship German multinational, proclaimed its departure from the Russian market in April 2022. Contrary to this declaration, the chemical and consumer goods giant continued production and operational activities in the country. It eventually renamed its Russian operation to Lab Industrie in December 2022, saying it would operate independently of Henkel's German group (Reuters 2022).

Similarly, Leica Camera AG, a leading German luxury camera manufacturer, announced its decision to close its sole store in Russia in March 2022. Despite this, the company, which used to operate under the subsidiary LLC Leica Camera Russia with a store in Moscow's prominent GUM department store, did not cease its operations. Instead, it rebranded to LLC Vechernaya Zvezda. Moreover, an investigation by The Insider disclosed that, despite announcing their departure from Russia, Leika continued to supply laser rangefinder binoculars and night vision scopes to the country. Such equipment could potentially be used for military purposes, like adjusting artillery fire (Insider 2023). This was not an isolated incident. Another investigation by The Insider found that at least 25 European companies from countries including Germany, Estonia, and Poland (not in the Forbes list analyzed in our article) continued to supply the Russian army (Ezhov 2023).

Among the companies that announced their intention to exit Russia but later backed out of their promise, several have enjoyed a significant increase in their revenues in Russia since February 2022, leading to a corresponding rise in their tax contributions to the Russian state budget. For instance, the Austrian bank Raiffeisen reported a tripling of its profits in Russia while still exploring exit strategies. In response to criticism for profiting during the conflict, Raiffeisen's chairman, Erwin Hameseder, defended the bank's position. He criticized detractors for their “black and white moral thinking” from a “risk-free comfort zone.” Hameseder pointed out that most Western businesses remained in Russia despite the country's invasion of Ukraine, which he condemned as unjustified (Schwarz-Goerlich – Sims 2023).

Another notable example is PepsiCo, the fourth-largest beverage and food production company in Russia by net profit according to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. In 2022, the revenue of PepsiCo Holdings LLC increased to $2.59 billion, marking a 333% growth in net profit. Due to this growth, the company paid over $115 million in taxes to the Russian budget. Similarly, Mars has made substantial investments in the Russian economy, amounting to $2.5 billion. This capital infusion resulted in the establishment of ten new factories and the creation of more than 6,000 jobs. Contrary to initial signals of reducing their business scale, Mars LLC's revenue in 2022 rose to $2.45 billion. The company also reported a 59% increase in net profit, translating to tax contributions of over $93 million to the Russian Federation's budget (The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine 2023).

6 Conclusions

Corporate statements on the Russo-Ukrainian War allow us to gain insights into the role of businesses in times of conflict and the varying degrees of responsibility they undertake. These statements reflect various stances on temporality, terminology, humanitarian concerns, and potential conflict resolutions. The present and foreseeable future dominate these statements, with companies expressing concerns for employee safety, adjusting operations, and monitoring the sociopolitical situation. Many acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the conflict and its effects on global markets.

The name given to the conflict in these statements reveals the company's messaging approach, with most opting for neutral phrases such as “the war in Ukraine” or “Ukrainian crisis.” However, some companies explicitly condemn Russia's actions and identify it as the perpetrator, while others declare their priority to be the humanitarian aspects and promise to provide aid to affected Ukrainians. With Russia's increasingly totalitarian bent, it is becoming exponentially harder for these companies to operate independently in Russia. On the other hand, some companies use humanitarian concerns to justify their continued, protracted, or slowly dwindling presence in Russia.

The ongoing war on the battlefields of Ukraine also affects the perception of foreign companies as external enemies on the Russian territory. Their physical assets are not as secure as before February 2022. It has taken many years of playing by the rules and developing Russian market-specific successful business strategies for many of these companies to gain financial clout in the country, but all this hard work is being presently dismantled. A lucrative part of the Russian economy that could easily be declared off limits, foreign companies' holdings in Russia can be nationalized and reprivatized to Russian nationals with connections or loyalty to the Putin regime. This further increases the speed and urgency for successful divestment of many multinational companies that do not wish to partake in dealing with the tightening rules or indirect association with Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Companies explain in their statements how they have taken various actions in response to the war, ranging from suspending operations, donating profits from Russian operations to humanitarian aid, and fulfilling basic obligations in providing essential goods and services. Concerns are voiced for both human life and the global economy, as the uncertainty of the conflict and potential sanctions impact markets and supply chains. While multinational corporations tend to avoid suggesting concrete solutions, they emphasize the importance of diplomatic efforts, adherence to international law, and the pursuit of peace.

The content analysis revealed some trends related to the location of company headquarters and industry sectors. However, these differences were minor and could be due to the small sample size. We categorized companies based on their decision to either stay in or exit Russia, anticipating that those exiting would be more critical of Russia. Yet, both categories expressed similar concerns about the war in Ukraine and the related humanitarian crisis. Notably, the group of companies that decided to stay in Russia made more pro-Ukrainian remarks than those that declared that they were leaving. Given the minimal variation in corporate statements and evidence suggesting companies often do not act according to their official promises, we suggest that corporate communication about the war has a significant element of the so-called “bluewashing” (Berliner – Prakash 2015) – making vague or false claims of social responsibility or anti-war support (in this particular case) to enhance their public image. We do not argue, however, that all or even most of the statements that we have analyzed contain elements of bluewashing, but many of them certainly do. In these instances, a company chooses to simply check a certain category that will deem its continued or protracted operations in Russia publicly acceptable in wealthy countries, which predominantly harbor anti-war sentiments.

The implications of these conclusions highlight the importance of a well-crafted wartime communications strategy for multinational corporations. Emphasizing sincerity, originality, and empathy in their public statements would allow businesses to maintain credibility, demonstrate genuine concern for the affected populations, and showcase their ability to respond to the evolving crisis.

Acknowledgment

This article is the result of a project “#BoycottBiz: Corporate Discourse on the War in Ukraine” conducted within The Global DisInformation Lab (GDIL) at the University of Texas at Austin. This article represents the views of its authors, not the position of GDIL or the University of Texas at Austin.

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