‘Send money to loved ones in Ukraine with Western Union’ used to be the most common advert of my morning commute on the Moscow Metro. That, along with Chanel cosmetic products and Apple Pay, disappeared overnight after 24th February. My foreign bank card also quickly stopped working. Now, Telegram channels are bursting with tips on how to emigrate. The door to globalisation, it feels, is closing on Russia.
Over the last month, Western staples like McDonalds’, Levi’s and Adidas also stopped retail operations, as did Ikea and Starbucks. But living in the city has not become that much harder for the average Russian. Paid a stable wage by a state-owned company and usually unaware of the world beyond the former Soviet Union, Turkey and Thailand (two popular holiday destinations), slight inflation is the only real sign of discomfort. The likes of Louis Vuitton’s now-empty stores and Ladurée’s macarons were never really a luxury they could afford anyway.
Following the sanctions, Russia gave companies wishing to leave three choices: stay in Russia for business as usual, wind down the business and transfer the risk to a local partner, or leave abruptly and face potential nationalisation.
On the surface, most Western companies have yielded to some governments’ and social media calls to ‘cancel’ Russia by suspending operations in Russia ‘indefinitely’. Yet this is not to say they are leaving the Russian market altogether. For some, suspending operations is necessary to re-organise the supply chain and update pricing mechanisms. In fact, it is estimated that over 450 companies are withdrawing from Russia (169 of which have fully exited), versus 221 ‘keeping their options open’ or scaling back and 93 firms defying the call to leave. Many plan to re-open if and when the dust settles and profit margins are re-established.
In reality, it has mostly been American and British companies that have announced their plan to leave for good. Once hailed as Russia’s largest foreign investor by obtaining a 20% stake in state-owned Rosneft, BP announced on February 27th that it will sell off its equity interest. Competitors Exxon and Shell, all major international banks, Big-4 consultants and Magic Circle law firms — the crème de la crème of western capitalism — have followed suit. Only a handful of unknowns in oil and gas, industry and telecoms remain, such as Calfrac, Manitowoc and Fortive.
But while businesses from the Anglosphere have preferred a quick exit, European firms have, for the most part, stayed put. Though some French firms like Renault have announced they are stopping production, they have not actually left yet. Most other continental companies have preferred to keep quiet about their plans. Banks like Italian UniCredit and French Rosbank remain in-country, “committed to…clients” and “staff” all while managing and “limiting risks”. International transfers are still possible in euros, which is a lifeline for the myriad of expats present locally and Russian businesses with interests abroad.
Perhaps it is the continental companies playing the smarter game here. Currently, Chinese authorities are encouraging its businessmen to swoop up devalued assets in Russia — the very ones some Western countries are letting go of so rapidly. Russians may have to wait a while longer until AliBaba and UnionPay entirely replace the void left by a good chunk of the West, if at all. But in their eyes that does not really matter, so long as day-to-day life does not become unbearable.