Wayne Cooper is Chief Executive Group’s Executive Chairman.
I was on a call with a group of U.S. and Ukrainian business leaders Thursday morning for an update on what is happening on the ground there, and how we in the U.S. can help.
These people are not politicians or military leaders. They are our peers—businessmen and women running mid-sized companies in a variety of industries—who, until a few short weeks ago, had days and lives that exactly mirrored the days and lives of those now reading this email. They courted customers, hunted for great talent, sweated their supply chains and pushed hard to grow their organizations. Now they find themselves in a nightmare.
In our conversation, they were candid about the difficult days their country—and they, personally—have endured, and will endure. They admit that they never thought they would be facing the terrible, horrific challenges they face today. To protect them and their families from potential retribution, I committed to not sharing their identities, but they agreed to let me share some of their thoughts with you.
First, they said the situation throughout Ukraine is far more horrific than what we are witnessing on the news here:
• Russian’s plan is to try and break the will of the Ukrainian people by causing massive pain to the civilian population. The brutality of the Russian military forces is unconscionable and hard to comprehend through a television screen.
• Many said they have seen, often first-hand, how Russian forces target civilians–not by mistake or through collateral damage but by actively attacking civilian targets such as apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, shelters for women and children, etc.
Ukrainians of all walks of life are rising to the occasion and defiant. They want to the world to see this war as they see it: As an existential battle of good vs. evil – the aggression of an authoritarian regime against a sovereign, democratic country that does not represent a threat to its neighbors.
• They take great pride in how Ukrainian president Zalensky is leading from the front lines and communicating hope, resilience—and the moral high ground, inspiring their nation and the world.
• Those who can fight are fighting, but millions of others are helping behind the lines–securing and delivering food, medical supplies and other help to those in need and getting as many people to safety as possible.
• One CEO on the call voiced disbelief that a month ago he was working on deals for shipping his company’s products internationally, and this week he was personally driving those same essential supplies to trapped elderly people behind the Russian lines.
The U.S. participants of course, asked how the business community here can help support them. One of the Ukrainians said he was at a recent meeting with Putin before the invasion and remarked that Putin only understands and respects power. Military power. Political power. Economic power. He sees everything else as weakness and views all democracies with disdain, but he is very attentive to the power of the dollar.
That’s why, the Ukrainians said, business leaders in the U.S. could play a critical role in resolving the conflict. They offered a few pragmatic tips for those looking to make a real difference:
• They asked that U.S. business and community leaders make public statements condemning the invasion of Ukraine.
• They also asked to please help apply political influence to help convince western leaders to continue to send (and expand) military and humanitarian aid.
• Most directly, they asked that we please stop doing business with Russia and Belarus. Every dollar a Western company spends in Russia and Belarus, they said, gives them another dollar to spend on their brutal attacks on Ukraine.
• If you have operations or suppliers in Russia or Belarus, they asked that you please shut them down immediately.
• If you don’t have operations there, they asked that you please scrub your supply chain of Russian interests and ask your suppliers or business partners to do the same.
Towards that end, our good friend and columnist Jeff Sonnenfeld, Professor at Yale School of Management and President of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, is keeping a list of companies that are still actively doing work in Russia. His full list can be found here.
Beyond not doing business with Russian firms, or companies that do business with them, the Ukrainians identified a few other causes they said were worthy of our support: International Red Cross Ukraine Relief; Ukraine Armed Forces; Project Dynamo.
The call was a reminder that, as U.S. business leaders, we are not powerless. We are far from it. And we can make a difference.