Beyond the grievous humanitarian costs, for CEOs everywhere in nearly every industry, the impacts of Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine remain a daily headwind, disrupting food and energy markets, stoking inflation and destabilizing so much of the post-World War II order that upon which modern business is based.
Where is it going, when might it end and what might be some of the unintended consequences—with impacts in Ukraine and far beyond—that will emerge along the way? During a session at the Yale CEO Leadership Summit Wednesday, a room full of big-company CEOs got a sobering, big-picture assessment from Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky via video from Kiev.
Unlike most of Zelensky’s appearances, this one, hosted by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor and longtime columnist for Chief Executive, was conducted as a question-and-answer session, which resulted in some interesting takeaways:
- Negotiated Settlement Unlikely Anytime Soon. “The validness of the Russian Federation to take a seat that negotiating table to resolve the issue diplomatically…is simply not possible now,” Zelensky said, “because Russia can still feel its power.”
- Food Situation Will Get Worse Soon. Zelensky said Ukraine, one of the world’s largest and most essential grain exporters, is unlikely to be able to meet demand anytime soon. Major port facilities are blocked, and efforts to move grain via rail will be unable to match the volume required. “We are going to have 50 billion tons of grain stranded in Ukraine because of the occupation,” he said.
- Economic Impacts Just Beginning. Zelensky said 12 million Ukranians have fled their homes at this point, with 5.5 million leaving the country. This will ripple through Ukraine—and Europe— in ways no one has fully grasped so far. “What is going to happen to their places of employment? What is going to happen to schools where their children study, what is going to happen to shops where they bought groceries? All of these things are simply dying,” said Zelensky, adding: “This has killed economically our country.” And will likely prove a drag to an already stalling European economy.
- Economic Disaster Will Need to Be Backstopped. Much of the country’s infrastructure will need to be rebuilt and he called on CEOs in the room, representing some of the nation’s largest companies, to shift what they’d invested in Russia to Ukraine in an effort to help. “I’d like your companies to consider not only the option of leaving Russia, but also finding their place in the Ukrainian economy, because this is important in terms of employment for our economy to deal with the tremendous challenges that we are facing.”
- Underrated Environmental Catastrophe. Setting aside the risks of a Chernobyl-style disaster at one of Ukraine’s large nuclear facilities, Zelensky said he worried about the long-term impacts from the fighting on the country’s environment. The country had already seen large-scale damage from as far back as 2014, when he said Russians flooded coal mines in occupied territory, poisoning aquifers in the region. “These people do not have potable water now,” he said.
- Mounting Social Disaster. Throughout the occupied territories, Zelensky said Russia is shredding the fabric of society, from forcing Ukranians to stay to bringing Russian teachers into schools to teach in Russian only. Many of the elderly in those areas can no longer get access to their bank accounts and pensions. “This is a huge humanitarian crisis,” he said.
It’s as daunting a list of challenges as can be imagined, and his country entered the fifth month of fighting since the invasion, Zelensky thanked the audience for all its support, but also asked that they not forget what was happening inside his country amid the swirl of competing headlines and challenges.
“Its important for us that the world remembers that the war is raging, that some territories are still occupied,” Zelensky said. “There are heavy battles raging. And this war continues until Russia is no longer in our territory…it is important to not only to talk about it, but to make sure our words are heard.”