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Zeno London
| 24TH FEB 2023

Zeno Thinks: “We endured, and we will win” One year on from the Ukraine War

Zeno Thinks: “We endured, and we will win”

One year on from the Ukraine War


A minimum of 8,000 non-combatants have been killed since the since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Stop and think for a minute about that conveniently bland term, “non-combatants”. Replace it with the reality: women, children, the elderly, whole families killed in a war that is at heart about the naked pursuit of power.

In recent weeks global leaders have taken it in turns to visit Kiev, most notably US President Joe Biden, who under cover of darkness set out on a ten-hour train journey to pay tribute to Ukraine’s victims and pledge increased military support.

This war has been about human cost. The toll on President Zelensky, who has had to live in darkness for months and not see his young family to avoid assassination attempts. The toll on Russian citizens paid to attend a freezing “victory” parade, hosted by President Putin (clad in a £10,000 designer Italian jacket).

There has also been a human cost to all of us: families forced to prioritise food over heat, restaurant owners having to close Monday-Wednesday to reduce soaring energy bills. And public sector workers, including teachers, doctors and nurses, feeling the need to strike for wages which vaguely keep pace with soaring inflation.

It has also impacted global brands, with media, stakeholders and consumers paying attention to how companies have navigated the war, domestically and internationally.

A time to act

As the world reacted in collective shock to the breaching of Ukrainian borders, unprecedented political and economic sanctions were quickly imposed on Putin and his country. In a show of global unity, these were followed by the world’s largest corporations lining up to denounce Putin and suspend activity in Russia.

Boardroom executives, still reeling from the impact of Covid-19, would have been painfully aware of the impact on financial bottom lines. Yet to be seen operating in Russia in the months that followed the invasion would have been a PR disaster. As Ukrainian flags appeared in windows across the country and Zelensky’s defiant words echoed in our ears, the public and media expected brands to join the response against Putin.

Where we are at now

According to researchers at Yale University, more than 1,000 foreign companies have pulled operations from Russia in the past year. Others have stayed, often under different guises to avoid public scrutiny - some even seizing the opportunity to expand in Russia’s relatively barren economic landscape.

When household brands like Adidas and McDonald’s decided to permanently wind down operations, that sent a strong message of principle over profit and underscored the power of the private sector. The latter’s exit is said to have been a $1.4 billion write-off – we all remember how McDonald’s first store in Moscow in the 1990s symbolised the arrival of Western capitalism post-Soviet rule. That era is now very much over.

On the other hand, major players in the fashion industry have avoided a similar fate. Earlier this month British fashion icon Paul Smith was shamed by the press into closing its Russian operations, admitting it was a “mistake” to continue trading there. But this was an exception to the rule.

While Italian clothing retailer Benetton Group was quick to suspend all its growth plans in Russia and began donating clothes to Ukrainian refugees, the company’s operations – along with Armani, Diesel and Calzedonia – are now continuing as normal. For companies willing to work around sanctions, there is still business to be had.

Key takeaways

The public

  • We’re all in this together. The public reaction to the war has been a moral success story. We have inflicted financial hardship upon ourselves for a country that had very little connection to the UK, and will continue to do so to take a stand against barbarity. Whether this collective and shared pain can translate into an era of national social action remains to be seen. Oxford academics have found that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has increased trust in politics in Europe, strengthened support for democracy and freedom, and fostered positive views of immigration and redistribution.

For brands

  • Pick a line and stick to it.  Brand reputations have been significantly enhanced by converting words of condemnation into tangible actions. But consistency is key. Altering your stance on Russia after receiving a public backlash will not make consumers forget. Worse still would be to initially remain active in Russia to protect local staff, then declare an end to all operations after public criticism, before being back in business by June. Don’t be French beauty brand L'Occitane.

For the country

  • Turning tragedy into future opportunity. The current cost-of-living crisis has exposed how dependent the UK is on other nations to keep its population fed and warm. Politicians have been served a wakeup call about the importance of energy and food independence, a point hammered home this week by Sir Kier Starmer, who outlined plans for the UK to become a “clean energy superpower”.


What comes next?

We still care about what is happening in Ukraine. It continues to dominate news headlines, while blue and yellow flags are still seen on high streets across the UK and beyond. This week the entire road outside the Russian Embassy in London was daubed in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. A recent survey found that global public opinion about the conflict has barely changed since the weeks following the country’s invasion and that citizens of most western nations remain steadfast in their support of Ukraine.

Through this bleak moment in history comes real hope that the Ukraine conflict will swing the pendulum from dark to light, resetting what is ultimately important to us as individuals, the brands we know and trust, and the politicians who represent us.