Western firms say they’re quitting Russia. Where’s the proof?

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BERLIN — In an earlier life as a reporter in Moscow, I once knocked on the door of an apartment listed as the home address of the boss of company that, our year-long investigation showed, was involved in an elaborate scheme to siphon billions of dollars out of Russia’s state railways through rigged tenders.

To my surprise, the man who opened the door wore only his underwear. He confirmed that his identity had been used to register the shell company. But he wasn’t a businessman; he was a chauffeur. The real owner, he told us, was his boss, one of the bankers we suspected of masterminding the scam. “Mr. Underpants,” as we called him, was amazed that it had taken so long for anyone to take an interest.

Mr. Underpants leapt immediately to mind when, nearly a decade on, I learned that a sulfurous academic dispute had erupted over whether foreign companies really are bailing out of Russia in response to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent international sanctions.

Attempting to verify corporate activity in Russia — a land that would give the murkiest offshore haven a run for its money — struck me as a fool’s errand. Company operations are habitually hidden in clouds of lies, false paperwork and bureaucratic errors. What a company says it does in Russia can bear precious little resemblance to reality.

So, who are the rival university camps trying to determine whether there really is a corporate exodus from Russia?

In the green corner (under the olive banner of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland) we have economist Simon Evenett and Niccolò Pisani of the IMD business school in Lausanne. On January 13, they released a working paper which found that less than 9 percent of Western companies (only 120 firms all told) had divested from Russia. Styling themselves as cutting through the hype of corporate self-congratulation, the Swiss-based duo said their “findings challenge the narrative that there is a vast exodus of Western firms leaving the market.”

Nearly 4,000 miles away in New Haven, Connecticut, the Swiss statement triggered uproar in Yale (the blue corner). Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, from the university’s school of management, took the St. Gallen/IMD findings as an affront to his team’s efforts. After all, the headline figure from a list compiled by Yale of corporate retreat from Russia is that 1,300 multinationals have either quit or are doing so. In a series of attacks, most of which can’t be repeated here, Sonnenfeld accused Evenett and Pisani of misrepresenting and fabricating data.

Responding, the deans of IMD and St. Gallen issued a statement on January 20 saying they were “appalled” at the way Sonnenfeld had called the rigor and veracity of their colleagues’ work into question. “We reject this unfounded and slanderous allegation in the strongest possible terms,” they wrote.

Sonnenfeld doubled down, saying the Swiss team was dangerously fueling “Putin’s false narrative” that companies had never left and Russia’s economy was resilient.

That led the Swiss universities again to protest against Sonnenfeld’s criticism and deny political bias, saying that Evenett and Pisani have “had to defend themselves against unsubstantiated attacks and intimidation attempts by Jeff Sonnenfeld following the publication of their recent study.”

How the hell did it all get so acrimonious?

Let’s go back a year.

The good fight

Within weeks of the February 24 invasion, Sonnenfeld was attracting fulsome coverage in the U.S. press over a campaign he had launched to urge big business to pull out of Russia. His team at Yale had, by mid-March, compiled a list of 300 firms saying they would leave that, the Washington Post reported, had gone “viral.”

Making the case for ethical business leadership has been Sonnenfeld’s stock in trade for over 40 years. To give his full job titles, he’s the Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies & Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Management, as well as founder and president of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute, a nonprofit focused on CEO leadership and corporate governance.

And, judging by his own comments, Sonnenfeld is convinced of the importance of his campaign in persuading international business leaders to leave Russia: “So many CEOs wanted to be seen as doing the right thing,” Sonnenfeld told the Post. “It was a rare unity of patriotic mission, personal values, genuine concern for world peace, and corporate self-interest.”

Fast forward to November, and Sonnenfeld is basking in the glow of being declared an enemy of the Russian state, having been added to a list of 25 U.S. policymakers and academics barred from the country. First Lady Jill Biden topped the list, but Sonnenfeld was named in sixth place which, as he told Bloomberg, put him “higher than [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell.”

Apparently less impressed, the Swiss team had by then drafted a first working paper, dated October 18, challenging Sonnenfeld’s claims of a “corporate exodus” from Russia. This paper, which was not published, was circulated by the authors for review. After receiving a copy (which was uploaded to a Yale server), Sonnenfeld went on the attack.

Apples and oranges

Before we dive in, let’s take a step back and look at what the Yale and Swiss teams are trying to do.

Sonnenfeld is working with the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), which launched a collaborative effort to track whether companies are leaving Russia by monitoring open sources, such as regulatory filings and news reports, supported where possible through independent confirmation.

Kyiv keeps score on its Leave Russia site, which at the time of writing said that, of 3,096 companies reviewed, 196 had already exited and a further 1,163 had suspended operations.

Evenett and Pisani are setting a far higher bar, seeking an answer to the binary question of whether a company has actually ditched its equity. It’s not enough to announce you are suspending operations, you have to fully divest your subsidiary and assets such as factories or stores. This is, of course, tough. Can you find a buyer? Will the Russians block your sale?

The duo focuses only on companies based in the G7 or the European Union that own subsidiaries in Russia. Just doing business in Russia doesn’t count; control is necessary. To verify this, they used a business database called ORBIS, which contains records of 400 million companies worldwide.

The first thought to hold onto here, then, is that the scope and methodology of the Yale and Swiss projects are quite different — arguably they are talking about apples and oranges. Yale’s apple cart comprises foreign companies doing business in Russia, regardless of whether they have a subsidiary there. The Swiss orange tree is made up of fewer than half as many foreign companies that own Russian subsidiaries, and are themselves headquartered in countries that have imposed sanctions against the Kremlin.

So, while IKEA gets an ‘A’ grade on the Yale list for shutting its furniture stores and letting 10,000 Russian staff go, it hasn’t made the clean equity break needed to get on the St. Gallen/IMD leavers’ list. The company says “the process of scaling down the business is ongoing.” If you simply have to have those self-assembly bookshelves, they and other IKEA furnishings are available online.

The second thing to keep in mind is that ORBIS aggregates records in Russia, a country where people are willing to serve as nominee directors in return for a cash handout — even a bottle of vodka. Names are often mistranslated when local companies are established — transliteration from Russian to English is very much a matter of opinion — but this can also be a deliberate ruse to throw due diligence sleuths off the trail.

Which takes us back to the top of this story: I’ve done in-depth Russian corporate investigations and still have the indelible memory of those underpants (they were navy blue briefs) to show for it.

Stacking up the evidence

The most obvious issue with the Yale method is that it places a lot of emphasis on what foreign companies say about whether they are pulling out of Russia.

There is an important moral suasion element at play here. Yale’s list is an effective way to name and shame those companies like Unilever and Mondelez — all that Milka chocolate — that admit they are staying in Russia.

But what the supposed good kids — who say they are pulling out — are really up to is a murkier business. Even if a company is an A-grade performer on the Yale list, that does not mean that Russia’s economy is starved of those goods during wartime. There can be many reasons for this. Some companies will rush out a pledge to leave, then dawdle. Others will redirect goods to Russia through middlemen in, say, Turkey, Dubai or China. Some goods will be illegally smuggled. Some companies will have stocks that last a long time. Others might hire my old friend Mr. Underpants to create an invisible corporate structure.

A stroll through downtown Moscow reveals the challenges. Many luxury brands have conspicuously shut up shop but goods from several companies on the Yale A list and B list (companies that have suspended activities in Russia) were still easy to find on one, totally random, shopping trip. The latest Samsung laptops, TVs and phones were readily available, and the shop reported no supply problems. Swatch watches, Jägermeister liquor and Dr. Oetker foods were all also on sale in downtown Moscow, including at the historic GUM emporium across Red Square from the Kremlin.

All the companies involved insisted they had ended business in Russia, but acknowledged the difficulties of continued sales. Swatch said the watches available would have to be from old stocks or “a retailer over which the company has no control.” Dr. Oetker said: “To what extent individual trading companies are still selling stocks of our products there is beyond our knowledge.” Jägermeister said: “Unfortunately we cannot prevent our products being purchased by third parties and sold on in Russia without our consent or permission.” Samsung Electronics said it had suspended Russia sales but continued “to actively monitor this complex situation to determine our next steps.”

The larger problem emerging is that sanctions are turning neighboring countries into “trading hubs” that allow key foreign goods to continue to reach the Russian market, cushioning the economic impact.

Full departure can also be ultra slow for Yale’s A-listers. Heineken announced in March 2022 it was leaving Russia but it is still running while it is “working hard to transfer our business to a viable buyer in very challenging circumstances.” It was also easy to find a Black & Decker power drill for sale online from a Russian site. The U.S. company said: “We plan to cease commerce by the end of Q2 of this year following the liquidation of our excess and obsolete inventory in Russia. We will maintain a legal entity to conduct any remaining administrative activities associated with the wind down.”

And those are just consumer goods that are easy to find! Western and Ukrainian security services are naturally more preoccupied about engineering components for Putin’s war machine still being available through tight-lipped foreign companies. Good luck trying to track their continued sales …

Who’s for real?

Faced with this gray zone, St. Gallen/IMD sought to draw up a more black-and-white methodology.

To reach their conclusions, Evenett and Pisani downloaded a list of 36,000 Russian companies from ORBIS that reported at least $1 million in sales in one of the last five years. Filtering out locally owned businesses and duplicate entries whittled down the number of owners of the Russian companies that are themselves headquartered in the G7 or EU to a master list of 1,404 entities. As of the end of November, the authors conclude, 120 companies — or 8.5 percent of the total — had left.

The Swiss team was slow, however, to release its list of 1,404 companies and, once Sonnenfeld gained access to it, he had a field day. He immediately pointed out that it was peppered with names of Russian businesses and businessmen, whom ORBIS identified as being formally domiciled in an EU or G7 country. Sonnenfeld fulminated that St. Gallen/IMD were producing a list of how few Russian companies were quitting Russia, rather than how few Western companies were doing so.

“That hundreds of Russian oligarchs and Russian companies constitute THEIR dataset of ‘1,404 western companies’ is egregious data misrepresentation,” Sonnenfeld wrote in one of several emails to POLITICO challenging the Swiss findings.

Fair criticism? Well, Sonnenfeld’s example of Yandex, the Russian Google, on the list of 1,404 is a good one. Naturally, that’s a big Russian company that isn’t going to leave Russia.

On the other hand, its presence on the list is explicable as it is based in the Netherlands, and is reported to be seeking Putin’s approval to sell its Russian units. “Of course, a large share of Yandex customers and staff are Russian or based in Russia. However, the company has offices in seven countries, including Switzerland, Israel, the U.S., China, and others. What criteria should we use to decide if it is Russian or not for the purpose of our analysis?” St. Gallen/IMD said in a statement.

Answering Sonnenfeld’s specific criticism that its list was skewed by the inclusion of Russian-owned companies, the Swiss team noted that it had modified its criteria to exclude companies based in Cyprus, a favored location for Russian entrepreneurs thanks to its status as an EU member country and its business-friendly tax and legal environment. Yet even after doing so, its conclusions remained similar.

Double knockout

Sonnenfeld, in his campaign to discredit the Swiss findings, has demanded that media, including POLITICO, retract their coverage of Evenett and Pisani’s work. He took to Fortune magazine to call their publication “a fake pro-Putin list of Western companies still doing business in Russia.”

Although he believes Evenett and Pisani’s “less than 9 percent” figure for corporates divesting equity is not credible, he bluntly declined, when asked, to provide a figure of his own.

Instead, he has concentrated on marshaling an old boys’ network — including the odd ex-ambassador — to bolster his cause. Richard Edelman, head of the eponymous public relations outfit, weighed in with an email to POLITICO: “This is pretty bad[.] Obvious Russian disinformation[.] Would you consider a retraction?” he wrote in punctuation-free English. “I know Sonnenfeld well,” he said, adding the two had been classmates in college and business school.

Who you were at school with hardly gets to the heart of what companies are doing in Russia, and what the net effect is on the Russian economy.

The greater pity is that this clash, which falls miles short of the most basic standards of civil academic discourse, does a disservice to the just cause of pressuring big business into dissociating itself from Putin’s murderous regime.

And, at the end of the day, estimates of the number of companies that have fully left Russia are in the same ballpark: The Kyiv School of Economics puts it at less than 200; the Swiss team at 120.

To a neutral outsider, it would look like Sonnenfeld and his mortal enemies are actually pulling in the same direction, trying to work out whether companies are really quitting. Yet both methodologies are problematic. What companies and databases say offers an imprecise answer to the strategic question: What foreign goods and services are available to Russians? Does a year of war mean no Samsung phones? No. Does it mean Heineken has sold out? Not yet, no.

This has now been submerged in a battle royal between Sonnenfeld and the Swiss researchers.

Appalled at his attacks on their work, St. Gallen and IMD finally sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sonnenfeld.

Yale Provost Scott Strobel is trying to calm the waters. In a letter dated February 6 and seen by POLITICO, he argued that academic freedom protected the speech of its faculty members. “The advancement of knowledge is best served when scholars engage in an open and robust dialogue as they seek accurate data and its best interpretation,” Strobel wrote. “This dialogue should be carried out in a respectful manner that is free from ad hominem attacks.”

With reporting by Sarah Anne Aarup, Nicolas Camut, Wilhelmine Preussen and Charlie Duxbury.

Douglas Busvine is Trade and Agriculture Editor at POLITICO Europe. He was posted with Reuters to Moscow from 2004-08 and from 2011-14.



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( With inputs from : www.politico.eu )

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