When Russia began its murderous rampage through Ukraine last February, many top brands quickly cut their ties with the rogue nation. Still, there is more to be done. Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to prevail by a long, drawn-out process of attrition and disinformation. Brands can use their voice in the public discourse to beat him at his own game.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin accomplished the unthinkable when he leveraged his nation’s nuclear weapons capability to launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine,” TriplePundit observed on March 9 last year. “Most likely he and other leaders in Russia assumed that Ukraine’s western allies would capitulate when faced with catastrophe on a global scale.”
Putin correctly calculated that the U.S., Canada and European members of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) would not send troops into Ukraine, out of concern for sparking a fire leading to a third World War in Europe. Putin also anticipated that Russia’s influence on global fossil energy markets would sideline Germany and other nations.
He did not foresee, though, that the brand reputation factor would come into play. In a display of corporate agility in world markets, the leading global oil and gas companies BP, Shell and ExxonMobil announced they were disengaging from Russia within days after the unprovoked invasion.
Grassroots boycott campaigns also had an impact. Good Lobby and Progressive Shopper are two examples of online indexes that enable consumers around the world to find out which brands have cut ties with Russia. The Yale School of Management also created an index of hundreds of U.S. companies that withdrew or reduced their footprint in Russia within weeks after the invasion.
“We realize that some companies already do business with many other repressive and murderous regimes around the world,” the School of Management team wrote on April 7 last year. “But now there’s a chance to draw a line with one country, over one unprovoked war of aggression, and make a difference.”
Through their voluntary withdrawal from Russia, U.S. businesses provided a significant measure of high-profile, private-sector support for government sanctions, and those sanctions have had a significant impact on the Russian economy. Nevertheless, the war grinds on. The problem now is time. President Putin apparently hopes to cling to the invasion long enough to wear down Western resolve, forcing Ukraine to give up large parts of its sovereign territory in exchange for peace.
The prospect of reinstalling former U.S. President Donald Trump or another apparent Russian ally in the White House after the 2024 election cycle is another factor that threatens to draw out the bloodshed and expand the list of proven and alleged war crimes attributed to Russia.
The sanctions and corporate boycotts were just the first, and perhaps the easiest, step in the long process of undermining Putin's power. The problem now is cutting through the Russian disinformation machine, which threatens to erode public support for the alliance against Russia.
Writing for Foreign Affairs in January, Vladimir Milov urged policymakers to look past the disinformation. He listed several areas in which Putin’s claims of a healthier economy are misleading if not outright false.
“Putin has invested significant resources in a disinformation campaign aimed at misleading Western policymakers about the real effects of sanctions. But make no mistake: they are, in fact, hobbling the Russian economy,” Milov wrote. He warned that succumbing to disinformation could lead Western allies to drop the sanctions, providing a “lifeline” to Putin.
Tearing aside the veil of misinformation, Milov wrote that the sanction are in fact having a significant impact. “Putin’s attempts to improve his country’s financial prospects include import substitution, or favoring the development of domestic industries and reducing reliance on manufactured imports; redirecting trade and investment flows to Asia; and sourcing semiconductors and other goods from countries such as Turkey to circumvent Western sanctions. None of these approaches will solve Russia’s problems,” Milov concluded.
CNN reporters Jeremy Diamond and Sam Fossum issued a similar warning earlier this week. “A year of unprecedented, U.S.-led sanctions designed to isolate one of the world’s largest economies has left Russia weakened, but not incapacitated,” they wrote.
The Joe Biden administration is now going a step beyond the macro-economic sanctions to add a micro-economic element, scooping up companies and individuals that do not necessarily have a public-facing brand reputation to protect in the U.S. “After a year focused on trying to wrangle countries into compliance with U.S. sanctions through a combination of technical assistance and delicate diplomacy, the administration now plans to take its efforts directly to individual companies," Diamond and Fossum reported.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo elaborated further: “If they continue to sell Russia materials in support of their war effort, then they’re not going to have access to the economies of our coalition, which frankly represent a far bigger customer to them.” The Biden administration has already sanctioned about 200 companies and individuals as of last Friday, CNN reported.
Leading brands can also pitch in to raise the pressure on Russia. Even after cutting ties, they can still exercise their influence on popular opinion in the U.S. The corporate voice is more important now than ever before, as Russia has apparently begun to deploy its disinformation resources to raise doubts about the very existence of a war in Ukraine.
That may seem ridiculous on its face, but it is of a piece with the influential Sandy Hook massacre conspiracy theories fostered by Alex Jones and other extremist pundits, who persistently alleged that the mass shooting never took place. Other high-profile examples include the notorious “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory and the rise of the Q-Anon movement, which factored directly into the bloody attempt at insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Disinformation about the existence of Russia's war in Ukraine began to spread suddenly on Twitter earlier this week, where the site’s owner Elon Musk has publicly aligned himself with white supremacists and right-wing extremists. Any brands that still support the site with their advertising dollars should be paying attention to that.
Above all, brands need to fight back against insurrection in all its forms, up to and including the legislative attacks on the civil rights of transgender persons and drag performers spreading across a growing number of statehouses, a movement that is supported on the streets by the Proud Boys and other extremist organizations that participated in the Jan. 6 riots.
Image credit: Mathias Reding/Pexels
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.