What attitude should companies take to Russia?

Russia has annexed Crimea – what is a company to do about it? Russia has ignored due process in annexing the Crimea, yet the level of popular support for Russia in the Crimea seems very high. And Ukraine is clearly split – but then it has been tossed between higher powers, like so much of Europe, for much of the past millennium.

No doubt there will be some companies that are instructed to implement the sanctions that the US and EU have agreed – but what about all the others? Should they show solidarity with the West in some way? Should that follow the precedent of the sanctions – effectively  harassing Russian citizens? Would it mean avoiding business with Russia? Should energy companies seek alternative supplies of gas, for example? And perhaps those companies with ties to Russia should do the reverse? Should Russian-owned football clubs stage pro-Russia events?

That would simply inflame the situation.

In reaction, some will say that companies have no business in politics and want to get on with business as usual, avoiding politics altogether. Yet it is probably just the same companies that are busy lobbying governments hard behind the scenes to legislate in their interest. Isn’t that political?

And there are some political situations that are so horrific that action by companies seems entirely justified: the apartheid era in South Africa was one. Yet even in this case there was considerable debate about whether the sanctions hurt the very people they were designed to help. Of course in such cases much will depend on what the people affected actually want to happen.

There are a few lessons here:

  1. political situations by their nature are extremely complex and always different – so there are no general rules for action, or for inaction
  2. the fact that there are no rules does not mean that companies can just ignore such issues; they have a moral duty to work out what their attitude should be
  3. it is reasonable to ask any company (for which the Russian situation is relevant) just what their attitude towards Russia may be.

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