Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv to meet Volodymyr Zelensky on Feb. 20, four days before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was short on time – the U.S. president spent only around five hours in the capital – but long on symbolism.
It was no coincidence the 80-year-old chose Presidents’ Day to set foot in an active war zone to discuss the situation with his Ukrainian counterpart in a show of collective strength and solidarity. He defied threats of Russian missile attacks to announce an additional package of U.S. weapons and supplies worth $500 million.
Biden emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to the cause. “Freedom is priceless,” he said. “It’s worth fighting for, for as long as it takes.” Can business leaders echo this assurance?
However, the initial flurry of support for Ukraine by businesses worldwide a year ago has dwindled. To an extent, it was inevitable that so-called “Ukraine fatigue” set in, with the bright lights of the world’s media dimming over time.
At January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Amnesty International secretary general Agnès Callamard said: “When you get into meetings with corporate actors, it has not been my experience that Ukraine is the primary concern of the agenda.” She lamented a sense that business leaders had “done what needed to be done for Ukraine.”
While many companies have suspended dealings with Russia, over 1,230 international companies are still trading with Vladimir Putin’s country, indirectly funding the war effort, according to the latest Leave Russia data.
Some technology leaders, however, have sustained their support. For example, Google has contributed $15 million in donations and in-kind support to aid relief efforts in Ukraine. And in November, Microsoft revealed plans to extend technology support free of charge for Ukraine throughout 2023 and provide tech aid worth approximately $100 million.
Sustaining the momentum of international support is a leadership challenge for 45-year-old Zelensky, said U.K.-based Bernd Vogel, professor of leadership at Henley Business School. He argued that other business leaders can learn a lot from the indefatigable Ukrainian president in terms of “mobilizing exhausted people and organizations.”
“Being up against a deep survival-type threat galvanizes people,” said Prof. Vogel. “It activates human energy for the bigger cause.” The dilemma for Zelensky, though, is that “this perceived threat might fade” on the global stage, he added. “Inside Ukraine, the devastating experience of war is still a reality, but in the U.K. and the U.S., our attention is fleeting, and interest could easily disappear.”
Pleasingly, there are several instances where organizations have continued their support for Ukraine-based workers. For example, Let’s Enhance, a Ukrainian-U.S. photo-editing company headquartered in San Francisco – but with about half of the workforce made up of Ukrainians – has assisted with relocation, accommodation, and insurance costs, for employees and their relatives.
That’s not all. Sofiia Shvets, a Ukrainian national and co-founder of Let’s Enhance, said: “We support and preserve jobs for those employees who decided to defend their homeland.”
Most importantly, considering the longevity of a war that has no end in sight, Let’s Enhance is also providing “sessions of psychological support, constant calls with recruiters, and online meetings aimed at supporting mental health,” added Shvets.
Supporting mental health struggles
This approach chimed with Vadim Rogovskiy, co-founder and CEO of 3DLOOK, a business-to-business retail tech company headquartered in San Mateo, California. The New York-based Ukrainian relocated around 70 members of the team who were in the country when Russian tanks rolled over the border. It has been an administrative and logistical challenge, he admitted. “From navigating immigration laws to helping employees receive their salaries in different countries in the EU [European Union] while maintaining their immigration status there, our excellent legal team has been working tirelessly to provide advice and guidance on any issues 3DLOOK team members may be struggling with.”
Rogovskiy continued: “Everyone is now safe and well, but we have all suffered loss. By far our most important initiative has been introducing a range of activities to ease the mental pressures on our team.” He explained how 3DLOOK has launched weekly guided meditations and monthly Zoom parties to encourage everyone to chat, play games and unwind.
Today, “positivity and kindness” are the watchwords, Rogovskiy said. In this vein, the organization has partnered with Gladpet, a non-profit that discourages people from buying pets but instead promotes the adoption of homeless pets from shelters. “There are so many pets looking for a loving home in Ukraine, especially now many have had to flee and leave their furry friends behind,” he added. “It gives us all a greater sense of community and fulfillment while reminding us that there is still so much good in the world.”
As a final example, Laba Group – a parent company of various online learning platforms – moved a 350-stong team from Ukraine when the war broke out last February. The organization set up offices in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania, and some employees are now operating elsewhere in Europe. Many employees soon returned to their hometowns in Ukraine.
Los Angeles-based co-founder and CEO Eugene Feldman said: “Because of that, we have decided to rent a house for our employees in the western part of Ukraine so that they can feel safe, live, and work without blackouts.” Almost half of the team has been working there since last November.
Feldman said the company had bought “powerful generators and equipped a backup office in case there’s no electricity in the main one.” He added that offline meetings and team movie nights had been reintroduced to support and motivate the local team in Ukraine. “This way, people can switch from news and work to simple things that can inspire them.”