Multinationals in Ukraine are ready for a conflict but staying put

US and European companies say they have contingency plans ready in case of a Russian invasion, but so far they are staying put. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BERLIN/PARIS (NYTIMES) - Big US and European companies operating on the ground in Ukraine said on Friday (Feb 18) that they had contingency plans at the ready in case of a Russian invasion but so far had not ordered the relocation of employees.

Even as Western leaders turned up warnings that President Vladimir Putin of Russia may order an attack on Ukraine, executives at the multinational companies, for the most part, don't believe that Russian troops will actually follow through with a ground invasion, said Anna Derevyanko, deputy director of the European Business Association.

"Companies have put in place contingency plans, but they do not believe something terrible is going to happen," said Derevyanko, whose association includes Nestle, BASF, ArcelorMittal, Bayer and more than 1,000 European firms that employ more than 2 million people in Ukraine.

"If you ask businesspeople, they believe that a physical invasion is a low-risk scenario," she added. "There is no sense of panic."

The prospect of cyberattacks, on the other hand, is more worrisome. Government websites, state-owned banks and parts of the nation's infrastructure have battled online invasions by hackers, believed by Ukrainians to be Russians, looking to disable computers and steal data. European and US companies in Ukraine see digital attacks as one of the major threats they must deal with and have moved to strengthen their cybersecurity, Derevyanko said.

The IT Ukraine Association, which includes local and international tech companies, such as Sigma Software and video game giant Ubisoft, said that the industry's presence in the country had grown steadily since Russia's devastating invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Companies in the tech industry, now worth US$6.8 billion (S$9.2 billion), have plans to ensure the security and safety of their employees in the event of "emergencies" as part of their business strategy, the association said in a statement.

"The armed forces of Ukraine have accumulated strength, gained combat experience and is ready to defend the country and its population," the statement continued. In turn, it said, tech companies' response plans "are aimed at protecting talent and their business processes continuity".

More than 90 per cent of the tech companies surveyed this month assessed the risk of an escalation of the conflict as low to medium, the association added, noting that none had prepared for a full relocation.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine said that its 633 members, which include 3M, Toyota and Citibank, continued to do business but had contingency plans to continue working in the event of an emergency.

Most of the member companies made their plans long ago but continue to update and review them, said Andy Hunder, president of the business association.

Derevyanko, of the European Business Association, said that Ukraine was counting on continued foreign investment to help keep the economy stable. Multinationals are located around the country in agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, technology and logistics.

Ukraine's economy had only started to recover in recent years from a debilitating blow after Moscow in 2014 annexed Crimea, and pro-Russian rebels seized swathes of the eastern Donbass region in Ukraine. Since then, Western allies have seeded Ukraine and businesses operating there with more than US$48 billion in bilateral and multilateral economic support.

This week, the United States pledged to strengthen Ukraine's economy, after a statement by the Group of 7 industrial nations promising to do the same.

"For now, companies are saying they plan to continue business as usual," Derevyanko said. But the situation could yet grow complicated, especially if major seaports and airports are blocked, thwarting exports and dealing a further blow to the economy.

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