I recently chaired a business gathering, where I mentioned “the Ukraine crisis” in my introductory remarks. A few minutes later, a speaker from the Baltics keenly emphasised that “it’s a war, not a crisis”. While the semantics are up for debate, it’s a case in point for different perceptions of the same event. I’m far from the thick of the military action, and tend to look at the events through the lens of the growing myriad humanitarian, political and economic crises. In the Baltics, as well as eastern Europe, it’s a different story. War is at their doorsteps, defence troops and reservists are being deployed at the border, and the fear of being next in line for Vladimir Putin’s ambition is tangible. 

As a global magazine, we have readers across the world, and their perception of the Ukraine war can differ greatly. The most flawed perception of all is that there is a worldwide consensus against Russia’s invasion. The majority of Russians buy into Mr Putin’s narratives of a “military operation” against a rogue neighbour and Nato aggression. An independent poll by the London School of Economics found that 53% of the Russians surveyed (in Russia) seem to support the war – less than official polls, but still a majority. Online polls in China also show more popular support for Russia than Ukraine. While the government’s tight control of the media in both countries inevitably sways perceptions, that’s not the case in India, where the media tells of divided public opinion and a prime minister — the otherwise polarising Narendra Modi — who continues to preach neutrality. 

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At a political level, although a resolution by the UN general assembly has overwhelmingly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 2, likes of China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Vietnam, representing 40% of the world’s population, abstained from doing so. Besides, only a handful of liberal democracies followed in the footsteps of the US, the EU and the UK in slapping sanctions on Russia. At the heart of the EU itself, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban went as far as publicly calling the Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky “an opponent” as he celebrated a new victory in elections on April 3. 

They say perception is reality, and today perceptions matter more than ever in defining patterns of global investment. With stakeholder capitalism unleashed, Western companies have somewhat become business ambassadors of the stakeholders they represent. Companies are picking sides and pulling out of Russia en masse (see cover story, page 18). There are early signals of capital pulling out of China too. Today, the idea that trade and investment promote peace, prosperity and, eventually, liberal institutions has become obsolete. “Trading with autocrats promotes autocracy, not democracy,” wrote journalist and historian Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic magazine in March.  

A multipolar order is bound to replace the kind of liberal globalisation that followed the fall of communism (see page 24). Foreign investment is already charting the lines of this new world order with Western investors, typically the biggest source of cross-border investment, retrenching back to the safety of domestic markets or like-minded partner countries. 

Further polarisation will come in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Nuanced or realistically mixed views [will] become rarer and rarer until, in the end, the thing just plays itself out in endless, almost meaninglessly simplistic tribal or identity-based oppositions,” independent policy expert Simon Anholt tells me. Companies have two options: either they deepen the symbiosis with their stakeholder base and become expressions of this tribalism; or they leave ethics to regulators and find their way around this new world order to make shareholders happy. 

This article first appeared in the April/May 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.