Russian Business Leaders in a Time of War

Heads of Russian companies have adapted to extreme adversity by remaining apolitical, resilient and resourceful.

Last year Russia President Vladimir Putin started two undeclared wars that dramatically changed the context for business in the country. The first war, begun on February 24, was a conventional war against Ukraine in which Russian forces began attacking Ukrainian cities, towns, villages and infrastructure. The second was a hybrid war against the West, in which Putin used natural, financial and informational resources to inflict damage on Western countries and strengthen his position at home.

Putin’s aggression and the West’s swift decision to supply Ukraine with military equipment and impose unprecedented economic sanctions on Russian organisations and individuals created a new and heightened level of turbulence and uncertainty for Russian business leaders. While being Russian doesn’t imply that they support the values or actions of their country’s government, it does mean that they have to bear the brunt of the resulting uncertainty and disruption.

A study conducted by the Skolkovo School of Management in March 2022 identified five key challenges facing heads of Russian companies: extreme contextual volatility, leaders’ inability to make any prognosis, employees’ stress and psychological trauma, the need to retain key talent while reducing headcount, and the leaders’ own emotional state and motivation.

The study found that Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine and to openly confront the West came as a surprise to most Russian business leaders. Whether traditionalist or global-minded, they did not want the war. Their initial reaction was, in the words of one CEO of a large state-owned company: “Shocked, sad and mad.”

Getting on with business

Shortly after the outbreak of the war, the Skolkovo study found a small but noticeable number of Russian business leaders decided to exit. Their withdrawals took different forms, the most radical being to relocate themselves and their businesses to a different country. As one founder and president of a reputable consulting company said to me: “Now it’s the last chance to do something meaningful outside of Russia.”

Some sold or closed their businesses and emigrated, while others left the country but continued to own and manage their Russia-based businesses. Another group of senior executives quit their jobs because of the imposed or potential Western sanctions but continued to exercise significant influence behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, most Russian business leaders have stayed in the country and continued in their roles. Based on business media reports as well as my personal interactions with some of these executives, I identified several patterns of behaviour during the first year of the war.


Resilience is a key feature of Russian national culture. Many business leaders were done mourning the past in a matter of weeks. They then rolled up their sleeves to face the new challenges, scanning the environment for cues on how to navigate the new maze and delving into every detail in ensuring business continuity.

As a CEO of a commercial bank told me: “After 24 February I drank for a week. Then I said to myself: ‘You cannot take five million clients out of this country. You have to find ways to serve them under the new situation’. I stopped drinking and immersed myself in creative work.”

Taking responsibility for their organisations

Russian business leaders did not waste time blaming Putin, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky or US President Joe Biden for the turmoil their businesses experienced. Nor did they expect the Russian government to help them in any significant way. Rather, they assumed personal responsibility for the fate of their organisations and committed to keeping them alive. For some companies this translated into salary cuts, putting people on reduced time and closing some product and business lines.

Remaining apolitical

With a few exceptions, such as the CEOs of large government-owned companies who openly supported the war in Ukraine, Russian business leaders kept a low profile and did not make their views on current events known either publicly or privately. They steered clear of politics and asked employees to do the same. In an autocratic country, business leaders consider such an approach to be the best risk-mitigation policy.

As one owner of multiple businesses explained: “Many people in the West are shocked that Russian businesspeople do not publicly condemn the war. But they just do not understand the situation in Russia. If I say what I think I will lose my assets, my employees will lose their jobs, my customers will not be served, but the war will go on.”

Adapting with ingenuity and entrepreneurship

Russian business leaders saw both risks and opportunities in the new situation. They worked hard to mitigate the former and capitalise on the latter. The Skolkovo study reported that 45 percent of respondents engaged their companies in proactive adaptation, which included rethinking strategy; altering financial management, operations and logistics; and changing organisational structures and headcounts.

Business leaders also analysed the sanctions imposed on Russia for loopholes and to design schemes to circumvent them. The general trend was to replace European Union partners with those from China and to some extent India; source critical components through Turkey, Azerbaijan or Armenia; and work with Russian suppliers on developing substitutes for Western goods.

Western sanctions triggered not just disruptions but also new opportunities. Notably, following McDonald’s exit from Russia, Siberian entrepreneur Alexander Govor quickly acquired and rebranded the chain’s entire 850 outlets to Vkusno – i Tochka (“Delicious. Full stop”), saving the jobs of 62,000 Russian employees. Some business leaders also aggressively hired talent, went after competitors’ customers and negotiated M&A deals. To retain high-performing staff, many Russian companies allowed, and in some cases helped, male employees who would have come under pressure to fight in the war to emigrate and work remotely. Some companies even arranged exemptions with the military authorities.

Supporting their teams and companies

The Skolkovo study indicated that despite their personal values, political views or assessment of the situation, most Russian business leaders remained optimistic about the longer term while recognising that things might become worse in the short term. They remained confident in their abilities to navigate yet another crisis, and even strengthen their companies. Executives sought to instill that optimism into their organisations, often by increasing the frequency of their interactions with their teams. Some business owners and CEOs paid a one-time extraordinary bonus to all their employees while others provided free psychological help.

Many leaders I spoke with emphasised the importance of framing the situation in a positive way. They talked about new opportunities and preserving investments, including those in people development, and sharing good news no matter how small. 

Staying on top of adversity

It is obviously hard to give any advice to Russian business leaders who find themselves facing such an adverse context. However, based on my past research I can at least suggest three recommendations that any business leader forced to operate under conditions of extreme adversity may want to consider.

  1. Keep a long-term prospective and think about avoiding regret

The deeper the crisis, the stronger its impact on a leader’s legacy. However, emergencies often trigger knee-jerk reactions. Leaders may neglect the bigger picture and long-term consequences of their actions and non-actions. They ought to remember that a person’s life is longer and bigger than any job and consider what is important in their wider lives as well as the regrets they want to avoid. Such reflection will help to answer the essential questions many executives struggle with but do not dare face: Should I continue in my role? If yes, what contribution to the world do I want to make and how do I want to be remembered? What are the values that will guide my work in the next few years?  

  1. Share leadership

In times of uncertainty leaders tend to consolidate responsibility and authority in themselves. But not only does this put enormous psychological pressure on them, it is simply not effective. Smart leaders invite their people to share the burden by making plans and decisions together, delegating authority and enabling leadership at all levels of the company.

  1. Look after yourself

Leading under adversity requires high levels of physical and mental fitness. This fitness has to be maintained through a consistent regimen of adequate rest, nutrition, physical exercise, meditation, sojourns in nature, meetings with close friends and moments of spontaneity.

Some Russian business leader have tried to reframe their new reality. The CEO of an industrial holding confided that he realised that the old order would never come back, the new one was going to be messy and he had to be very careful not to compromise his values in that emerging reality. Many executives simply reduced or stopped consuming news about the war. Many tried to stay physically healthy and were selective about the company they kept.

Other leaders adopted radical acceptance just to stay sane. As one CEO of a tech company said to me: “I cannot do anything about the war, so I stopped thinking about it and concentrate on what I have control over – my business.”





Edited by:

Lee Seok Hwai

About the author(s)

Stanislav Shekshnia

is a Senior Affiliate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise at INSEAD.

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