ALEX BRUMMER: Unilever’s Putin stand-off

Unilever’s Putin stand-off: By keeping Russia supplied, group is making life more comfortable for the aggressors in Ukraine, says ALEX BRUMMER

  • Unilever stayed open in Russia during last year of grisly warfare
  • Group trades under banner of making ‘sustainable living commonplace’
  • Company has earned estimated £500m since start of conflict 

Amid the drama of assembling a force of Leopard tanks and fighter jets to repel the latest Russian offensive in Ukraine, the execution of the West’s financial crusade has fallen off the radar.

The Russian economy is in a far better place than Nato may have hoped, with the IMF projecting recovery this year and next.

Russian oil and other trades have been directed to non-sanctioning nations.

And in spite of Western support, Ukraine’s economy is being pushed to the limits with output projected to tumble by a further 5 per cent this year.

The willingness of China, India et al to keep trade alive with Vladimir Putin in the face of sanctions makes it imperative that Western firms tighten the noose.

Staying put: Unilever has a big presence in Russia, with 3,500 employees and four major production facilities

It is humiliating for Britain’s luxury fashion house Paul Smith that its latest emblematic clothing designs were still on display a year after the outbreak of hostilities. Smith has had to beat a hasty retreat.

What is even more startling is that the UK’s flagship consumer good group Unilever, which trades under the banner of making ‘sustainable living commonplace’, has stayed open in Russia during the last year of grisly warfare. The maker of Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Magnum ice cream has earned an estimated £500m since the start of the conflict.

Unilever has a big presence in Russia, with 3,500 employees and four major production facilities. It has maintained that it didn’t want to damage the welfare of its staff.

Yet there is no escaping the fact that by keeping Russia supplied with hygiene and other products, the group is making life more comfortable for the aggressors in a blood-stained conflict.

Continued presence is a direct affront to Unilever’s image as apostles of ethical investing. In contrast to Unilever’s pussyfooting, some of the great names of capitalism showed little hesitation in pulling out.

Goldman Sachs had a thriving investment banking arm in Russia, reaching deep into the country’s commerce. It moved rapidly to sever ties with the rest of Goldman and the financial system, and the rump was bought out by local managers.

Western sanctions may have hurt living standards in Moscow, but have not brought the country to its knees.

When they were first imposed, it was thought that financial measures such as cutting off Putin from the Swift money transfer system and the Western banks would bring his kleptocracy to its knees.

Banking sanctions finally brought the apartheid regime in South Africa to its senses. The big difference is that Pretoria was under siege from both the West and the non-aligned world.

Putin has forged an alliance of the disgruntled which reinforces still unquenched territorial ambition.

City slickers

A widely held view when Britain left the EU was that the ability of the City to exercise influence over financial trading in Europe would be diminished.

The EU was desperate to ditch the Anglo-Saxon model. Among other things, it proposed a clampdown on dark trading – or pools which allow critical players such as big battalion investors to deal without disclosing details until they are completed. Brussels looks to have decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. Just a few weeks ago, Euronext chiefs were making dubious claims about having overtaken the London Stock Exchange for share trading.

In an interview with the journal The Trade, Simon Gallagher, Euronext’s head of cash and derivatives, concedes: ‘The weight of the Financial Conduct Authority and the City in European regulation has never been greater. Post-Brexit the City is defining the rules of Continental Europe more than ever before.’

The government view – that of all the economy’s sectors, the Square Mile was fit enough to swim on its own – is being vindicated.

Lotus position

Remember Lotus? Colin Chapman’s Norfolk-based racing and fast cars were seen as a triumph of British engineering.

But like so many brilliant UK car marques, it failed commercially and ended up in the hands of China, with the advanced engineering – some of which inspired the Tesla Roadster – remaining on these shores.

There are now plans to float Lotus Technology in New York with a heady valuation of £4.4billion. What that will mean for Lotus UK, the brains and heritage behind the brand, is anyone’s guess. Why New York rather than London? Just check the performance of Ferrari versus Aston Martin.