Sometimes it is easy to work out the right thing to do and the right place to be. In the 1980’s, serving in the military as part of the NATO defense forces in west Germany made simple sense to me- the Soviet Union on our Eastern border had been the greatest threat to freedom since the cold war began in 1945. Today, the free world understands that Russia is again under the control of a dictator who has brutally invaded a neighboring country which posed no threat, while keeping all details of the war from his own subjects. The Ukrainians have made clear what they can and will do – their choice also made simple sense to them. The decision for NATO and its leaders is, of course, a trickier one. The only clarity is that the strategy must be based on strength in unity amongst the allies, whether imposing sanctions or sending military aid. That will be easier to maintain, as with any alliance, if we show a willingness to share burdens where they fall unequally amongst partners.
What more can we do ? I am a businessman and I have been impressed with the voluntary actions and sanctions that so many companies around the world have implemented against Russia, from Exxon to IKEA to McKinsey. It is possible that the Trump era has actually spurred pro-democracy activism. The number of American companies that stepped forward to condemn the January 6th insurrection and deny the lies and misinformation about fraud in the 2020 election, has been heartening.
The choice of sanctions seems relatively straightforward – although maybe not quite as straightforward in every case. With the complete closure of any free press by Putin, business communication with Russian suppliers or customers might have provided one medium for the flow of truth about the war into Russia.
Today, after a career principally in publishing, I run a toy company, Wicked Uncle Gifts , choosing the toys we offer very carefully and catering particularly to those who don’t know what to buy for the children in their life – including grandparents like myself. I have no Russian suppliers that I could sanction or even talk to.
But I do have a Ukrainian supplier of great toys and gifts. It is hard to remember that business, including exports, has to continue in wartime. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that, during the second world war, although British exports fell to a low point in 1943, they were never less than 49% in value of what they had been before the war - $1,880 million in 1938. (Source: British Board of Trade Statistics). They continued to be significant economically as well as in terms of morale.
So I reached out on Friday to Wise Elk Toys, our Ukrainian supplier, expecting to talk to their US distributor, and found myself connected directly to their CEO at one of the factories in western Ukraine. We reviewed what stock he had available already over here, actually in Frederick, Maryland. An order is now on its way. And he is working hard keeping his operations going and arranging for more shipments of toys to the US market. And my team here agreed unanimously that all proceeds will be contributed to Ukrainian relief funds – we chose World Central Kitchen. We have organized all the Ukrainian toys together in one place – Toys from Ukraine.
It does not seem like much but, as he said, “every small step takes us closer to freedom”. The situation, he said last week, continues to be “scary”, with the airport he uses to fly to Kiev bombed yesterday, but he and his family are more positive than they have been.
Normal terms in the toy industry are 30 days. Trying to be helpful, I offered to pay for the current order by bank transfer in advance. His answer speaks volumes – “We are OK. We hope NET 30 should work well for us.”