President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine made a live remote appearance at the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute’s CEO Summit on June 8, calling for unity in support of his country’s efforts to repel Russia and asking business and government leaders to both isolate Russia and invest in Ukraine’s recovery.
Responding to questions from Sarah Eisen of CNBC, which carried the event live, Zelensky said, “This is our common war. The companies that are represented in the Russian market should leave. The most important thing is, do not pay taxes to the Russian financial system, because this money is used to fund this Russian war machine that is killing Ukrainians. As the president of Ukraine, I’d like your companies to consider not only the option of leaving Russia but also finding their place in the Ukrainian economy.”
Zelensky appeared at the invitation of Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute and the creator and host of the CEO Summit, who has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine and an advocate within the business community for disengagement from Russia in response to the war. Most famously, Sonnenfeld and a team of staff and students created “the Russia list,” tracking the companies that have ended their operations in Russia and those that have remained.
At the CEO Summit, Zelensky received the Legend in Leadership Award for his actions since the invasion. “There is no description of President Zelensky that does not include the word ‘hero,’” Sonnenfeld said in announcing the award. “The world has seen why over these last months. Ever since President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, the contrast between Presidents Putin and Zelensky could not be more clear.”
Every country has an interest in defending Ukraine, Zelensky said. “The distance between people, between countries, has been curtailed significantly” because of weapons technology, he said. “If the enemy can reach us, it can reach every country of the European Union. And I’m sure that the enemy can reach the United States. We strive to defend the principles of democracy and freedom.”
Asked by Lloyd Blankfein, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, how the war can reach an acceptable outcome, Zelensky called for further isolation of Russia. “Russia has a voracious appetite,” he said. “It does not abide by laws of business, which means they’re going to dictate their own terms to you as well. So can you really do business with Russia now? Can you have your branches, your offices, in this country?”
Farooq Kathwari, the CEO of Ethan Allen, evoking the continuing fallout from Russia’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, asked about unintended consequences of the current war. Zelensky enumerated cascading effects that are already unfolding, including economic repercussions for the neighboring countries that have absorbed refugees, environmental damage dating to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, the disruption of education caused by children missing school and teachers forced to teach in Russian in occupied areas, and Russia’s disabling of credit card systems. “We have a huge era of economic, environmental, and social challenges” on the horizon, he said.
Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, said that on his visits to the Ukraine-Poland border, he saw “something that I saw that I had never seen in other conflict places…ordinary citizens lining up to receive [refugees] and sharing what they have. That is something that as human beings we are hungry to see.”
How can the business community respond to the humanitarian crisis that has stemmed from the war?, Ulukaya asked.
“Ukrainian people want to come back to Ukraine,” Zelensky said. There are refugees throughout Europe and North America, he noted. “All of these people need support. I can say it candidly: they need financial support.”
In introducing the presentation of the Legend in Leadership Award, Sonnenfeld said that Zelensky has consistently tried to keep the spotlight off himself and on the Ukrainian people. “He’s made it clear. He does not like grandiosity; as courageous as he is, he is also humble. We’re going to ignore that.”
Speaking remotely in tribute, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told Zelensky that the discussion had highlighted the “importance of providing you with a guarantee of long-term support, when sometimes the attention of the media can fade.
“It takes a lot of courage and guts to do what you have done. You have reminded us all again of the power of democracy and the power of the sovereign ideal.”