Why McDonald’s Leaving Russia Might Be Just What Putin Wants

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Mikhail Gorbachev walked leisurely through a grey and empty Red Square with his granddaughter, while an umbrella helped him dodge snow. Year: 1997. With Saint Basil’s Cathedral behind them, the pair walked into what purported to be a Pizza Hut in the center of a liberalizing Moscow, staged as part of an American advertising campagne. The Gorbachevs were seated in the corner of an independent but real Moscow-area Pizza Hut—and camera crews rolled—actors debated the legacy of the then-former Soviet leader until the matriarch of the family interjected in subtitled Russian: “Because of him, we have many things, like Pizza Hut.”
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And because of one of Gorbachev’s successors, those same Russians today do not.

Pizza Hut joins the list of Western-based businesses that have announced they will close their Russian offices as the invasion of Ukraine nears its two week mark. Western leaders in and out of government have been tightening the screws on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has caused a two-million-strong refugee crisis, a spike in gas prices, and a unified front of Western allies against Moscow’s march. Although the Russian leader’s life has been made more difficult by the symbiotic efforts of government and business, it could have unexpected effects on cultural diplomacy.

It’s one thing to turn off access to foreign capital and the flow of Russian OilTo the United States. It’s another to turn off the latte machine at Starbucks. Even in the morally most corrupt world of politics, symbols do matter. ParticularIt all comes down to Food.

It has resulted in Uncle Sam being recalled from Moscow. This is a remarkable reversal since the Cold War. As Moscow opened up to the West’s footprint three decades ago, Big Mac CasesThey became status symbols. Cultural interactions between these two world powers helped to ease tensions and soften the image of Eagle in the Land of the Betrayed Bear.

Companies like Ford and Boeing, as well as the Big Four Big Four accounting firms and financial institutions such American Express, have a presence. Taken outRussia has eliminated thousands of jobs, and made billions of dollars in goods and service. Some, though, Recognize the damage they could deak their reputations—if not America’s standing—with a total shutdown; PepsiCo is Continue to process milk, cheese and baby formula at its Russian sites while McDonald’s will keep PaymentEven though 850 counters were closed, 62,000 of its employees remain.

Russia may feel more pressure to tighten its ties with the West. In this way, Putin could be able to achieve his economic goal by withdrawing his forces from Ukraine. It is possible that Putin will lose his power, as Putin’s oligarchs decide and his people agree that Putin has had enough of near-absolute power for two decades.

But the Cold War ended as much because of the Soviet system’s flaws as the West’s cultural creep into Mother Russia. Gorbachev tried to strengthen the system with transparency and accountability. He also opened the country up to those who wanted to think about the West. Ultimately, the system couldn’t sustain it and, in part, consumerism conquered the planned economies. The story Russians told themselves about their glory couldn’t stand the scrutiny.

Putin for his part declares the demise of the Soviet system. greatest tragedy, one he’s trying to remedy. Which is why he won’t mourn the retreat of Western companies from his backyard.

The history of the world has demonstrated time and again how engagement can bring down rogue nations. There’s a reason Iran’s leaders FearThe rising generation has been there since the beginning. KnownPopular media and the Internet have made the West more accessible to the masses. The Arab Spring was a byproduct of citizens realizing the system being imposed on them didn’t have to be as repressive or corrupt—in part through Social media. North KoreaIt survives because its borders are completely sealed for the majority of its residents. These nations are one step below autocracy. ChinaBy cutting off information access, a person can retain power.

Western companies are clearly hoping they can do their part to end the war on civilians in Ukraine, and many governments in the West are welcoming them as partners in the fight against Putin’s cruelty. But there is a second edge to this scalpel: breaking up with Russia surrenders the West’s toehold inside the country. America preached its gospel of capitalism’s superiority through consumerism, and Russians were ready congregants.

Like Moscow’s embrace of change as the Cold War ended, the corporate embrace of this anti-Russia agenda may turn out to be a temporary glitch. Similar to the situation during the DivertissementCampaigns against ApartheidThe current BDSIsrael’s enemies are not the corporations. Corporations have an obligation to their shareholders. ESG only provides so much cover to promote an agenda that might be in conflict with the companies’ stated fiduciary goals. It was fun to play with “Waking capitalism” during the Trump years and consider it a moral stance, but the choice to oppose the erratic President who could move markets with a tweet ultimately was in CEOs’ best interests.

Companies may eventually realize isolation isn’t the best path for ending Russian attacks on Ukraine. The Soviet system was schlerotic by design, but societies find ways of evolving because powerful ideas don’t respect borders or central committees. Soviets were made to question the Soviet system by cultural diplomacy. Gorbachev was aware of this and initiated a number of reforms that he believed could save the system. Ultimately, he could not stave off the West—and ended up starring in that Pizza Hut commercial.

Yes, let’s go back to that one-minute ad once again. It’s an artifact of an era that saw Gorbachev as a symbol of the West’s victory over its Cold War menace. While the advertisement was never broadcast in Russia it became clear that the symbolic meaning of the American pizza chain which used Gorbachev as the emblem for a changing world was apparent. Gorbachev had recognized America’s inevitability, allowing McDonald’s to open its first store in Pushkin Square in 1990; opening day served 38,000 customers, the global fast food company’s biggest day to date. “I felt like I was eating America itself,” one man SubmittedVOA at the 30th anniversary celebration of store opening.

And, in another symbol of the West’s relationship with Russia, that store will now close as part of the Western withdrawal. One has to wonder what a darkened pair of golden arches in Moscow says about America’s cultural dominance. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to see Putin grinning like Ronald McDonald.

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