Two weeks ago we were considering life after covid. Now our staff in the region fear for their lives. We are in regular contact but it is still hard to imagine what they are going through, writes Gleeds chairman Richard Steer

richard steer BW

The conflict in Ukraine, although predicted by factions of the military, politicians and many media pundits, still came as a shock in terms of its speed and ferocity. The rate at which a mainland country the size of Germany and France combined, with a population of over 40 million people, could turn into a modern hell on earth has given us all a huge reality check.

Who could imagine that we would long for the days when the problems posed by the latest strain of covid-19 led the news bulletins?

At times such as this, there are far more important things to concern ourselves with than how an ongoing conflict may impact the price of raw materials, lead to further labour shortages or feed inflation. Just weeks ago, my own business had 15 staff based in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and while professional, measured and restrained, one could hear the concern in their voices as the Russian tanks advanced.

We are doing our best to establish daily Teams calls with those who remain to evaluate their mental as well was their physical wellbeing

Many threw the dice, deciding whether to stay or run - not a decision any of us would want to make. When there are children, parents and grandparents to consider, loading up a grab bag and exiting the capital city was not an option for all.

So, while some chose to join the estimated two million others in making the long journey to the borders, others stayed. We are doing our best to establish daily Teams calls with those who remain to evaluate their mental as well was their physical wellbeing, but it is hard to fully comprehend their suffering when this is not a shared experience.

It is also getting more difficult to keep contact now that the priority is day-to-day survival. In a modern, sophisticated democracy it is hard to imagine being cooped up in a bomb-proof shelter for days at a time, living with the dull thunder of shelling in the distance while fearing that the war creeps ever closer.

My business has had a presence in Ukraine since 2002, delivering hotels, shopping centres and contemporary office spaces. Who knows how many of these projects will survive the onslaught of Russian forces?

Elsewhere in the region, we have six established offices in Poland having worked here since the late 1980s and others in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic. We have worked in this part of the world for decades, and the insecurities of living so close to the Russian border have been a fact of life for our teams - many of whom I now consider friends as well as colleagues.

In their professional lives, they serve clients throughout central and eastern Europe and work on projects ranging from high-tech data centres to logistics parks and mixed-use schemes. Now, as they help to manage the flow of refugees flooding over their borders in Ukraine’s hour of need, they are increasingly concerned that their homelands could be next on Putin’s hit-list if he succeeds in his endeavours.

From what began as dinner table conversation in Warsaw, Bucharest and Bratislava, there is now a palpable sense of concern, and although it is business as usual in terms of meeting, greeting, and working with clients in the wider region, there is also a growing sense of “what if?” Certainly, we have been moved to institute contingency planning protocols in collaboration with our office managers and are ready to help should things deteriorate in the countries bordering Ukraine.

Quite frankly, it is not something that I imagined we would be doing when I met with colleagues from all over the world at a pre-planned international conference last week.

There are very few options now left on the table for an increasingly a cornered despot

The theme of the meeting was “Our Future After Covid” but, talking to my country managers from eastern Europe, this was understandably not their primary concern. Western sanctions from a united Nato and EU have impacted Russia much more quickly than envisaged.

With interest rates suddenly rising to 30%, the rouble has tanked, and a cornered Putin has been talking about nuclear options while his armies are temporarily held at bay. There are very few options now left on the table for an increasingly a cornered despot. The key to a “least bad” resolution may rest with the Russian people themselves.

Finally, a friend who was travelling in Europe last week related the story of a family of three young children and parents that he observed, sitting in a hotel reception in Portugal, looking disconsolate and depressed. Upon further enquiry he found that they were from Russia.

The sanctions had stranded them, with their homeland excluded from the international banking system they found their credit cards rejected and were unable to get cash from ATMs. They also could not find an airline able to fly them back into Russia as the airspace restrictions around the EU took effect, plus they had lost contact with family members in Ukraine.

These were not wealthy oligarchs but an ordinary family caught out by world events. Their plight was nothing in comparison to being forced to take refuge in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, but it makes one wonder how long Russia can withstand world opprobrium and isolation without its own people questioning whether their leader is now more of a problem than a saviour.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide