The top 100 foreign companies still working in Russia from "unfriendly" countries saw profits soar in 2022, up 54% to RUB1.1 trillion ($13.3bn), reported Novaya Gazeta Europe on June 9 as cited by The Bell. From the first hundred companies, two thirds (68%) made money working in sanctioned Russia.
The three most profitable companies were TotalEnergies, BP and Raiffeisen Bank, which collectively accounted for half of all the profits of the top 100, reports The Bell.
While a report from Yale University last August claimed that over a 1,000 international companies with a combined turnover equivalent to 40% of GDP had pulled out of Russia, as bne IntelliNews reported, the actual number is closer to 9%, with German companies being the most reluctant (4%). Moreover, of that 9% only a small fraction have actually and formally completed an exit, with the majority simply suspending their business while the war goes on.
Even those that have exited the market, many have simply sold to their local management teams and include a buy-back option that kicks in in a few years' time, giving them an easy option to return, should the geopolitical climate allow.
bne IntelliNews’ Moscow correspondent reports that after the initial shock following the start of the war, when foreign stores pulled down the shutters and halted supplies, many of the shops have reopened with copycat brands and shelves are full again with the international brands that are now being imported by traders via third countries such as Turkey, who are making use of the parallel import law that was also rushed through the Duma in the first weeks of the war.
The situation in big strategic sectors like banking and extraction is even more complicated after Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly signed a decree after the war started that bans exits from Russia without special permission from the Central Bank of Russia (CBR).
In May a special government commission approved a law that sets a tax on any foreign asset sale (at a minimum discount of 50%) and the government is mulling at least two additional “exit taxes” for companies pulling out of Russia and their new local beneficiaries. Most recently, a presidential decree was signed that possibly paves the way for the eventual nationalisation of foreign assets.
Companies leaving Russia will also be subject to an emergency tax on excess profits earned in 2021-2022. The tax is based on the difference between the average profit during that period and the profit in 2018-2019, with a rate of 5% if paid before November 30, 2023, and 10% thereafter.
The French hydrocarbons major TotalEnergies remains a partner of leading Russian LNG producer Novatek and an investor in its LNG projects, which are a key source of income for the Kremlin.
However, while many international companies were quick to publicly pull the plug on their Russian business, TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne has refused, and has defended the company's decision to remain in Russia as well as receive dividends from its projects there. He has justified the decision by saying: “the rest of the world feels differently to the West regarding the conflict [in Ukraine].”
“The vision which we have of this conflict in the Western camp is by no means shared by the vast majority of the rest of the world,” Pouyanne said on November 9, addressing the foreign affairs committee of the French parliament.
TotalEnergies has collected around $748mn in dividends from its projects in Russia during the first nine months of last year and unlike most of its peers, has resisted calls to declare its intention to withdraw from Russia. In a compromise, the company has said that it will not make any new investments and will “gradually wind down” its operations there.
TotalEnergies booked a $3.7bn impairment on its 19.4% interest in Novatek in December. In a statement on December 9, TotalEnergies said it would no longer account for the equity stake in Novatek on its books. It will also remove 1.7bn barrels of oil from its proven reserves, but noted this would still leave the company with enough reserves to maintain current output for over 11 more years.
TotalEnergies added that it could not sell the interest in Novatek, “given the prevailing shareholders’ agreements, as it is forbidden for [the company] to sell any asset to one of Novatek’s main shareholders who is under sanction.”
The company has stakes in the operational Yamal LNG terminal and the uncompleted Arctic LNG-2 project in the Russian Arctic, and also has a shareholder position in both facilities’ operator Novatek. It has shed some of its minor interests in Russia, however, including a 20% stake in the Kharyaga oilfield and a 49% stake in the Terneftegaz joint venture in Russia’s north.
The Austrian bank Raiffeisen International Bank (RBI) was a pioneer in the Russian banking sector and made a fortune financing trade with the West in the 1990s before setting up a substantial retail banking business that lifted the bank into the major international banking league.
Since the war started over a year ago, RBI has kept its access to SWIFT despite the SWIFT sanctions that were imposed only days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and has seen a 2.7-fold increase in profits in the last year.
The bank has come under considerable pressure to exit the market but has been very reluctant to do so. Most recently RBI has reportedly stopped opening new accounts in Russia over fears that it provides a safe haven for syphoning FX cash overseas, but continues to serve existing accounts.
In May the bank said that it was “moving ahead with divesting its Russian assets” and handing them over to its shareholders, but little has happened since then. As covered in detail by bne IntelliNews, RBI came under heavy regulatory pressure to come up with an exit plan from Russia, the country where it made 60% of its net profit last year.
In February the bank was grilled by the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) over its business activities related to Russia, but no sanctions have been imposed yet as its exit is complicated by decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin that prevents banks from “unfriendly” countries to exit Russia without special permission from the Central Bank of Russia (CBR). Dozens of foreign banks have been trapped in Russia by this decree, including Italy's UniCredit and Citi of the US.
The only bank that managed to quickly pull out of Russia following the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine was France's Société Générale, which sold its fully-owned Rosbank to oligarch Vladimir Potanin.
Part of the problem is that RBI has a significant pile of cash worth €400mn trapped in Russia it is reluctant to leave behind. According to the bank’s statements, it is attempting to separate its Russian business into a separate legal entity and at the same time has proposed a controversial swap of its loans for those of Russia’s Sberbank that are trapped in Europe by sanctions to rescue its money.
The British oil major BP declared it was withdrawing from Russia very soon after the war started, but it continues to own 19.75% of Russia’s biggest oil company Rosneft and has not announced any plans to sell the stake, which it acquired after Rosneft took over the TNK-BP joint venture in 2012 in a deal worth $55bn.
BP took a GBP18.7bn hit by writing off the shareholding from its books despite the fact that the company technically still owns the shares. Russia has been the company's biggest contributor of crude oil to the company's production for the last two decades. In recent years up to 2022, Russia contributed under half of BP's global production and a third of its global combined oil and gas production.
Over the past 20 years, earnings from TNK-BP and then Rosneft have averaged significantly less than 20% of BP’s reported earnings. The proportion of cashflow, from dividends, is significantly lower, a BP spokesman clarified.
Rosneft’s CEO Igor Sechin called BP a “ghost shareholder” at a conference last September and called on the company to return to its “native bosom”. BP has broken off contacts and co-operation with Rosneft, but Sechin said at another conference in December that BP remains a partner and the Russian oil company deposited GBP580mn ($713mn) of dividend payments into its Russian bank account – the equivalent of a third of the UK government’s direct financial aid to Ukraine in 2022 alone.
“It is clear that BP does not have access to this bank account or the money in it. The company has not received it, and does not expect to receive any dividends in the future. Since our decision to exit Russia we have repeatedly reported and stated that we have not recognised or received any dividends or other revenues from Rosneft and do not expect to receive any in the future, as the company said in a statement on its Russian operations last December,” a BP spokesman told bne IntelliNews.
BP has said that it intends to sell the stake, but has also " refused to speculate or give commentary on an ongoing commercial process,” a BP spokesman told bne IntelliNews. Selling the stake will be difficult, as it is regarded as a strategically important asset by the Kremlin, which would need to give special permission for any deal to go through. The partnership with Rosneft has brought the company a total of $4.6bn in dividends since 2013 as of the end of last year.
Other top 100 companies
Notably, companies in the food industry that have remained in Russia such as Mondelez and PepsiCo stand out in the top 15 with a threefold increase in profits.
Mondelez cited humanitarian reasons for its decision to stay and maintain its brands, while PepsiCo, which has been in Russia since Soviet times, ceased production of international brands like Pepsi and 7UP and switched to local brands like Dobry, Rich and My Family. Part of the increase in net profit is attributed to the reduction of advertising expenses.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct inaccuracies on BP’s operations in Russia and financial relations with Rosneft. Specifically the company has said it will sell its stake but also that it will not speculate on the sale. Russia has been responsible for a significant share of BP’s production, but it accounts for less than half of its global output. Russia accounted for a fifth of BP’s global profits, not half and BP has no access to the dividends that Rosneft claimed to have paid to a bank account in Russia.