NEW YORK (MainStreet) Russian President Vladimir Putin has horrified onlookers in the West with his sketchy tactics in Ukraine. Yet foreign affairs can be a frustrating topic. Most of the time the issues seem too far away for any of us to turn our ideological protests into action.
Times like now, when a foreign power has staged the first European land grab in nearly 80 years, we want a voice. Plenty of Americans object to Russia's invasion of Crimea but don't know what to do about it.
Fortunately, like the U.S. government, we can always fall back on sanctions. For people who want to reach the world through their wallets, they can try boycotting Russian products, a simple way to send a message overseas. Although caricatured strongmen wouldn't care much about local boycotts, in reality cutting money to state owned companies and shifting the needle on the 44% of Russians who think Russia deserves an empire might make a difference. Here are a few brands for consumers who want to try it.
Energy has overwhelmingly become Russia's number one export since the fall of the Soviet Union. Last year America alone bought nearly $20 billion dollars of Putin's oil, ten times as much as our next biggest Russian import (iron and steel). In many real senses Russia has become a petro-state, and Lukoil is the country's second biggest producer.
While crude oil is a global market (meaning that buying less from a company in Chicago doesn't matter, because they'll just sell that barrel in Mumbai), Lukoil doesn't just sell crude and gasoline. They also have bottles on the motor oil and lubricant shelves, products that will stagnate if no one buys them. The next time your motor starts knocking, feel free to reach for something else.
Aeroflot is the largest carrier in Russia and flies across most of the world. While it's hard (if possible at all) to find flights within the United States on the wings of Moscow, readers flying international can start planning their trips around the Russian fleet.
This won't be a huge loss for international travelers since Aeroflot provides mediocre services and gets generally middling reviews anyway. The website airlinequality.com rates this fleet at three stars out of five, not terrible but nothing to write home about either. The world has much better airlines. Russia's annexation of Crimea just gives us one more reason to avoid this one.
#3. Baltika Beers
Two years ago the Carlsberg Group, a Danish brewing company and one of the largest beer makers in the world, bought out the Moscow-based Baltika Brewery. So technically Baltika now belongs to the Danes. However it remains a distinctly Russian brand, brewed in and imported from Russia.
Baltika makes a generally decent, if unremarkable, lager that's available in the United States. In fact, showing how thoroughly the brand has assimilated to our beer culture, the company's store locator page features a come-hither blonde in a wet, loosely buttoned shirt. For the time being, however, Ms. Moscow might have to be disappointed. It's probably time to look further down the tap.
#4. Cut the Rope
Anyone with a smartphone has probably seen ZeptoLab's tracing game and its colorful little mascot, Om Nom. It became a huge hit on both the iPhone and Android and spawned several sequels which have all done relatively well.
ZeptoLabs is an entertainment company that was started and remains headquartered in Russia, although they now have offices in the United Kingdom. Gamers who want to send their dollars elsewhere might want to leave those ropes alone, at least for the time being.
We all knew this one was coming. Stoli is perhaps the single most iconic Russian brand out there. Every time I order one, I feel like I should have ridden to the bar on the back of a grizzly while wearing an oversized hat and playing with little nesting dolls. (None of which would be a bad thing. The Facebook photos from that night would be epic.)
For the modern company, pointing to a specific place of origin is a little bit of a mess. As Stolichnaya explained during last year's backlash against Russia's anti-gay laws, the company has spread its corporate structure all over the place. This most Russian of brands gets its water from Latvia, its bottles from Poland and its caps from Italy.
The key ingredient though, the alcohol itself? That still comes from Tambov, Russia.
#6. Morgan Stanley
This one hits a little close to home. In recent days Morgan Stanley has announced that sanctions against Russia won't stop a deal it made for Rosneft, Russia's state run oil company, to buy its oil group. According to Bloomberg the American firm will sell off its global oil merchant unit to Rosneft and approximately 100 executives will move along with it.
While ordinarily transactions like this happen behind the scenes, something feels inherently dirty about an American firm doing major business with the Russian state's petroleum arm while that country hoists its flag over Crimea. It's one thing to conduct business as usual with the citizens of a country who couldn't turn the ship of state if they wanted to, but Rosneft is for all intents and purposes a branch of the Russian government.
For good taste, if nothing else, Morgan Stanley should have waited. Moving money and assets elsewhere would be a sign of disapproval.
Russian entertainment has proliferated over the last decade as companies can increasingly reach out to global customers through the Internet. Several popular computer games and movies have their roots back in Moscow. The games Battle Mages and Farm Frenzy (a shameless knockoff of a shameless knockoff) come from Russian studios Targem Games and Alawar Entertainment respectively. Moscow based 1C publishes a wide variety of games, including the Men of War and King's Bounty series.
Moviegoers may have even heard of the "Day Watch" and "Night Watch" films, both produced by Channel One Russia and based on a popular series of books from a local author. You can skip all of these, if you want to, although once this crisis is over I do recommend taking a look at what 1C has to offer.
#8. Alforma Capital Markets, Inc.
According to its website, "Alforma Capital Markets is... an affiliate of Alfa-Bank's international equities business." Alfa, in turn, is one of the largest commercial banks in Russia, with an investment branch in America and a significant presence in Europe. (It should also not be confused with the Greek Alpha Bank, an entirely separate institution.)
Although the day-to-day consumer probably won't come across Alforma, anyone making decisions with their company's money might want to remember where this firm comes from and where they send the money.
#9. Russia Today
Owned and operated by the Russian government, this news network has been generally outed as a propaganda operation. Questionable even under the best of circumstances, these days it's probably best to just switch back over to CNN.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.