Feb 18, 2022 - Technology

Tech CEO flies workers out of Ukraine as fear of invasion looms

Photo illustration of DMarket CEO Vlad Panchenk
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo courtesy DMarket

A Ukrainian tech CEO says he flew more than 100 of his employees and their families from Kyiv to Montenegro two weeks ago in response to the threat of Russian invasion.

Driving the news: For Vlad Panchenko, of the digital assets company DMarket, the decision came down to trying to take control of an uncontrollable situation.

  • “I have to take care of the people and their families and their kids,” Panchenko told Axios in an interview from Montenegro. He is hoping the relocation is temporary and has budgeted it for two months.
  • “Nobody can predict what the person who is ruling Russia will be doing,” he said.
  • He acknowledged the uncertainty from Kyiv to Washington, D.C., about whether Russian president Vladimir Putin will use Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to win concessions or to actually invade.

The big picture: While most citizens of Ukraine have no choice but to stay put, some business leaders are able to weigh the difficult decision of whether to relocate.

  • Alexey Menshikov, who runs indie video game studio Beatshapers, told Axios that his studio has a “worst case scenario” plan to move to another country, but is hoping for the best. He said his 30 or so employees have largely chosen to stay where they are.
  • One of Ukraine’s tech companies more visible to the West, the development studio GSC Game Word, is wrapping up development on a sequel to its S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gaming franchise. A rep for the studio declined to comment about how it’s dealing with the current situation.
  • Earlier this week, an Israeli cloud computing company said it would relocate nearly one thousand employees from Ukraine to Turkey for a couple of weeks, according to local media reports.
  • Panchenko said that peers initially told him he was overreacting but some have also chosen to move their teams from the country, at least temporarily.

Flashback: In 2014, following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, one of Ukraine’s largest video game studios, 4A Games, moved much of its team to Malta.

  • Its CEO noted at the time that “we feel like betrayers, because we’re leaving our country in turmoil,” but said it was necessary to keep the company alive.
  • 4A still has a presence in Kyiv. “We're continuing to monitor the situation there while supporting our team and their families however we can,” a rep for the company’s current owner, Saber Interactive, told Axios. “4A and the other Saber-owned studios with presences in Kyiv all have the option of working in one of our other locations abroad if they choose to.”

Between the lines: Panchenko, 37, said he decided to move his team about three weeks ago, after noticing his workers spending a lot of time worrying about Russia. “People are talking about ‘What's going to happen?' or ‘When it's going to happen?' and ‘What are we going to do?”

  • His solution was to assess the cost of relocation and convince his board to approve at least a temporary move.
  • A two-month stay in Montenegro will add about a half-month’s worth of cost to DMarket’s annual budget, a bearable increase for some added peace of mind, he said.
  • “Chances that Russia will invade are like 20%,” he said. “But if they invade, then the risks go through the roof and the consequences for the company and for the people go through the roof.”

He said he was motivated by his own experience of having a largely peaceful childhood shattered by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.

  • He recalled visiting his grandparents’ home as a child and his grandfather toasting each night “for not having a war, because he remembered the Second World War.”
  • That made the events of 2014 “unimaginable,” he said, and led him to worry about what his team was feeling this time around.
  • “I don’t want anybody else to live in that terror or fear.”

What’s next: Panchenko hopes the crisis will pass and a return follow, but has also considered longer-term moves.

  • Half of his team, he estimates, would nevertheless want to return to Ukraine if it comes to that.
  • “They have their roots there, he said. “But nobody would be happy, you know, to live under the bombardment.”

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