Ukraine War Divides Employees At American Tech Company That Straddles The Front Lines

By | March 3, 2022

Maxsym Chernikov hit “Send.” The email demanding that his employer, EPAM Systems, an S & P 500 outsourcing company with a large workforce in Ukraine, denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine landed in over 58,000 inboxes.

Even after his work accounts were suspended, and the email chain shut down, Chernikov’s demands continued to spiral across LinkedIn, Telegram and Facebook. The Ukrainian software’s message from February 25 struck a chord some of his colleagues, who with engineer his suspension, and EPAM Arkadiy Dobkin, who called for fighting to end – but stopped short of mentioning Russia, in threads spilling over LinkedIn and Ukrainian tech forums.

Fixing corporate America’s thorny software problems with tech talent from across the former Soviet Union helped EPAM to grow to $3.7 billion in sales last year. But shares of the Newtown, Pennsylvania-based company dropped more than 45% after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war has also left the company with about 32,000 employees divided by the new frontline between Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

“I never said Arkadiy is a bad guy but I wanted him to be a hero, a true leader in this situation. This situation is war not business,” says Chernikov, who had been working remotely for EPAM outside Ukraine. “In the war many factories, brands, and companies – they work for the needs of the war and change their business model.”

Apple, Boeing, and Airbus have suspended work in Russia as part of a growing corporate backlash against the invasion that has already claimed the lives of 227 civilians and forced more than 600,000 people to flee their homes. Chernikov went further in his letter demanding that EPAM not only sever ties with Russian and Belarusian clients, but close operations in those countries, where the company has 18,000 employees, and throw EPAM’s resources into supporting the Ukrainian government’s volunteer hacker brigades.

“This was a kind of blackmail with specific demands including supporting the [Ukrainian] military with cyber attacks ,“ says Dobkin, adding that Chernikov has been suspended. “If he had sent this to me I would have told him that this was impossible and was putting our employees around the world in danger.”

In the wake of Chernikov’s email, EPAM warned staff that supporting distributed denial-of-service or other hacks on Russian websites were illegal, and shut down attempts to use company accounts to lobby support for Ukraine from clients. “Do you think any other commercial company in the United States will allow its infrastructure to be used for cyber attacks?” asks Dobkin. “It’s completely outside the law, we will be killed, we will be destroyed.”

Dobkin also defended his initial statement on the war, which mentioned neither President Putin, Russia, nor his native Belarus. “I have a very strong reason why. I have senior people in Belarus and I know if I risk this they can be arrested,” says Dobkin. “So, I have responsibility for 14,000 people in Ukraine but I also have responsibility for 18,000 people in Belarus and Russia. These are good people.”

Belarus, which has been dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship, led a brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protests last year, and now imposes prison sentences up to seven years for just following opposition accounts on the messaging app Telegram. “Arkadiy’s from Belarus and he has an intimate background of how things happen there,” says a senior EPAM staffer who asked not to be named. “He’s facing an impossible position because of the laws in Belarus and Russia…people could easily go to jail just based on whatever he’s posting publicly.”

Reports have suggested that war in Ukraine had fueled tensions between Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian staff within the company but several EPAM workers who spoke with forbes say that they had received risky public, and private, messages of support from colleagues across the frontlines. “There is way more unity between EPAM Ukraine, Belarus, Russia than tensions,” says the EPAM staffer.

The public spat between EPAM and some of its employees comes as the company continues efforts to evacuate its staff from areas near the fighting to the relative safety of western Ukraine. The company has also paid staff a $1,000 emergency grant, supplied volunteers to relief efforts, and worked with SpaceX to transport and install Starlink satellite systems donated by Elon Musk in Ukraine.

Dobkin says he has now spoken with Chernikov, who has assembled an 800-strong group of EPAM colleagues on Telegram. “At any other company he would have been fired immediately,” says Dobkin, who had last week announced plans to step up hiring in India and Latin America to reduce EPAM’s reliance on Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. EPAM shares rose 16% higher on 2 March but are still down nearly 62% since the start of the year.

Meanwhile, Chernikov is thousands of miles away from the fighting in Ukraine, and his parents who have spent several nights in a basement bomb shelter in Kharkiv. “If I were there I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t write this letter, I couldn’t even think about this,” says Chernikov. “I do not even care about being fired. When you can do something you should do something.”

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