More horror continues to emerge from Ukraine as Vladimir Putin escalates his war of aggression, adding to the violence unleashed on Ukrainian civilians since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
Protecting civilians during wartime from violence of any kind is a profound human rights responsibility, not just for governments and armies, but also for companies. And the need to protect people—or at least their own employees—has been a regular refrain of the hundreds of international companies that have chosen to remain in Russia since February, even as hundreds of others have exited.
Rockwool, the Danish manufacturer of insulation, says that it is concerned “above all else” that withdrawing from Russia will put at risk the livelihood of its 1,200 employees and their families. Mondelēz, the food company, with over 2,500 staff in Russia, says it needs to continue Russian “colleagues in the market who are facing great uncertainty.” Continental, the German manufacturer of tires and automotive electronics, with more than 1,000 employees says it resumed production there “in order to protect our employees in Russia from prosecution.”
Our analysis shows that one out of every five multinationals remaining in Russia and communicating its position publicly justifies its stance as protecting its employees.
However, since President Putin announced a so-called “partial military mobilization” on Sep. 21, the Russian government is pushing businesses into direct involvement in the war that borders on complicity.
The mobilization call enacted Article 9 of Russian Federal Law No. 31-FZ. The law mandates all organizations to assist with delivering the summons from the military to their employees, to ensure the delivery of equipment to assembly points or military units, and to provide the Russian forces with buildings, communications, land plots, transport, as well as information. Significantly, the law applies to all 1,610 foreign-owned companies that are currently operating on a full or limited scale in Russia.
Analysis from the B4Ukraine coalition of Ukrainian, international civil society groups, and KSE Institute reveals that foreign companies still employ at least 700,000 people in the country. Most of the employees (around 87%) work for multinationals from 10 countries: the U.S., France, Germany, Switzerland, the U.K., Japan, Italy, Greece, China, and the Netherlands. U.S. companies employ 251,294 people, French companies employ 123,642 people, and German companies employ 91,280 people in Russia.
While some Russians responded to the decree by protesting and even setting military enlistment offices on fire, companies are already becoming one of the main sources of new recruits.
In the wake of the Sep. 21 announcement, BBC Russia reported that companies received a military summons and demands to send employees to the mobilization points. The letters were of two types: some demanded companies ensure the arrival of employees to the military registration and enlistment office or to the training camps; others asked the employers to send a list of all employees liable for military service. Russian media outlet Kommersant reported that businesses have also already begun preparations for possible conscription of employees, including creating special mobilization departments.
Previously, most of the multinationals still operating in Russia have been indirectly involved in the war by paying taxes to the Russian state and contributing to the war economy. The mobilization order compels a fundamental challenge to their role and responsibility at this stage of the war. There is nothing left for foreign companies to wait for or to see when Putin conscripts their employees–and threatens to use nuclear weapons.
It is past time companies remembered that they also have a responsibility to respect human rights, as set in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Companies have an obligation to understand how their operations may cause, contribute to, or are linked to the impacts of human rights violations–and when necessary to mitigate those impacts. This obligation is all the more critical in a conflict as brutal as Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s current war mobilization is the last call for those companies still operating in Russia to make a choice: to accept the risk of complicity in Putin’s atrocities and war crimes or to respect human rights in Ukraine. The right choice for these companies is clear: they must refuse to participate in Putin’s war–and leave Russia immediately.
Nataliya Popovych and Bennett Freeman are among the co-founders of the Business for Ukraine coalition.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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