MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The U.S. doesn't have a lot of financial leverage in Russia. It accounts for less than one percent of U.S. trade. But there are a few major companies with significant investments in the country. One company with a long history in Russia is Pepsi. It's a relationship that goes back to the Soviet era. And as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, it's one that could provide some insight into how the U.S. and Russia do and don't business with each other.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: One of the more memorable moments of the Cold War was when then Vice President Richard Nixon visited Soviet Russia to meet with Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Their televised sparing session has become known as the kitchen debate, and you can watch it on YouTube, and it's all kinds of historical nerdy awesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
VICE PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You plan to outstrip us and - particularly in the production of consumer goods. If this competition is to do the best for both of our peoples and for people everywhere, there must be a free exchange of ideas. For both of us, the benefit...
NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV: You (unintelligible)
NIXON: You see, you never concede anything.
GLINTON: One thing Russia didn't have on us was brown, fizzy, sugary delicious liquids. At that debate, Nixon and Khrushchev shared a Pepsi. And around that time, Pepsi's international head, Donald Kendall, who was a buddy of Nixon's, got a bright idea. I'm going to let Anders Aslund with the Peterson Institute for International Economics pick it up from here.
ANDERS ASLUND: He went to Russia in 1959 and struck up a good relationship with Nikita Khrushchev, the then leader of the Soviet Union. And since that time, Pepsi has been producing Pepsi cola in Russia.
GLINTON: So the Soviet government itself began bottling Pepsi.
ASLUND: Pepsi was perceived by the population as a Soviet product, and Soviet products were truly bad. And while Pepsi was reasonably good, it was not as good as Western Pepsi.
GLINTON: Now, good or bad, Pepsi was it. There was no cola war because Pepsi was essentially the only choice. Then the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union closed and a form of free enterprise opened. So in the '90s, there was boom here in the U.S. and companies were looking to grow.
Ali Dibadj is a senior analyst with Sanford Bernstein, an equity research firm. He studies packaged goods - you know, soda, chips, stuff like that. He says all of over the world, Pepsi was getting its butt kicked by Coca-Cola. But Pepsi knew a lot about Russia.
Pepsi had to find a place to grow that was the path of least resistance and arguably built on the history since 1959 and the lower penetration by Coca-Cola, you know, Russia was the closest-to-home option, and it wasn't that close to home anyway.
And it worked. Russia is Pepsi's number two market behind the U.S. It accounts for about 8 percent of sales. Here's the thing: If Pepsi can do it, become a dominant consumer force, why doesn't everyone? Well, the current headlines offer a clue. Russia is unpredictable and, Dibadj says, so are Russian consumers.
ALI DIBADJ: The consumer has a history, given communism, given what they've been through, to, at the first sign of fear, shift very quickly to either different pack sizes, different brands and has historically been used to lower-quality brands.
GLINTON: So Russians consumers, at the first sign of trouble, are more likely to do go from, say, drinking soda to tap water. Not only that, it's really hard for companies to get into Russia. There's the red tape, and Russia is a big country so you have to have giant distribution networks. And the barriers are just set really, really high.
AMIT KHANDELWAL: We don't have a lot of economic leverage. We don't trade a lot with them. There's not a lot of stuff that Russians buy from us and we don't buy that much stuff from Russia.
GLINTON: Amit Khandelwal teaches at Columbia's Business School. He says it's the age-old chicken and egg problem. U.S. businesses are afraid to invest in Russia because, well, it's risky. And it might be less risky if there was more of a U.S. corporate presence there.
KHANDELWAL: The U.S. won't have the potential threat of sanctions if there is no pain on both sides. And there is no pain on both sides precisely because no business has found it attractive enough to substantially grow their operations in Russia.
GLINTON: Khandelwal says in order for the U.S. to have more soft power in Russia, we'll have to sell them a lot more than soft drinks. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.