Russia gets the cold shoulder at the world’s biggest mobile phone show amid Ukraine war


Attendants pour into the Mobile World Congress tech show in Barcelona, Spain, as it kicks off on Feb. 28, 2022.
Nurphoto | Getty Images

BARCELONA — Russia got an icy reception at Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest trade show for mobile technology.

GSMA, the industry body that runs MWC, put out a statement over the weekend condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It said the Russian Pavilion, a stand where countries exhibit their local tech scene, would be barred from the event.

“The GSMA strongly condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Mats Granryd, director general of GSMA, said in his opening keynote Monday.

The organization said “the situation is fast-moving,” but that it would follow “all government sanctions and policies resulting from this situation.”

“Security for the event is constantly reviewed and adjusted as information emerges,” the GSMA said.

Nick Reed, CEO of Vodafone, also voiced support for those affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “Our thoughts go out to everyone affected by the war.”

“With the backdrop of the Ukraine war, it’s a conference like this that reminds me of the importance of global sectors and communities like ours working together to advance society,” Reed told MWC attendees Monday.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on Thursday, and was swiftly condemned by government leaders across the world. The U.S. and its allies have announced punitive sanctions targeting Russia’s banking system and even President Vladimir Putin himself.

“GSMA had to respond and had to take decisive action,” Paolo Pescatore, tech, media and telecom analyst at PP Foresight, told CNBC Monday. “They certainly did that as a starting point.”

The CEOs of China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom were notably silent on the topic of Ukraine Monday, though their keynotes appeared to be pre-recorded. Neither the Chinese telecoms firms nor the GSMA were immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

China’s Foreign Ministry last week refused to call the Russian attack on Ukraine an “invasion,” instead deflecting the blame to the U.S.

European telco execs were much more vocal on the matter.

“The most pressing issue is clearly the war in Ukraine,” Vodafone’s Reed said. “This adds to the world facing political, economic, social and environmental turmoil all at the same time. We are all going to have to dig very deep to help overcome these challenges.”

Telefonica CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete Lopez did not mention the Russia-Ukraine crisis specifically, but said “this is not a time for war.”

“This is not a time for confrontation, nor for conflict,” he said. “This is time for collaboration.”

MWC kicks off

Top telecom leaders descended on Barcelona this week for MWC, where smartphone makers, mobile network operators and tech giants are showing off their latest gadgets and innovations.

Telecom leaders spent a significant portion of their opening remarks urging for increased investment into developing economies and areas where people lack access to the internet and smartphones.

The event has largely been overshadowed by the Ukraine war, however, especially as the country faces a heightened threat of cyberattacks from Russia and misinformation campaigns.

Facebook parent company Meta on Sunday said it had uncovered a misinformation network that was focused on spreading fake news about the conflict.

“It goes to show, in light of what’s happening, how robust and resilient communication needs to be, Pescatore said. “We don’t want any fake news. We want independent news through in the right way.”

“Moving forward it places even great focus on the relevance of communications, and not just mobile but mobile as a suite of solutions that can help cater to connect the unconnected.”

— CNBC’s Sam Shead contributed to this report

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