LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The Ukrainian economy is in trouble. The government's nearly bankrupt, but that has not stopped Ukrainian businesses from looking for investors. They're making the rounds of western financial capitals to drum up investment. First, Frankfort, then London and last month, New York City where our correspondent Gregory Warner stopped by to hear how you pitch a business when your country is at war.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In a conference room in an office building in midtown Manhattan, Anton Kharytonov, age 34, is pitching his big idea - hamburgers in Ukraine.
ANTON KHARYTONOV: So this is the United States, Poland and Ukraine.
WARNER: Anton runs a chain of American food restaurants in the city of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. He's just 150 miles west of a war zone. In fact, Kharytonov has coached himself not to mention the war in this crowd of portfolio fund managers and private equity investors.
KHARYTONOV: Everybody's talking about the war, and OK, there is a war but it's only on small territory.
WARNER: The part of Ukraine where Russian troops are stationed is less than 10 percent of the country, he says, while his customer numbers are up 50 percent. But afterward during the coffee break, it's pretty clear that for most investors, all of Ukraine has entered that toxic category of high risk. Joe Garrity is with the consulting and recruiting business Salem.
JOE GARRITY: Our clients, who are primarily large, financial institutions, are very risk-averse. And obviously, what Russia is doing near eastern Ukraine and Crimea; obviously that's a huge risk. So I think that's another business risk that gets weighed into the formula and whether or not you'd want to invest. But we see opportunity.
WARNER: Now, it may seem like really bad timing to hold an Invest in Ukraine conference now during a crisis, during a war, but a meeting like this between businesses from Ukraine and investors from the west is what the Revolution was trying to bring about.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)
WARNER: When protesters gathered last year in Independence Square in Kiev, chanting slogans and burning car tires, they were demanding one thing - that the president sign a trade deal with Europe, an association agreement. And the key aspect of that agreement where government reforms that pledged to make Ukraine less corrupt and less criminal; a safer and more attractive destination for western capital.
But a revolution intended to make Ukraine a better place for investment ended up sparking a war that's scaring that investment away. Outside the conference, I meet Natalia Stelmakh. She's a technology entrepreneur, who's come here more as a Ukrainian booster. I find her checking Facebook on her phone.
NATALIA STELMAKH: Because every morning you open your Facebook, and you see in your news feed someone get killed.
WARNER: So she's reading these stories, and then she's going off to pitch Ukraine as an investment destination. And it's hard. She's been to investment conferences in Khan and Stockholm.
STELMAKH: And it was just so depressing because everybody was like, Ukraine, are you kidding me? I'm not going to invest in Ukraine. Nobody wanted to invest in Ukraine. And the whole world's now afraid of the third world war and of Putin going for us. This is what Putin wants. He wants everybody to get scared, to run away from Ukraine.
WARNER: Now I hear this theory from many people I meet here. That the reason that Russian President Vladimir Putin started a war in Eastern Ukraine was not primarily to grab land, but to scare away Western investors at the very moment that Ukraine needed those investors most. Putin is the downside risk that every investor at this conference is talking about. And in many ways, what the Ukrainian businesses are looking for here is an investor or multiple investors who are willing to stand up to the Russian president. And near the end of the conference, I meet one.
STEPHEN BALINSKAS: Would you rather be looking seriously at Ukraine now, today, or last year or the year before? This is the best time ever.
WARNER: Stephen Balinskas is portfolio manager at Empire State Capital Partners, which is actually based in Kiev. He specializes in investing in places that are distressed, that are sometimes at war.
BALINSKAS: Investors liked me, when they go into distressed markets like Ukraine, actually play a big role.
WARNER: That big role, he says, is to inject capital at a time when businesses need that money the most. And sure, Balinskas is looking for cheap assets, but Ukrainian business owners tell me that they would welcome investors like this with a stomach for conflict, investors ready to place a bet on a future of a reformed and peaceful Ukraine, one that even some Ukrainians right now are having trouble imagining. Gregory Warner, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: This story was produced with the help of our Planet Money team. Hear a longer version including how Kiev accountants turned into tire thieves at npr.org/planetmoney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.