Rebuilding Ukraine after the War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes straight out of the playbook of the last century. A large country marches into a smaller, weaker neighbor with the intent of expanding its own territory and resources and imposing its own polity on another. Ukraine is a rich prize indeed, with substantial mineral resources, a strong agricultural sector, and of course human capital. There are many grim possibilities for future outcomes—but there is also the chance that some sort of settlement is reached that results in an independent Ukraine, with democratically elected leaders. It is clear that Russia is facing fierce resistance, and analysts such as Eliot A. Cohen have even gone so far as to predict Putin will lose. It is difficult to talk about recovery while civilians are still under attack, while hospitals are being bombed, and where cities have lost power and water, but thinking about recovery means envisioning a post-conflict future, and that links to the twin messages of hope and the necessity to keep fighting.

The invasion and the war may follow a twentieth-century playbook, but effective recovery is a twenty-first-century skill. If the destruction of so much of Ukraine’s infrastructure is put into a “disaster” framework, then the natural disaster response and disaster recovery offer a plethora of lessons. And this invasion—with its increasingly indiscriminate targeting of physical, natural, and human infrastructure—has created a real disaster. It is a man-made disaster relating to conflict, not a natural one relating to weather or earthquakes, but some of the lessons hold.

Should the Ukrainian resistance prevail, and Ukraine maintain its status as an independent country, President Zelensky must plan the next steps for the nation. The lesson from disasters is that the first step is response. Helping the people in the immediate aftermath of a disaster—ensuring clean water, adequate power, medical care to the sick and wounded—takes priority. This is the triage phase, and it involves doing whatever it takes to make people safe, now.

The next phase is recovery.

In the recovery phase, actions are taken to return to some sort of “normal” where people can live, go to school, and go to work. There are many lessons from disasters across the globe, both human-caused and natural. There are fewer disasters with a whole-of-economy impact. These disasters are more appropriate to compare against Ukraine’s situation, given that the scale of the Russian attacks at this point seem focused on destroying infrastructure and depopulating the nation.

In a whole-of-economy disaster, a visionary recovery plan can offer an integrated approach to recovery. Puerto Rico’s response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 offers one example. The government of Puerto Rico delivered a congressionally mandated economic and disaster recovery plan, which was unique in the disaster recovery literature in the scale and scope of the topics that it covered. Hurricane Maria devastated the island, so a whole-of-island recovery plan was required. Post-conflict recovery and post-natural disaster recovery are two different tasks, but the principles of planning and the strategy to build back thoughtfully rather than rebuild the infrastructure are the same.

Puerto Rico has 1.5 percent of the land mass of Ukraine and about 8 percent of Ukraine’s population, so it is a considerably different problem on a very different scale, but there are still lessons to be learned across the physical, natural, and human infrastructure spectrum.  One commonality is that Puerto Rico also faced depopulation over time, with population reaching a high of about 3.8 million in the 2000 census, falling to just under 3.3 million in 2020. The recovery approach required emphasis on rebuilding a strong and competitive economy to which out-migrants might want to return.

The recovery plan described the overarching vision: “To build the new Puerto Rico to meet the current and future needs of the people through sustainable economic development and social transformation; transparent and innovative approaches to governance; resilient, modern, and state-of-the-art infrastructure; and a safe, educated, healthy, and sustainable society.” The next step to achieving this vision was breaking it down into specific goals regarding society, economy, resilience, and infrastructure. Puerto Rico developed short-term (one to two years) and long-term (three to eleven years) recovery goals that were specific to the island’s challenges and were designed to support recovery. These goals were actualized in a set of several hundred specific actions, with a total investment estimated at $139 billion. The recovery actions sprung from an analysis of preexisting conditions, the damage from the hurricane, and how to “build back better.”

After the war, President Zelensky will face the task of leading the rebuilding of his country. He and his advisers will need to develop a vision for the future of Ukraine. And that vision does not need to be— indeed, probably should not be—rebuilding it to exactly the way it was before.

Recovery is also always an opportunity, with a wide variety of approaches to improve on the past. Updated building codes and green building techniques can save energy and reduce water use and may help make Ukraine a leader in green energy. Analyses can help decide where to best invest in the rebuilding of roads and where to locate modern medical facilities. Schools destroyed? Rebuild them with modern technology, where students live. Invest in reforesting and natural infrastructure. Dig common trenches next to roads for water, electrical, and telecommunications.

The massive physical and natural infrastructure damage caused by the Russian attacks will require significant planning and investment—very likely in the hundreds of billions of dollars. At this point in the war, with a clean victory unlikely, Russia seems to have embarked on a cost-imposing strategy of massive destruction. The analogy of World War II is far from perfect, since Germany and Japan were the aggressor nations, but both recovered from major devastation and developed robust economies. The European Recovery Plan, more commonly known as the Marshall Plan, was key for Germany, and Japan also received significant aid. Ukraine will need massive funds to rebuild. These funds will not be generated from the economy at first, so foreign aid will be necessary—and the scale of recovery will be enormous, beyond what any one nation can fund. Countries interested in ensuring that Ukraine has a robust future—and perhaps stands as a bulwark against Russia—will need to contribute. Other funders may be risk averse. That said, these investments will serve a strategic purpose, sending a message to adversaries that Western allied nations will stick together and to other nations that there are benefits to alignment with these allies. Finally, Ukraine will need to directly address concerns about and work to combat corruption, to ensure that funds are spent for their intended purpose. Transparency will be key to building trust with funders, with appropriate metrics to help send the message that donations are going to the intended purpose.

A second challenge includes building support for the several million or more refugees so they can return home. Conflict-related forced displacement tends to be longer term than natural disaster-related displacement, which is often short-term in nature. The longer people stay away, the more likely they are to develop a new life, and the harder it is to return home. In Puerto Rico, the majority of out-migration was related to economic issues and opportunities in the 50 states rather than specifically linked to Hurricane Maria, so getting those who have left to return is no simple matter. Furthermore, younger and healthier people find it easier to move, meaning that the population left after the disaster is older, sicker, and generally poorer. Ukraine will face its own challenges, including the wholesale destruction of homes, schools, medical facilities, and places of work.

A last challenge relates to caring for the physical and mental trauma caused by the Russian invasion. Post-traumatic stress is a terrible outcome of war, and the challenge of making the population feel safe and secure given the attack from their next-door neighbor is significant, and extraordinarily important. Thousands of Ukrainians of all ages have been killed, leaving many more survivors in mourning.

These tasks may seem daunting, but they are tractable to start to address even if perfect solutions and full recovery will never be possible—too many people have lost loved ones for that to be possible. The work for Ukraine should include building capacity to manage and implement recovery. President Zelensky excels in communication. Developing a recovery vision and communicating with funders will be key to recovery.

At the time of this commentary, the war in Ukraine is still ongoing, with no clear way out. Ugly attacks continue almost without ceasing, and the pictures of the devastation are heartbreaking. We can hope that it is darkest before dawn, that soon the violence will cease, and that Ukraine will continue to exist as an independent and democratic nation embarking on an inspiring and effective national recovery. The attention of Ukraine’s leadership is now rightly focused on the war, but understanding that the next step includes triage and planning for recovery phases to come will leave Ukraine better prepared when that day arrives.

Cynthia Cook is director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Cynthia Cook
Director, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and Senior Fellow, International Security Program