Ukraine has a future. And the West has a crucial role to play in what that future looks like.
Recently, I joined a group of Western security experts on a trip to Ukraine organized by the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs. We met with the Ukrainian president. We visited Bucha, the high-water mark of the Russian incursion toward Kyiv, where the invaders massacred hundreds of civilians.
We saw a lot in a few days—but anyone who spends a few days in a war zone and then claims to know exactly what is going on is talking nonsense. Nonetheless, the state of what is now a very long war is clear, as are America’s obligations and opportunities.
For starters, it is in the interest of the West, particularly the United States, to see a free and independent Ukraine. Russian appetites won’t stop with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s grand vision is to reabsorb the post-Soviet states, establish dictatorial control over central Europe, and see NATO dissolve and all U.S. military presence removed from Europe. These goals are a death sentence for the trans-Atlantic community.
More sinister, they are fully supported by China, which would benefit most from a weakened, divided, and distracted Europe. Supporting Ukraine to thwart Putin’s and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambitions makes all the sense in the world.
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Further, there’s the matter of basic self-interest. The day after we left Ukraine, another mass grave was discovered, even bigger than the one in Bucha. There were also additional reports of over a million Ukrainians kidnapped by the Russians, including hundreds of thousands of children.
Putin is a menace, and a global one. Allowing him to prey on others without restraint while hoping he won’t someday threaten even more vital U.S. interests is foolish in the extreme.
It is also clear that our help thus far has made a huge difference. Indeed, without Western assistance, particularly U.S. military aid, there would be no Ukraine today. The Ukrainians would be the first to tell you that.
It is not clear how and when this war will end. That said, the current offensive is likely to leave the Ukrainians in a strong position. Winter is coming, and the Ukrainians know how to fight in the winter. They’ve been doing it for eight years. Under the best of conditions, winter offensives are tough enough. For Moscow to muster a major counterstrike seems a bridge too far—especially as the Ukrainian military takes out the literal bridges supplying Russian forces in Ukraine.
But what comes after that is no less important than what preceded it. After all the Ukrainian sacrifice and all the Western aid, it would be tragic to see Ukraine win the war and lose the peace. And that is a real possibility. The way forward is littered with challenges we must see clearly in order to overcome.
First, there is legitimate debate and concern over the structure of civilian aid. Taxpayers ought to be reassured that their aid is being used effectively and that Europeans, across the board, are carrying their weight. The Heritage Foundation has called for a closer assessment of U.S. supplemental appropriations—for these reasons. Congress has an obligation to ensure that any aid is delivered in a fiscally responsible manner.
Second, and an even bigger concern, is that the Ukrainian reconstruction effort must yield a stable, free, independent, prosperous Ukraine—not a broken, corrupt, aid-dependent basket case that is even more vulnerable to Russian aggression.
And there is a long way to go on this front. Earlier this year, Heritage’s Index of Economic Freedom gave Ukraine a “government integrity” score even lower than those of Cuba and China. Accountability for any aid is critical both for ensuring its effectiveness and for preventing the deterioration of the public’s support for such efforts.
There are three giant steps to getting to a better future.
The first step is additional military aid. A principal reason for the success of both Western Europe and Japan after World War II was that they were relatively secure from internal and external security threats during the rebuilding process. And Ukraine must be able to stand on its own two feet because there is no security guarantee that will deter the Russians. Even if Ukraine joins the European Union, which is not a sure thing, that comes with no serious security assurances. Postwar Ukraine will need adequate conventional arms to defend itself. Hence, reconstruction will require continued military aid.
The top priority in this area would be to have substantial air and missile defenses able to protect civilian populations and infrastructure. People need to feel it is safe enough to move back to their homes and go back to work if Ukraine is to rebuild its economy. Second would be long-range artillery and missiles so the Ukrainians can offset Russia’s firepower advantages. Third, Ukraine will need more armored vehicles to take and hold territory. Fourth, it will need a replenished supply of arms and equipment. It will take an outsize peacetime military to deter Russia.
The second step is getting civilian and humanitarian aid right. Europeans ought to be stepping up and leading on the civilian side. The EU's effort, in particular, is lagging. Further, no matter whose money is being spent, taxpayers ought to be reassured that the money is used appropriately.
The war cost Ukraine half its economy. There is no question it will need a massive infusion of capital to function. That said, Ukrainians would be the first to acknowledge that corruption is a legitimate problem, and just throwing money at the problem will fuel, not solve, that concern. After all, this government was brought to power to tackle corruption. But it can’t fight a war, help its people, and deliver the good governance it promised without help.
The third step is reconstruction. Let’s be clear: Nations don’t build nations. Nations rebuild themselves. Foreign assistance only works if the recipients have agency and make good choices. Right now, it is far from clear what the reconstruction program will look like. The Ukrainians are desperate for funds just to keep the lights on and get through the winter.
One of my colleagues, Max Primorac, has closely studied the Ukrainian government’s statements about their plans. A specialist in helping devastated places get back on their feet, Primorac has had some of the toughest jobs in the toughest parts of the world. He was former Vice President Mike Pence’s envoy to Iraq, overseeing a multi-agency genocide recovery effort and helping religious minorities return to that war-ravaged land.
His assessment of the situation in Ukraine is that, at present, “there is high risk that the reconstruction effort will be highjacked by the self-interested aid industry and lock the country into a debilitating dependency on aid that will eventually erode the country’s resilience.”
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One reason for Primorac’s concern is that the Ukrainians have no property rights, no regulatory restraints, and no judiciary sufficiently devoted to the rule of law to prevent mass amounts of aid from being diverted and pocketed by those other than the intended recipients. Without reforms in these areas, the private sector won’t step up and invest in Ukraine. And unless foreign investment drives the reconstruction effort, the international financial institutions, including the World Bank, will fill the funding void. Primorac calls these institutions “the gravy-train-seeking, aid-contracting community that tends to monopolize reconstruction discussions.”
Without question, good governance reforms are going to be crucial. The sooner the war is won, the sooner the government can, and must, turn to these tasks.
But reforms are not enough. In recent decades, the international financial institutions and the larger aid-industrial complex have dumped billions in broken countries and succeeded mostly in perpetuating the brokenness. Local contractors, not multinationals, need to be empowered. Communities need a say in their own rebuilding. Effective microfinancing is crucial.
Even before the last volley is fired in the war, the race to shape the postwar order will be on. Putin, if he survives, will be plotting his return. Ukraine will have to build a Ukraine that can defend itself, secure its liberty, and bring posterity to its people. It would be folly to believe this can happen without Western help. It is also folly to believe that money is all it will take.
We need to get beyond the ideological and political ways of looking at aid and envision a clear strategy.
Many people keep talking about the Marshall Plan, forgetting the true genius of the Marshall Plan. It was fashioned to meet a specific strategic need at a specific time in place. It was a partnership—not an imposition. It paid as much attention to delivering results for U.S. taxpayers as it did to helping Europeans. It relied on the private sector and entrepreneurship to get the hard things done.
We don’t need another Marshall Plan. What we will need is a plan as good as the Marshall Plan.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner