Postwar Ukraine will pose the hardest problems

Hopefully, behind the scenes, policymakers are well into postwar preparations for Ukraine. The conduct of the fighting naturally absorbs most attention in a war, but conflicts come to an end one way or another and often that’s when the hard issues emerge. Another Afghanistan or Iraq debacle must be avoided.

This planning probably is taking place in Brussels and Washington, although public statements by leaders promote the impression of a benign postwar situation. Without public discussion of the potential challenges both Ukrainians and western populations might be deeply disillusioned by a postwar political, economic, and social collapse. Being conscious of the way matters might emerge in postwar Ukraine and putting some imagination and forethought into the problems would prepare the public.

Ukraine will not be unscathed. Research into previous postwar situations faced by both victorious and defeated states provides a warning. In particular, if the war extends beyond this year, as many expect, and/or ends in a negotiated or frozen conflict where Russia still occupies part of Ukraine, the European Union and NATO could have a serious crisis in the east.

If, as the European and North America pronouncements appear to assume, the expectation is that the war would result in a democratic Ukraine fit to join the European Union and NATO, then disappointment is likely. A highly probable outcome will be a destabilised and failing state.

Support for Ukraine is justified by the larger global interests in resisting aggression and upholding settled international law. However, there needs to be more than recognition and expressions of gratitude towards Ukraine for the harms it is taking and sacrifices it is making as a proxy in that effort. Ukraine’s postwar challenges will extend beyond physical reconstruction. It is time for the allies and partners to prepare for the potentially dangerous shambles that will follow the cessation of hostilities, and to anticipate the security challenges that will almost certainly eventuate.

Even with Western aid propping it up, Ukraine’s economy shrank by 30 percent in 2022 and, if assessments that the war will go into 2024 are correct, it is likely to shrink further this year. Ukraine is already facing a sovereign debt crisis, which will only grow as the war is prolonged, and a major economic crisis that could spill over into Europe seems almost certain.

There has been massive destruction of industrial capacity, service infrastructure, and domestic dwellings, as well a loss of agricultural capacity. Eight million Ukrainians have fled to Europe, and indications are that a significant proportion don’t intend to return. A similar number have been internally displaced. Resettlement will be drawn out. Labour shortages are going to be a problem for reconstruction. Funds and assistance would flow in from the West, although with a frozen conflict the potential would remain high for the resumption of hostilities, and many private firms might be reluctant to invest in Ukraine, or to expose their workers to the postwar environment.

The widespread corruption for which Ukraine was previously known may not re-emerge, but the large sums coming in for reconstruction certainly raises the prospect. Donor governments would be under pressure to ensure accountability and transparency of reconstruction spending, most likely slowing rebuilding and redevelopment. In any event, desperate circumstances would see an increase in various types of crime as people struggle to exist. Past experiences show that in these conditions there can be broad scope for political instability and extremism.

Returning Ukrainian veterans would find many familiar localities depopulated as residents, including the veterans’ own families and friends, had been displaced and have possibly left the country. The built environment they knew will have been destroyed in many areas, and bringing displaced families back and reestablishing normality will be very hard. Mental health issues will be common and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) will be prevalent among both veterans and the civilian population. Many veterans will be physically disabled and their care place great burdens on families.

This would be fertile ground for myth-making. Among veterans and civilians, including the war widows and orphans, questions could be raised about the point of their sacrifices. The loss of comrades in battle, and of families, friends, and neighbours from missile attacks, will leave indelible emotional scars on millions. Veterans and others would be justified in looking for explanations as to why, despite their government’s positive assertions and all the assurances from NATO and its partners, the war had failed to achieve the goal of restoring Ukraine.

Veterans might come to consider themselves heroic, more deserving, and above the normal citizens, especially the politicians or refugees that did not sacrifice themselves in the trenches. Conspiracy theories, extremism, and political violence could flourish in the chaos. During the Weimar Republic veterans tried to establish a unified and patriotic political order with themselves as the formative core. In post-First World War Germany extremists sought to fan a sense of revanchist victimhood and employ it as a weapon against political opponents.

Of course the actual course of events in postwar Ukraine would be contingent on the conditions on which the hostilities end and the situation in the country at the time. Currently President Zelenskyy is lauded as a war leader, but before the invasion his star was fading and his competence is still being questioned by opposition groups within Ukraine. The resumption of normal domestic politics in the postwar period is potentially going to become volatile and inflammable as the President’s opponents seek advantage.

The dire social and economic conditions, particularly in a cessation of fighting that sees a stalemate, could in the worst case see violence, reaction, and revolution. Populists could emerge to exploit the dislocation and disruption flowing from depopulation and demobilisation of veterans. The large Ukrainian diaspora now in Europe will not be immune to upheaval in their home country and elements could become security concerns in the host nations.

Wars never end neatly and prudent leaders must prepare for the worst, even while being encouraging for the duration.

Image: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.