The Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano was an admirable gathering of government representatives, Western donors, the private sector, and civil society, with discussions focusing on a new Ukrainian National Recovery Plan. But ultimately it has produced little of immediate relevance to the demands of wartime, and provided no solutions to support the survival of the Ukrainian state in the short-term.
The Ukrainian government’s recovery scenario assumes the war will last until the end of 2022 – that is a big assumption as Russia shows no sign of giving up. Vladimir Putin may have changed tactics to focus on Donbas, but his overall strategic objective remains unchanged – to ensure Ukraine capitulates and is crippled militarily, socially, and economically.
Economically, the question is who will break first. According to the World Bank, sanctions have created an 11 per cent contraction in Russia and it has defaulted on its debt. But Ukraine’s economy may collapse by 45 per cent because the key pillars of its economy have been almost completely wrecked. Export revenues shrunk from $6 billion in November 2021 to just more than $2 billion in March 2022, and budget revenues decreased by almost 30 per cent.
Putin is targeting civilian infrastructure to make life unbearable in cities and causing a refugee crisis, with damage to physical infrastructure estimated at $95.5 billion and at least 779 medical institutions, 1,371 educational institutions, 690 kindergartens, and 28 oil depots damaged, destroyed, or seized.
But despite the heavy economic and human toll, the vast majority of Ukrainians are determined to push for victory, and are clear about what that means – defeating and expelling Russian troops to the state border of 2014, assisting an insurgency inside Russia to liberate the constituent nations from Putin’s regime, and for war criminals to be brought to justice.
Ukraine also wants Russia to pay for rebuilding with both state and oligarch assets requisitioned to pay for reconstruction. New powers introduced by Canada suggest a legal framework can be designed to mobilize these resources, but it will take time.
Will the West stay the course?
These aims are undoubtedly ambitious and maximalist, but they reflect Ukrainian politicians’ and society’s resolve. Confidence among Ukrainians that Russia will be repelled reached 93 per cent in June but the main concern is whether international support will maintain its resolve.
High-level policy declarations that the European Union (EU) will ‘stand up with Ukraine for as long as it takes and will not rest until Kyiv prevails’ must be backed by action, which means quickly providing around $60 billion – excluding military and security assistance – by the end of 2022. Budget support has started trickling through, but the pace is too slow. Out of €12.3 billion committed by the EU, only €2 billion has been disbursed.
Finance for immediate recovery needs is even more problematic as the Lugano participants are still discussing how to set up a new facility. With the new school year and winter approaching, cities must build bomb shelters, repair and increase housing stock, provide emergency funding to SMEs, build new transport connections to export via the EU, and stockpile materials to prepare for future damage to critical infrastructure, which is inevitable.
The fastest way to disburse funding is via existing institutions with proper oversight. In addition to direct budget support, there should be financing of the Ukrainian Energy Efficiency Fund, Fund for Regional Development, and the Ukrainian Cultural Fund, all of whose coffers have been empty since the start of the invasion.
Three principles of a resilient recovery
Funding aside, it is key that partners embed a resilient approach to the immediate recovery effort. Chatham House research shows resilience in Ukraine is mainly founded on decentralized governance, the strong agency of civil society, and an agile and committed private sector. It is important to remember horizontal social links – rather than hierarchical centralized command – are the main organizing feature of social culture in Ukraine.
Several issues currently stand in the way of exploiting these strengths, the first being the impact of martial law and a partial return to centralized rule. Top-down governance via regional military administrations and the drastic fall in local budget revenues make elected mayors dependent on the central authorities.
Centralization is justified in a time of war but it also allows President Zelenskyy to undercut the political competition. It is no secret that mayors who enjoy high trust and legitimacy are the most likely challengers in future battles for power. War inevitably boosts social mobility and brings a new generation of leadership to the fore.
In Lugano, mayors were largely absent so Kyiv should set politics aside and embed the EU’s principle of subsidiarity in the rebuilding process. Recovery decisions must be taken at the level that is as close as possible to citizens, and the question must constantly be asked as to whether action at the national level is justified or if there is relevant regional or local capacity. Restoring local sources of revenue is key.
Second, a framework for engaging non-state actors is lacking. Apart from stating a principle of democratic participation in the Lugano Declaration, the conference provided no answers and Zelenskyy’s team is known for its scepticism towards civil society.
When 70 per cent of citizens are volunteering to help with the war effort, NGOs and voluntary groups could channel that energy, contribute ideas, provide a social safety net, and deliver some services. After the events of 2014, the Building Ukraine Together network mobilized more than 6,000 young volunteers to rebuild houses and help IDPs. If civic engagement is supported, it increases community cohesion, sustains personal resilience, and encourages people to stay in the country.