Growing Agreement but Remaining Uncertainty
More than a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there is a strong transatlantic consensus that the war has created a new security reality, one in which Kyiv must overcome Kremlin aggression with physical force, the world’s leading democracies must shed any illusions about the Russian regime, and Ukraine’s postwar future requires a massive collective effort.
This consensus was on display at GMF’s 2023 Brussels Forum. At the same time, though, the discussions at this transatlantic gathering of policymakers, experts, and civil society representatives revealed uncertainty about ways to transform agreement into action.
The conference began with a session on scenarios for the future of Russia and their implications for international security. The desirability of Ukraine’s victory was repeatedly raised, but the impact of loss on Russia and measures to protect the country’s neighbors from future acts of aggression were less explicit. The war’s ability to trigger internal changes in Russia remains unclear, as do any steps to liberate the country from President Vladimir Putin’s regime. After all, a February poll revealed that 68% Russians support the war in Ukraine.
The strongest possible international security guarantees, therefore, will be crucial for Ukraine’s recovery, no matter how the war ends. Any Western reluctance to provide them will frustrate recovery efforts by preventing a resurgence of critical private economic activity. No investor is likely to be active in Ukraine if another Russian attack is possible at any time. Unfortunately, despite agreement on the need for security guarantees, Brussels Forum brought no consensus between Ukraine and the international community on the details, including the timing of giving the guarantees.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that Ukrainian membership in the alliance during the war is not on the agenda. He allowed only that the provision of “military support to Ukraine to help them deter and defend themselves” was one alternate arrangement under consideration.
For Ukrainians, NATO membership remains Plan A, with security guarantees a poor Plan B. Civil society activist Daria Kaleniuk reiterated the widespread view among the Ukrainian expert community that “anything that falls short of Ukraine’s membership in NATO will not be accepted as sufficient security guarantees for Ukraine.”
A Modern Marshall Plan
Brussels Forum discussions also laid bare the same mix of agreement and uncertainty regarding the shape of Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery process.
The growing belief that a modern Marshall Plan must guide the process was evident, with the acknowledgment that, in a reversal of the original, the plan would see many countries helping one. The plan would also include a reconstruction of national infrastructure that takes into account environmental and efficiency factors. But the plan’s actual implantation spurred many questions: Who will steer the process? What roles will Ukrainian and donor governments, civil society, and business, all of which need to be involved, assume? Who will have the last word on how funds are spent?
Panel discussions confirmed the growing emphasis on the G7 and international financial institutions, sending a clear message that the international community wants a large role in steering the process. It now seems certain that, contrary to last year’s plans, Ukraine’s National Council for Reconstruction will not be at the intersection of all rebuilding efforts, at least for the foreseeable future. A Donor Coordination Platform will instead assume that responsibility.
This led to another key issue: trust between international donors and the Kyiv government. Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery will rely to a great extent on such trust as the former will want to see the successful implementation of anti-corruption and judicial reforms, and the establishment of sustainable institutions, all of which are conducive to a favorable business climate. Including Ukraine’s civil society in the decision-making process can increase the necessary trust, as the Brussels Forum made clear.
Coincidentally, as the conference took place, the president of Ukraine’s Supreme Court, Vsevolod Kniazev, was arrested on suspicion of receiving a $2.7 million bribe and subsequently dismissed from his post. Such events at first glance might raise the international community’s mistrust of Ukrainian authorities, but this case is, in fact, important evidence that the country is undergoing profound changes that preclude the earlier practice of covering up high-level corruption.
One final, striking aspect of Brussels Forum was the degree to which discussions initiated by Ukrainian civil society and those by international experts differed. While the latter showed an eagerness to start the “build back better” process along lines that they have proposed, the Ukrainians warned about donors’ limited understanding of local realities and context. They stressed that donors, if they want to make a real contribution to Ukraine’s recovery, must trust local partners to guide them and not extrapolate post-conflict reconstruction experiences from African and Middle Eastern countries.
All stakeholders should hear this message from Ukraine: A deeper understanding of the local context through respectful engagement and trust among donors, national and local governments, civil society, and the business sector is key to winning the war and the peace.
Darina Dvornichenko is a GMF ReThink.CEE fellow and a research fellow at the University of Oxford. Her research is funded by the British Academy’s Researchers at Risk Fellowships program.