Aid to Ukrainian Cities Matters: Assistance to Municipalities Can Have the Greatest Impact
Ukrainian cities and towns are on the frontlines of the war. Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol, Bakhmut, and Odesa have become symbols of destruction but also of resistance and hope. They are among hundreds that have suffered severe damage.
Local governments, acutely aware of reconstruction needs and directly accountable to residents, shoulder most of the burden of reconstructing housing, communication infrastructure, and transport, energy, and water systems. Together with social workers and local NGOs, they must also work to heal traumatized communities and mend the social fabric that holds them together.
Mayors worldwide understood the challenges and responded with speed and solidarity when the war broke out, welcoming Ukrainian refugees and sending emergency aid to partner cities. Over the past year, international city networks have launched initiatives, such as the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for the Reconstruction of Ukraine, to help coordinate urban recovery efforts and prepare for postwar rebuilding.
As the war grinds on and international support wanes in the face of competing political priorities and “fatigue”, long-term commitments to stand by and rebuild Ukraine are becoming ever more critical. Such support has the most direct and positive impact on Ukrainian cities. It eases suffering, raises morale, and offers perspectives for the future for Ukrainians who have stayed and those considering a return.
Despite the support already offered, donor countries, international organizations, and development banks can do much more for Ukrainian municipalities. They can create mechanisms for direct financial, capacity, and technical assistance and facilitate the engagement of local stakeholders in reconstruction planning.
Such efforts are vital to bolstering Ukraine’s internationally supported decentralization reforms of the past decade. Protecting and strengthening Ukrainian municipal self-government is fundamental to rebuilding a modern and democratic Ukraine.
Strong and well-resourced local governments are, for example, needed to improve Ukraine’s energy security and autonomy, key components for getting the country through the upcoming winter and winning the war. Kyiv has already announced plans to rebuild a more resilient and clean decentralized power grid to heighten energy independence and modernize its shattered, Soviet-era energy infrastructure. But success in this area, as in others, means involving local authorities, businesses, and communities in formulating, piloting, and scaling solutions.
Fifty local Ukrainian leaders recently signed a letter in which they thanked the US government for its energy aid and called for more direct support to municipalities. International donors that have pledged sizeable sums to support Ukraine’s energy transition should heed that call. Doing so will make the most of their assistance.
- Hannah Abdullah. Senior Program Officer and Fellow, GMF Cities
- Paul Costello, Senior Program Manager, GMF Cities
Threats to the North: Failure in Ukraine Would Imperil Baltic-Arctic Security
With allied support, Ukrainian troops have defied the odds. They have held their ground against the aggressor in a war many expected to be over in days and severely degraded Russian ground forces previously stationed along NATO’s eastern flank. Continued assistance is needed if Ukraine is to defend its territory and the security interests of all NATO allies, and deter an existential threat to Northern Europe and North America.
An unchecked Russia could reconstitute its forces on the eastern flank and further strengthen its military presence in the Arctic, a region critical to Russian economic and security interests and increasingly central to Sino-Russian cooperation. Russia would then emerge as a formidable, modernized military power with valuable battlefield experience fighting against Western military equipment. To prevent this, Moscow must lose the war decisively and be held accountable for its actions, including through reparations to Ukraine. Anything short of this allows the Kremlin to continue investing in its military, prolonging the threat to Ukraine and NATO.
A result that sees Russia maintain territorial gains could lead it to replicate landgrabs elsewhere, including in the Baltics, where it regularly tests NATO’s resolve with hybrid tactics and belligerent rhetoric. Even a stalemate offers Moscow the ability to threaten the Baltic states with rebuilt forces under battle-tested leadership.
Implications for the Arctic would be equally worrying. Russia’s northern posture has remained largely unaffected by the war and continues to threaten Northern Europe, Canada, and the United States. Even now, the Kremlin’s ongoing sub-threshold provocations could spin out of control through inadvertent escalation. A perception of victory in Ukraine could embolden Russia to raise the stakes by concentrating more forces and assets in the strategically and environmentally vulnerable region. Escalation across the deeply intertwined Baltic-Arctic theaters is not in NATO’s interest and would render Northern Europe and North America less secure.
Continued support of Ukraine can help prevent such a scenario. The transatlantic partners have managed to support Ukraine and degrade Russian military capabilities without sending a single soldier into combat. Further support for Ukraine is morally correct and advances US and allied security interests along NATO’s northern flank.
- Kristine Berzina, Managing Director, GMF North
- Sophie Arts, Program Officer, GMF North
- Parker Nash, Program Assistant, GMF North
Europeans Need to Demonstrate Staying Power
Their leadership of assistance to Ukraine will help maintain US support.
Washington was the indisputable leader in Western support for Ukraine in the first 15 months of Russia’s war. US intelligence correctly called out the planned invasion and Moscow’s disinformation campaign leading in the run-up to the invasion while Western European capitals held on to hope over assessment. At the outbreak of conflict, US aid, humanitarian and military, was consistently first and most, while European efforts lagged. It is doubtful that united European support for Ukraine—also in terms of offering the possibility of EU and NATO membership—would have reached current levels without the Biden administrations early leadership. Now though, Europe is positioned to lead and must do so.
As my colleagues outline, European commitments to Ukraine have recently outpaced those from the US, and that is a good thing. This right-sizing of European support for Ukraine can be an important step in rebalancing transatlantic burden-sharing toward more sustainable shares. Berlin, in particular, seemed to be holding firm to its position near the back of the pack but has recently become the second-biggest supplier of military aid (after the United States). This is an important milestone. If the Europeans can keep up this pace while maintaining strategic clarity and cohesion behind Ukraine and its future in the European community, they would take an important step toward a genuinely geostrategic EU.
It is time for the bloc to assume leadership over Western support for Ukraine, also to help ensure transatlantic cooperation. It is unfortunate that some US Republicans have decided to play political hijinks with aid to Ukraine, but it is reasonable to question if US support for European security should outstrip commitments from the Europeans themselves. Now that they have caught up, it should be easier to maintain sufficient bipartisan support in Congress for Ukraine, once the House of Representatives is functioning again.
US leadership was indispensable in the war’s first year, but steady European leadership of the effort to support Ukraine is required if the country is to have a peaceful future. The pace may be too slow for the partners in Kyiv, but steadiness is now the name of the game.
- Rachel Tausendfreund, Senior Fellow
Veiled Threats:The Motives behind Putin’s War in Ukraine
Appearing at an economic forum in Vladivostok in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is bracing for a long war in Ukraine. He added, without apparent irony, that “it’s not right to do anything in foreign policy that harms the interest of other peoples” and charged that the United States and its allies are conspiring to extend the conflict.
Putin’s words echo those of some critics in the West who argue that the distant war is a waste of funds. In the United States specifically, these critics want to cut Ukrainian aid to reduce growing national debt. This unfortunate congruity of objectives comes at an inopportune time. The Kremlin has negotiated an arms deal with North Korea, Iran continues to supply massive numbers of drones, and the Wagner Group is poised to open a front on Ukraine’s northern flank, following Putin’s brutal assassination of its leadership. More threatening is the election of a new pro-Russian prime minister in Slovakia, an important but wavering ally of hard-pressed Ukraine.
These factors are the latest to make a reassessment of the West’s commitment to Kyiv dangerous. Since February 2022 it has been clear that what may appear to some as a border disagreement is actually a veiled but determined Kremlin attempt to reestablish Russia’s European and global influence.
Putin targets the area comprising Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine as the next ground to test Western resolve. He exploits fissures in the structures erected to nurture fledgling democracies, taking, in Ukraine’s case, a brutal chisel to widen the fractures. Elsewhere, he is offering struggling nations, such as Serbia and Georgia, alternatives to the EU or NATO.
Putin has enjoyed substantial success in Hungary, where Prime Minister Victor Orbán regularly proclaims his friendship to reap the benefits of cheap Russian gas and nuclear technology. Orbán has met the obligations of friendship by blocking the EU’s appropriation of $18.9 billion for Ukraine. Putin is also likely to make headway in Slovakia as his friend Robert Fico finalizes his incoming coalition government. In eastern Czechia, popular support has long favored Russia, making the region ripe for Putin’s picking. The three countries are nostalgic for times when the Soviet Union provided support that made life easier, especially at a time when annual inflation is running as high as 12%. Farther west, in the Balkans, Putin dangles the military enticements of Slavic brotherhood to residents of an aspirational, independent Republika Srpska. The ploy is a scheme to destroy the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina delicately and precariously assembled through UN intervention two decades ago. The resulting threat of renewed sectarian violence is jangling nerves.
But Putin’s challenges extend far beyond Europe. In fact, they constitute strategic threats of the first order. What are we to make, for instance, of the growing friendship between Kremlin hardliners and Iranian mullahs? What lies ahead if Putin can merge these newfound allies into a tripartite alliance with Syria, his client state? Will Israel face yet another, even greater threat?
A similar scenario may be in store for East Asia. The West’s firm response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has had a sobering effect on China’s threat to Taiwan. But that may erode as Beijing grows closer to Moscow.
So, what are the consequences of failing to ensure a Ukrainian victory and accepting Russian hegemony over other parts of Europe? The answer is clear. The invasion of Ukraine is a regional, even global, threat to democracy and stability.
From a regional and strategic perspective, the West must remain closely aligned with Ukraine to ensure that it has the resources to blunt Russian aggression. The delivery of promised F-16s and advanced munitions must be accelerated. More humanitarian aid—ambulances, medical supplies, lights, and generators—is needed, as is more diplomatic and logistical government assistance for NGOs active in Ukraine.
The West, for its own interests, must do all within its power to staunch the conflict it broadens and exacts even higher costs. To do less at this critical point risks a worldwide resurgence of malign Russian influence.
- Brock Bierman, Visiting Senior Fellow