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The myth of a strong postwar Ukraine

Ending the conflict sooner will give Kyiv a chance to rebuild. Until then, its prospects for a thriving, democratic state are diminishing.

Analysis | Europe

No matter how the war ends, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has created the very outcome he most wanted to prevent: a thriving anti-Russian, pro-Western democracy, armed to the teeth with American weaponry, destined at a minimum to become a de facto ally of Washington, if not an official member of the NATO alliance.  

Or so it is thought in Washington and other Western capitals. But, with the sole exception of Ukraine’s deepening and quite understandable revulsion toward Russia, it is much closer to wishful thinking than to reality.  

Let’s begin with the “thriving” part, as it is the foundation upon which the other elements of this narrative rest. According to the last Soviet census, Ukraine had a population of nearly 52 million people prior to its independence in 1992. Its population dropped significantly over the next three decades, as the economic and psychological disruptions of the USSR’s dissolution combined to shorten life expectancy during the tumultuous 1990s, and Ukraine’s birthrate plunged to nearly the lowest in all Europe. 

Factor in Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula with its 2.5 million inhabitants nearly a decade ago, and Ukraine’s population had declined to less than 40 million by 2022. 

Since Russia’s invasion last year, Ukraine’s demographic outlook has worsened even more dramatically. Vast numbers of Ukraine’s citizens — mostly women and children — have fled the war for the European Union and Russia. Reputable demographers peg its current population at well under 30 million. The longer the war continues, the more losses Ukraine will suffer, and the greater will be the destruction of its cities, infrastructure, and arable land. 

This mounting damage is likely to discourage many refugees from returning to Ukraine anytime soon. A European demographic study published last year indicated that by 2040, Ukraine’s working age population could fall by a third of its present size, with the number of children declining to half its pre-war level. 

Demography is not necessarily destiny, but such shocking projections bode ill for Ukraine’s economic prosperity and societal dynamism. The future they portend is a vicious circle of decline. Under such circumstances, simply manning a substantial standing army as a counter to much more populous Russia would be a challenge for Ukraine, let alone mastering and maintaining a large arsenal of NATO-standard weaponry. The more resources it must devote to its military, the fewer it will have for launching new commercial ventures and building a productive civilian economy. 

Ukraine’s agricultural sector – one of the bedrocks of its economy — has already contracted dramatically

The longer the war continues, the more arable land it will lose to landmines and other damage that will require decades to repair. The smaller its economy, the narrower will be its tax base. As its tax revenues decline, Ukraine will grow less able to support its aging and war-crippled population’s need for social services and become even more dependent on U.S. and European financial support. 

Just how “pro-Western” might this future Ukraine be?  It is, of course, impossible to say with any confidence at present, particularly because anticipating shifts in popular sentiment is inherently even more difficult than projecting population figures.

But here, too, there is cause for concern. As Ukraine’s much anticipated counteroffensive sputters, Ukrainian officials are increasingly voicing accusations that Washington has pushed for attacks but failed to supply sufficient ammunition and air defense, setting up Ukraine for failure. If that counteroffensive collapses altogether and NATO fails to come to the rescue, it is not hard to imagine a “stab-in-the-back” narrative taking root in Ukraine, with hatred toward Russia mingling with resentment toward the West. 

As a rule, wars put strains on democratic liberty. This has proved true even in the United States, including during the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, and the Global War on Terrorism. Ukraine has not been an exception. Kyiv has outlawed opposition parties, arrested opposition leaders, closed opposition newspapers and broadcast media, cracked down on religious freedom, and indicated that presidential elections scheduled for 2024 will not be held if the war is still underway.

In many ways, these are understandable reactions to the existential threat posed by Russia. But they give little cause for hope that Ukraine will succeed quickly in escaping the dysfunctions that had long been produced by its corrupt patronage politics prior to the war. 

None of this is inevitable. But the key to avoiding this bleak vision of Ukraine’s future is to end the war as quickly as possible to facilitate economic reconstruction, attract the return of refugees, and allow Ukraine to advance liberal reforms under favorable conditions. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, American policy is making it ever less likely that Ukraine can and will be rebuilt. 

In stating publicly that Ukraine will become a NATO member, but only after the war is concluded, the Biden administration has perversely incentivized Russia to make sure the war does not end, at least not officially. The Kremlin need not wage the war at current levels of intensity to achieve that goal. The mere threat that a wave of Russian missile strikes might destroy a new housing project or a recently rebuilt bridge will discourage investors from providing the hundreds of billions of dollars that Ukraine needs for reconstruction.

Russia may be unable to conquer Ukraine altogether, but it can block Ukraine’s path toward a vibrant future. 

It is a mistake to believe that Ukraine will emerge from the war as a strong and prospering democracy no matter how it ends or how long it takes. The longer it continues, the bleaker will be Ukraine’s future. It is time to combine our defensive support for Ukraine — which is essential to preventing further Russian territorial gains and pushing the Kremlin toward negotiations — with a diplomatic offensive aimed at a compromise settlement. The sooner we do, the better off Ukraine will be. 

Kharkiv, Ukraine, April, 4, 2022. (David Peinado Romero/Shutterstock)
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