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The U.S. Should Start Helping Ukraine Rebuild Now

The West must demonstrate resolve for Ukraine to prosper as a sovereign nation.

By , a senior vice president at American Global Strategies. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director on the U.S. National Security Council from 2018 to 2021.
An unexploded cylindrical bomb sits amid red flowers in front of a destroyed apartment building.
An unexploded cylindrical bomb sits amid red flowers in front of a destroyed apartment building.
An unexploded FAB-250 air-dropped bomb is pictured in front of a destroyed building in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on June 2. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has strengthened Western unity and provided an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate leadership on the global stage by rallying support for military aid to Ukraine and for sanctions against Russia.

U.S. efforts have been successful: As of mid-May, 37 countries were providing either financial, humanitarian, or military aid to Ukraine. Of the $63 billion in bilateral aid that has been provided or pledged to Ukraine since Jan. 24 (the day some NATO countries placed troops on alert), $17.7 billion has been financial aid, $11.7 billion has been humanitarian aid, and $33.6 billion has been direct military aid.

The United States is fronting the lion’s share of this aid at $42.9 billion ($25.2 billion in direct military aid), but the contributions from small nations neighboring Ukraine—such as Poland, Estonia, and Latvia—should not be overlooked or chalked up to a lack of commitment. Although the total dollar amount of the aid provided pales in comparison to that of the United States, the amount of aid provided compared to their GDP exceeds that of the United States’ commitment of 0.22 percent—with Poland at 1.17 percent, Estonia at 0.97 percent, and Latvia at 0.83 percent of their respective GDPs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has strengthened Western unity and provided an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate leadership on the global stage by rallying support for military aid to Ukraine and for sanctions against Russia.

U.S. efforts have been successful: As of mid-May, 37 countries were providing either financial, humanitarian, or military aid to Ukraine. Of the $63 billion in bilateral aid that has been provided or pledged to Ukraine since Jan. 24 (the day some NATO countries placed troops on alert), $17.7 billion has been financial aid, $11.7 billion has been humanitarian aid, and $33.6 billion has been direct military aid.

The United States is fronting the lion’s share of this aid at $42.9 billion ($25.2 billion in direct military aid), but the contributions from small nations neighboring Ukraine—such as Poland, Estonia, and Latvia—should not be overlooked or chalked up to a lack of commitment. Although the total dollar amount of the aid provided pales in comparison to that of the United States, the amount of aid provided compared to their GDP exceeds that of the United States’ commitment of 0.22 percent—with Poland at 1.17 percent, Estonia at 0.97 percent, and Latvia at 0.83 percent of their respective GDPs.

Unfortunately, however, the West’s track record for providing critical leadership and aid once the fighting stops and the cleanup begins is lackluster. For all the might and capability brought to a fight, the West tends to pull chocks and leave the recovery and rebuilding efforts to haphazard afterthoughts. As a result, any gains that may have been made are often lost, leaving fragile governments and their people resenting the West. Examples of this litter the geopolitical history of the past half century, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Iraq to Eastern Europe.

If history has taught us anything, the time for laying the groundwork for Ukraine’s recovery and enduring freedom as a sovereign nation is now.


The United States and other Western nations must acknowledge that the level of devastation and destruction from Russia’s brutality in Ukraine is reminiscent of post-World War II Europe. The United States waited three years after that war ended before establishing the Economic Recovery Act, commonly referred to as the Marshall Plan. The delay, largely attributed to domestic disagreement on postwar priorities and whether the Marshall Plan would fit into the Truman Doctrine, drove European governments to nearly exhaust their last reserves importing the necessities for their populations and nearly witnessed the erosion of democratic gains.

The Marshall Plan thus provided a valuable lesson: Although it successfully reconstructed cities and infrastructure as well as served as a mechanism to bolster democracy, its delay in implementation almost led to the disintegration of the European economy and the spread of communism.

Ukraine presents an opportunity not to make that mistake again. Ultimately, the success of Ukraine’s recovery will serve as a deterrent to other authoritarian regimes and their broader interests. The West must demonstrate resolve for Ukraine to prosper as a sovereign nation and develop an executable plan for helping Ukraine resume productivity and reestablish itself within the global economy. Failure on the West’s part would invite aggression from countries like China. There should be no doubts that Chinese President Xi Jinping is formulating his calculus on Taiwan based on how the West is handling Ukraine.

While the outcome of this conflict remains in flux, there are several potential scenarios, including 1) a complete Western victory scenario, where Russia no longer threatens Ukraine and withdraws from all Ukrainian territory; 2) a Korean War scenario, where Russia withdraws to a set border east of the Dnieper River and establishes a government in a bid to create a new internationally recognized country; 3) a frozen conflict scenario, where Russia maintains current battle lines and continues a war of attrition similar to the state of eastern Ukrainian provinces after 2014; and, while unlikely in my eyes, 4) a complete Russian victory where Russia incorporates Ukraine into the Russian Federation.

Except for a complete Russian victory scenario, Ukraine will require tremendous assistance in returning to a safe, secure, and prosperous country—one that can serve as a beacon of the West’s resolve in fostering democratic and open societies.

Herein lies the leadership opportunity for the United States: to build a coalition not to fight a war but to demonstrate altruistic values the world holds as fundamental in a democracy. The coalition of international support for Ukraine’s recovery should seek to help the country’s leaders make deliberate decisions on how to rebuild and recover, help prioritize funding, and provide the necessary program management and oversight for what will be massive investments.


Under any scenario, an enormous effort will be required to render Ukraine safe for civilians due to the number of mines and unexploded ordnance spread throughout the country. According to the U.S. State Department, international demining experts estimate that Russian munitions may have dud rates between 10 and 30 percent, meaning massive amounts of unexploded ordnance will remain in the ground for years to come. Additionally, Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food explains that approximately 10 percent of the country’s farmland is now contaminated by explosive hazards.

This should be a major focus of NATO countries to immediately address so other efforts can proceed quickly and refugees can return to their hometowns. Absent this effort, Ukraine will likely struggle to return the over 6.6 million refugees who have fled since Russia invaded.

Reestablishing transportation infrastructure—including bridges, roads, rails, and air capabilities—can be viewed through a two-phased lens: immediate need and long-term redevelopment. Rebuilding a core transportation network to establish a consistent flow of humanitarian assistance supplies is the immediate need and includes physical infrastructure as well as virtual infrastructure to assist with operational logistics command and control—a tool for identifying what is needed, when it will be needed, and where it will be needed.

Long-term aid would be more properly characterized as “development” and would enable Ukraine to enhance Soviet-era preexisting infrastructure, such as primary roads and bridges that were designed with key deficiencies built in to prevent offensive NATO use. These deficiencies include weight and size limitations that now prevent efficient commercial use. Long-term transportation efforts should be designed with an aim to enhance Ukraine’s participation in the global economy.

Rebuilding and securing the country’s cyber infrastructure will also be critical. Ukrainian businesses and the government suffered cyberattacks even prior to Russia’s invasion, and their experiences forced them to develop adequate countermeasures. The U.S. government and its contractors should also look for ways to provide advanced cybersecurity tools to Ukraine as part of its recovery, not only to help it defend against future attacks but also to enable free and secure commerce to fully integrate with the West. This also provides an opportunity for sharing lessons learned and best practices, which the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency could then incorporate into its own efforts to secure critical infrastructure domestically.

Given the vast amounts of destruction seen in some areas of Ukraine, deliberate planning, program management, and construction management for the rebuilding of urban, transportation, and civil infrastructure will be a costly but necessary aspect of recovery. Ukraine does have domestic engineering capabilities, but the scope of the rebuild and amount of oversight will likely require a strong international partnership.

With 27 EU member nations as well as the United States and Canada all likely to contribute to reconstruction, a coordinated plan and active clearing house for these various efforts need to be established now before the flood of aid becomes uncontrollable.

The United States can leverage unique capabilities and expansive capacities from both its public and private sectors to help address these challenges. U.S. government agencies—such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—bring expertise in running large-scale relief and recovery programs while the United States’ private sector brings innovation, know-how, and scalability to complex recovery projects.

The benefits for the United States to begin this dialogue now rather than waiting for the war to end include understanding the financial scope of the country’s existing reconstruction needs, gauging the likely level of commitment from international partners, and ensuring that any financial and physical investments are aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s democracy—building an environment where the Ukrainian people can thrive and one that will further stabilize Eastern Europe for years to come.


Taking the lead on this effort does not require the United States to be the proverbial checkbook though. Current estimates of the cost of rebuilding Ukraine are between $220 billion and $565 billion—a sum no one country should be expected to provide. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has already provided $53.6 billion in various forms of military aid through two different supplemental appropriations measures—but nothing in terms of rebuilding the country. Although international organizations and investors will certainly play key roles in funding Ukraine’s reconstruction, from a policy perspective, it is prudent to explore alternative approaches.

More than $350 billion in frozen reserves from Russia’s Central Bank represent a clear opportunity for the international community to take a historic step and make Russia pay for a part of the cost to rebuild Ukraine. Similarly, seized assets of Russian oligarchs pose an opportunity for funding Ukraine’s reconstruction.

For example, since February, the European Union has seized over $30 billion in assets traced to Russian oligarchs, and the British government recently accepted a $3.1 billion bid in the sale of the Chelsea Football Club and seized these funds. The club was formerly owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, whose initial investment in 2003 was only around $233 million.

Using such funds to finance Ukraine’s reconstruction presents legal challenges and may require new legislation. Yet that should not be seen as a deterrent to trying this approach but rather as an opportunity to deter future unjustified hostilities.

There are some areas where U.S. funding could be beneficial though. For instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development received funding in both supplemental appropriations bills for International Disaster Assistance to provide emergency food assistance. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which can leverage technical expertise and contracting authorities, could play an integral role in the removal of unexploded ordnance and reconstituting critical economic infrastructure, yet it has not received specific appropriations for these types of efforts in Ukraine.

The United States should affirm the decision to use the Army Corps of Engineers and allow for planning and preparation to take place now. Certainly, this would contribute to additional costs for the U.S. taxpayer; however, the financial commitment would be relatively small while ensuring a more efficient and safe return for refugees—thus helping Ukraine’s economy rebound.

The European Commission is beginning the dialogue of addressing Ukraine’s financing gap with an eye toward creating the foundations of a country anchored in European values and integrated into the European and global economies. For its part, the Ukrainian government announced the creation of a National Council for the Recovery of Ukraine From the War as well as a postwar recovery and development plan. The council will direct and prioritize efforts within Ukraine.

What remains is for the United States to remain proactive and position itself as a coordinator and integrator for Ukraine’s recovery. Disengaging or not acting in a timely fashion feeds the narrative of authoritarian regimes that the United States is increasingly irrelevant on the global stage. If that is not the vision U.S. leaders have for their country, then they must demonstrate the resolve to empower Ukraine to achieve its vision as a whole and sovereign nation.

Brian J. Cavanaugh is a senior vice president at American Global Strategies. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director on the U.S. National Security Council from 2018 to 2021.

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