We need to develop a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Ukraine — now

Associated Press/Rodrigo Abd
A woman walks amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022.

It’s not too early for the European Union and United States to begin working now on a post-conflict recovery effort for Ukraine, something akin to a modern-day Marshall Plan. The horrors of the fierce fighting, the atrocities committed by the Russian military and the decimation of Ukraine’s villages, towns and cities have grabbed our attention, but eventually there will be a post-conflict phase — for which someone needs to start planning now. 

The post-conflict, nation-building phase is seldom rehearsed during military exercises, and it’s the phase with which we tend to struggle most often. The U.S. armed forces are good at defeating the enemy, and the Department of Defense gets an “A” for eliminating bad guys. But when our military is placed in a supporting role under the Department of State, its post-conflict and nation-building grades fall in the low “C” range. Our best performances were with Germany, Japan and Korea after World War II and the Korean War. The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan are considered U.S. failures, and with Iraq it is still too early to tell. 

We cannot risk allowing Ukraine to falter in this war, or afterward.

To begin the planning for its rebuilding after the conflict, we need to project Ukraine’s end state and list facts and assumptions. The most important assumptions are that Ukraine survives the invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky remains in power, and the Russian military departs the country voluntarily or by force. One simple fact looms large: Ukraine has been decimated. It will require a complete rebuilding of places that Russian artillery has leveled. In Zelensky’s words, the port city of Mariupol was “reduced to ashes,” for example; he likened it to Armageddon. Roads, railways, airports, seaports and bridges all have been destroyed. Hospitals, schools, stores, factories and communications nodes are gone. Ukraine’s nuclear national power grid is shut down. A fourth assumption is that these facilities can be brought back online relatively quickly and safely. 

The cost to rebuild Ukraine will be beyond monumental. Any plan must be ready to emplace immediately after hostilities conclude.

The Marshall Plan — named for former Secretary of State George C. Marshall, but officially known as the European Recovery Program — was an American initiative enacted in 1948 to provide foreign aid to Western Europe. Its purpose was to assist the economic recovery of nations after World War II and secure U.S. geopolitical influence over Western Europe. The goals were to rebuild war-torn regions, remove trade barriers, modernize industry, improve European prosperity, and prevent the spread of communism. During the four-year lifespan of the plan, the U.S. transferred more than $13 billion — equivalent to about $115 billion in 2020 — in economic recovery programs to Western European economies.

The task and purpose of a plan for Ukraine would be similar: provide aid for its economic recovery and humanitarian assistance to repatriate its displaced population, now said to exceed 10 million people. The plan also would be to improve European prosperity and secure Europe’s eastern border with Russia. 

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This must be an “all-in effort” by the European Union. The United States and United Nations will play roles, but the EU should take the lead. It will require decades of strategic patience to rebuild Ukraine. The critical first steps are defining the lines of effort and determining how to fund them. At a minimum, these efforts must include humanitarian assistance, governance, security, public services and infrastructure.

The essential first step in Ukraine’s resurrection should be giving it immediate membership in the EU. This will provide a sense of belonging to a democratic country and its people who sacrificed immensely for their freedom. Then we must build temporary refugee centers in Ukraine to facilitate the repatriation of refugees, most of whom will want to return to their homes. Funding is critical. EU member countries could make financial contributions based on a percentage of their gross domestic product (much like funding NATO), but Russia — and possibly Belarus, for its supporting role in the invasion — must pay reparations for the immense damage inflicted upon Ukraine.  

A condition for Russia to resume sales of its oil and natural gas on the world market should be a tax of at least 50 percent on the revenues to facilitate the rebuilding of Ukraine. To provide the people of Ukraine a sense of security they desperately need, the United States also should consider reinstating the Army V Corps to the active component and moving the headquarters from Fort Knox, Ky., to Ukraine.  

The framework outlined here is a starting point to an exceptionally difficult problem. It barely scratches the surface of the humanitarian crisis that Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine, but it begins the conversation. The people of Ukraine can’t afford any lag time between the cessation of hostilities and the start of a recovery effort, so we must have an executable, funded plan in place. Rebuilding Ukraine’s infrastructure and repatriating its population will be complicated, expensive and time-consuming. We need creative, brilliant minds to step forth and offer their help. Some will say it’s not our problem or that it can’t be done, but as a former boss once told me, “Can’t never could do anything.”  

We have watched this war from the sidelines long enough. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty with the men and women of Ukraine who are fighting hard to retain their independence. It’s time to stand on the right side of history. 

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics.

Tags European Union George C. Marshall Marshall Plan rebuilding Ukraine Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine crisis Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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