The Case for an Ambitious British Role in Ukraine’s Reconstruction

The war in Ukraine remains in a critical state, and will demand ongoing and heightened investments from Western allies, even as domestic audiences become gripped by fatigue and helplessness. At the same time, thinly stretched governments consumed by cost-of-living and energy crises will also need to find space to cast their minds forward to the aftermath that will emerge from the resolution of the conflict – whatever, and whenever that may be. The uncertainty about the possible outcomes, and the divergent views amongst some allies as to how success should be constituted, renders this process more difficult. But in the same way that those nations which foresaw Russia’s escalating aggression were best-placed to respond quickly to Ukraine’s hour of need, the capacity to seize the initiative and mobilise quickly as Ukraine’s reconstruction comes into view will afford certain nations a greater role in designing the shape of its peace.

The UK has been proudly playing a vital role in the defence of Ukraine, with the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary in lockstep about the gravity of the situation and the need for a comprehensive Western response to Russia’s attack. The UK is, thus far, the largest single European donor of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and the Government has been able to act swiftly and ambitiously in the knowledge its citizens support a robust response. While the United States’ financial contribution to the defensive response towers above that of its allies, the complexity of the war response requires a varied range of skills and expertise. The United Kingdom has been playing an important ‘framing’ function in supporting the coordination of military equipment and infrastructure, the provision of humanitarian aid, and the gathering of legal evidence. In these roles, the UK has earned itself praise as a dedicated, agile, and trustworthy partner.

The Ukraine Recovery Conference being held in Lugano in Switzerland this week brings together international partners to begin to outline the full scope of requirements to not only restore Ukraine’s economic, political and social fabric, but also to make longer-term investments in its future success, as Europe’s security borderland. The task of rebuilding Ukraine after such a shocking military bombardment that has sought to inflict as much damage on critical infrastructure, cultural monuments and civilian services as possible, will be monumental in scale and require intellectual, physical and financial input from many partners. The scale of the project is currently estimated to stand at more than $US500 billion. It will involve the full capabilities of both governments and the private sector. It is likely that this project will take place alongside the formal criminal proceedings that will seek some form of justice for the Russian state’s egregious breach of international law in the invasion itself and the atrocities that are continuing to come to light during the conflict. This will therefore be a time of simultaneously looking back and looking forward.

There will be many different aspects to rejuvenating a sovereign nation that has suffered such significant structural and social harm. Just as it was essential for Western allies to work productively and expediently together in the initial provision of military and humanitarian aid and the application of economic sanctions, it will be crucial that partners can collectively agree on the distribution of labour to support successful outcomes. In conceiving of our own individual role in the reconstruction, the UK must take account of the particular interests, assets and skills of our allies. We should also consider the opportunities presented by this project to reinvigorate and redefine our relationships with key partners in the West, including both the European Union and the United States. Moreover, how we might act as a galvanising force to encourage and shepherd the involvement of Indo-Pacific states, which recognise the significance of Ukraine to the stability of the international rules-based order.

The EU has announced that it will be moving Ukraine into the candidacy process for accession, and while there are no clear timeframes for this being realised, there will be many aspects of a new Ukraine-EU relationship that can be actualised in the meantime. There is no doubt that the EU will need to play a specific, substantial role in Ukraine’s economic resurrection and in shoring up its governance in the aftermath of the conflict. And with EU member states currently home to millions of Ukrainian citizens, the institutions will also need to play a major role in the country’s social rehabilitation. The EU has already put forward its plans for a ‘Ukraine reconstruction platform’, identifying both economic development and institutional reforms as priorities for the bloc to lead on. It also notes that other countries and alliances – including the G7 – will need to be involved in the colossal reconstruction project.

It is unclear what specific role the United States will wish to play in supporting Ukraine’s reconstruction over the medium-term. There has been a high degree of bipartisan political support for the robust institutional response, but there has been little effort to publicise these investments towards a population made weary from military interventionism. As the United States moves towards its mid-term elections, which are likely to inject further dynamism and instability into its domestic political culture, there will be forces compelling its attention away from the European security theatre. Thus far, the Biden administration has made clear through its generous financial and military provision to Ukraine that it continues to regard Russia as an existential threat to the liberal world order. It has also recently announced new investments in its European security presence, after decades of incremental withdrawal.

However, it is also less than a year since America withdrew, in chaotic circumstances, from Afghanistan, haunted by a flawed reconstruction process that failed to achieved self-sufficiency. With an increasingly risk-tolerant China continuing to challenge American global power, and a potential rift opening in Washington about the nature of the response to these threats, competing forces will be weighing heavily on the President as he makes his choices about the allocation of increasingly contested resources. The instability in America’s political environment compels all Western allies to reflect on how best to embed continuity and resilience into our relationships with this global superpower, and there could be a British role to play in shoring up a substantial long-term role in the Ukraine reconstruction process as a step towards achieving this.

For the United Kingdom, the Ukraine crisis has presented a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the nation’s ongoing commitment to the European security theatre, and how effectively and ambitiously we can work when political will combines with sound policy investments. The Ukrainian praise for the UK’s response has been heartfelt and genuine, and there is a sense that an enduring partnership is being forged. It should not come as a surprise that the Ukrainian leadership would like the UK Government to play a significant role in the reconstruction process, extending the nation’s current ‘framing’ function, which plays to our established strengths as a convenor, strategist, educator, and administrator. The UK has announced at the Lugano Conference that it will commit a further $1.5 billion in funding as an opening gambit towards Ukraine’s reconstruction, starting with a particular focus on Kyiv and its surrounds, as requested by President Zelenskyy.

There are many moral, tactical and practical reasons why it makes good sense for the UK to lean into the opportunity to play a substantial role in shaping and delivering the Ukraine reconstruction process, but it will require political and institutional ambition. The nature of the issues in scope for the reconstruction will align well with many British strengths in terms of both process and substance. The UK is globally recognised for its skills in diplomacy, knowledge exchange, regulation and standards-setting, international governance, conflict resolution, humanitarian response, foreign aid and international development. Our domestic expertise and commercial successes in science and medicine, research and innovation, education, financial and legal services, can all be drawn upon to bring valuable insights, linkages and blueprints from both the public and private sectors. Rebuilding Ukraine will be an expensive exercise, and other partners will certainly be best-placed to deliver on many aspects. But this is a project that requires a huge variety of stakeholders and many contributions that are less about putting dollars on the table and more about nuanced and careful planning to nation-build for long-term stability.

The UK’s role in the Ukraine reconstruction project will be a practical test of the Global Britain agenda, requiring coordinated and constructive cross-HMG involvement to bring its highest ambitions to life. This towering task arrives at a time when the Government is facing tremendous constraints on its resources, bandwidth and staffing, and will necessitate the development of a powerful narrative to secure the consent of the British people. It is a mission we cannot afford to rebuff, and despite the immediate challenges, we must be confident that we will approach it from a position of strength. A crucial aspect of the British response will be to harness the full weight of our private sector capabilities. Part of the reason the UK’s international development programmes have been considered the ‘gold standard’ is the effective delivery partnerships that have been forged between the state and private companies. The growing role of academia and business as established Government partners in the UK’s national security and defence sectors has afforded a distinctly British advantage that can be extended to this project.

HMG has already sought to pursue a meaningful integration of the UK’s development activities with its broader geopolitical objectives, and the Integrated Review and its sub-strategies – including the International Development Strategy – provides the intellectual architecture to pursue a project of this scale, which straddles both the projection of our values and the advancement of our strategic interests. The successful reconstruction of Ukraine will provide a proof of concept to other partners around the world, and restore confidence in the West’s capacity to work together to achieve common goals. It will enable the UK and our allies to compete more effectively against the geopolitical interests of authoritarian powers, including those which engage in economic coercion and promote investment without accountability or transparency. It will make the case that liberal democracies are able to offer credible alternatives to transactional economic relationships, which extend across the full suite of foundational building blocks of prosperous, inclusive, sustainable societies. The only question now is whether the UK can rise to the challenge.

The BFPG will be undertaking a programme of work considering the specific British role in the reconstruction of Ukraine, bringing together the full suite of assets and instruments of both the state and the private sector. We will also continue to monitor British public opinion about the UK’s role in Ukraine and consider the domestic pressures and opportunities that will influence decision-making amongst allies – as well as capturing the evolving wishes and ambitions of the Ukrainian people. The BFPG believes this is a generational opportunity for the UK to play a defining role in forging a new European security architecture, as well as supporting the future of the rules-based international order and making a success of the Global Britain project.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.