[first published by CEPA]
In weeks or months, the fighting in Ukraine is likely to stop. It is already clear that Russia has lost. The only question is how badly. With none of the Kremlin’s war aims achieved, or in sight (remember denazification, enforced neutrality, or Novorossiya?), the political backlash at home will be fierce. Ukraine may not achieve all of its aims, but the big prize: an independent, viable country able to choose its own security arrangements, now looks all but certain.
But this hard-fought victory may yet be squandered. Two big dangers are looming. One is that the West’s security guarantees prove to be flimsy and temporary, rather than iron-clad and permanent. NATO-soon becomes NATO-never. Not-quite-NATO turns into nothing much. Solemn bilateral commitments (Taiwan-plus or Israel-plus) could be undermined by a change of power after the next US presidential election, or by European attempts to do deals with the post-Putin Kremlin.
The other risk is that post-war reconstruction bogs down in corruption. The sums involved are colossal – more than $411 billion according to the World Bank, and that was before the catastrophic breach of the Kakhovka dam. This will be the world’s biggest collective economic project, carried out in a hurry amid high expectations, in a country that in many eyes was before the war even more corrupt than Russia.
Ukraine has wrestled with weak institutions and greedy officials since 1991, with only spasmodic and belated successes. Its people have paid a grim price for this. From roughly the same starting point in 1990, similarly-sized Poland became nearly three times richer than Ukraine by 2021. And even Poland’s greatest fans do not depict it as an advertisement for excellent public administration. Estonia, probably the best-run country emerging from the communist disaster, roughly quintupled its income per head over the same period. Private investors will need a lot of persuading (and favorable terms such as subsidized insurance) before they put money in. The main contribution therefore will come from public and multilateral institutions. With international donors and lenders under political instructions to supply vast amounts of cash, and to do so speedily, the opportunities for kickbacks and graft will be huge.
To be fair, the war has boosted social trust in Ukraine. The politically influential tycoons who blighted the country’s development have been sidelined. Patriotism is a great antidote to corruption. But what happens in peacetime is another matter. “It’s our turn to eat” was a catchphrase in South Africa after the fall of the apartheid system. It was easy to see why the hard-bitten veterans of the liberation struggle felt they should enjoy the fruits of victory. But the pervasive clientelism and favoritism that resulted, on top of the crony capitalism of the previous regime, proved fatal for the country’s chances.
Corruption feeds skepticism. If the initial splurge of reconstruction money is seen to be wasted or stolen, goodwill will dwindle on the security front too.
These dangers paint a daunting background for the Ukraine reconstruction conference in London later this month. Or at least they should. It is troubling to hear from sleaze-busters in Ukraine and elsewhere that they feel excluded from the discussions. Fears are mounting that the summit will be a stitch-up between big Western companies and Ukrainian bigwigs with an eye on their own post-war prosperity, rather than the common good.
Time is short, but the solutions are clear. Transparency always and everywhere. Build from the bottom up. Focus on institutions, not just physical infrastructure. Do not allow politically influential companies to short-cut safeguards. And remember: all corruption is made far worse by its enablers in the West.
Photo Credit: The attached photo belongs to NATO and is used under NATO’s newsroom content policy.