It is difficult to calculate the scope of devastation that the tragic war in Ukraine was wrought upon the beleaguered nation, with the 2022 Russian invasion leading to loss of lives, displacement of populations (and a refugee crisis), widespread destruction of the economy, and the tearing of the social fabric. The damage is, in essence, incalculable. However, ballpark estimates put the cost of rebuilding Ukraine at anywhere between $100-500 billion. This is an astronomical amount, and it reflects the scope of havoc wrought upon Eastern Europe over the past year, leading the loss to be continually adjusted outwards as the toll worsens. At some point in the future, however, a conversation will emerge around the reconstruction of the war-torn nation. There have been allusions to the question of paying for the rebuilding of Ukraine, but they have thus far been met evasively. As such, while many countries have expressed sympathy and solidarity with Ukraine, the post-war reconstruction cost will be a sore point of contention as the Ukrainians will ask for assistance to begin a new phase in their history.
The United States will, at that point, likely renege on any large-scale commitments for extending substantial funds for reconstruction. It has been eagerly disbursing money thus far in the war, but much of that has been to American companies in the military-industrial complex. This is because its establishment sees the war as a low-cost means of subduing the Kremlin by keeping it hunkered in its own backyard, rather than pursuing the adventurism that Russia did in Syria or other theaters. It will, therefore, only grudgingly extend reconstruction funding when the time comes, and that too to a modest degree relative to the size of Ukraine’s requirements. The political climate in the United States is highly charged with a “focus on us first” thinking, which is reasonable given the pressing needs of the American people and the underinvestment that the US has made in areas such as education and infrastructure. The American public will therefore not accept large Congressional appropriations meant for rebuilding Ukraine when there is an even greater need to rebuild America.
The US will therefore exert undue pressure on Europe to fund the reconstruction effort. As a collective of 27 nation-states, however, finding agreement on the amount to allocate for Ukraine would be an uphill task, as not all members of the EU are equally adamant in their support of Ukraine. While countries such as Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states are strongly committed to building a prosperous and free Ukraine, and have already invested considerable sums in assisting the Ukrainian exodus; the same cannot be said for all EU members, with particular detractors such as Hungary getting in the way. The assumption in this discussion is, naturally, that Russia will not fully annex Ukraine. Otherwise, it will have to foot the bill for rebuilding Ukraine and it does not enjoy the fiscal space to do so. In the case of a full annexation, Russia would instead likely do what Stalin did after the monstrous Holodomor, which is to fill the depopulated lands of Ukraine with a new Russian peasantry. The atrocity of the Holodomor is in fact the reason why such a large number of people in eastern Ukraine identify as Russians. But the standards of serious “reconstruction” would not be very high if left to Russia.
Yet if Europe cannot generate the necessary reconstruction stimulus because of internal disagreements or stifling bureaucracy (the infamous “Eurocracy”), and the US is unwilling to invest seriously in the enterprise, then where would the funds come from? Zelenskyy has advocated disbursing amounts corralled from the overseas wealth accounts of the Russian government and prominent Russians (including Oligarchs). If somehow enforceable against a nuclear power, some argue for exacting war reparations from the Kremlin as well.
I would, however, posit the idea of taxing the two sectors that have profited the most from the war in Ukraine: defense and energy (in the West). This would reflect the economic perspective of taxing externalities: the sectors that gain most from a terrible situation should be the ones that pay for the negative externality. On the defense front, the excess profits that the major American defense corporations have made while turning Ukraine into a testing ground for new weapons, and receiving government funding to do so, should be funneled towards rebuilding the beleaguered nation. For Big Oil, the five major Western energy giants, a calculation by Global Witness indicates that they earned $134 billion in excess profits due to the spike in global energy prices. Neither Big Oil increased their capital expenditure in renewables during this period, nor has it lowered its prices to ease the pain of ordinary citizens both in the West and beyond.
The key term here is “excess profits” as interpreted by the EU, as profits that exceed 20% above the average of the past five years. Additionally, this notion is not particularly radical and has in fact been echoed in the statements of US government officials themselves, as when President Biden deemed the big 5 Western oil giants to be “war profiteers.” Indeed, these two sectors are abject war profiteers, and they blatantly announce this fact in quarterly earnings calls, triumphantly declaring their “record returns to shareholders,” at a time when the world public is roiled, let alone the suffering people of Ukraine.
It is easier to prosecute war, particularly by proxy, than it is to build peace. Ukraine is banking on its well-wishers to help it one day when the embers of conflict begin to cool. War profiteers are extracting the maximum private gain during this tide of violence, but who will help Ukrainians rebuild going forward remains to be seen. Those who are trumpeting their record gains during a time of misery should be at the very front (or put there) in assuming the burden of a major economic undertaking.
Dr. Usman W. Chohan is Advisor (Economic Affairs and National Development) at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.