The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Securing Ukraine after the war means ensuring its economic recovery

Ukraine’s immediate economic recovery is as important as long-term military defense.

The statue of architect Alexei Beketov in front of a damaged building of the Kharkiv National University of Urban Economy following a missile strike in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 5, 2023. (Sergey Kozlov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Secretary of State Antony Blinken believes that Russia’s disastrous defeats in its invasion of Ukraine have opened the door for the United States and its European allies to prepare for a postwar Europe. The top item on Blinken’s agenda is building a powerful Ukrainian military deterrent to future Russian attacks.

According to Ignatius, the U.S. government believes “Russia should not be able to rest, regroup, and reattack” and the United States and its allies have agreed to provide Ukraine with sophisticated military hardware, including British Challengers, German Leopard tanks and American M-1 Abrams tanks. The allies believe this will allow the Ukrainian military to defeat Russia in the current war while laying the foundation for a modernized military that will discourage a future Russian attack.

However, the United States’ experience with the reconstruction of Europe from 1945-1947 demonstrates that the Western allies must pay equal attention to Ukraine’s immediate economic recovery as they plan for its long-term military defense. Failure to do so would alienate an already desperate Ukrainian population and provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with another opportunity to undermine the neighboring nation’s independence. It would also repeat the United States’ initial perceived indifference to Europe’s post-World War II devastation, which enabled the Soviet Union to wage political and psychological warfare to undermine the continent’s recovery and Western European faith in U.S. postwar leadership. The United States responded with the Marshall Plan economic aid program; however, one of its most important goals became convincing Western Europeans that the U.S. leadership could be trusted.

The years from 1945 to 1950 are often depicted as a relatively seamless transition from Germany’s surrender to the Cold War, with NATO created to protect against a possible Soviet invasion and the Marshall Plan designed to ensure European economic recovery. This overlooks a crucial two years when many Europeans believed the American people had become indifferent to their plight.

Many in Washington underestimated conditions across Europe, believing them to be similar to those following World War I, when stalemated battle lines left the continent largely intact. In reality, however, the situation was vastly worse following World War II, as many of Europe’s cities, towns and villages lay in ruins, leaving tens of millions homeless. The fighting also destroyed European farmlands and devastated roadway and railway lines, shattering the food supply chain and leaving most Europeans subsisting on daily rations ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 calories a day, considered starvation-level.

Many in the United States believed the Europeans were capable of coordinating their own recovery, which Washington would aid through an extensive loan program and international organizations, especially UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). However, these efforts proved far too meager to deal with the catastrophic conditions on the continent.

Most Americans were blissfully unaware of the growing crisis in Europe, focusing instead on postwar economic reconversion from military to civilian production and returning millions of demobilized soldiers to civilian life. Until, that is, the novelist John Dos Passos published a stunning missive in Life magazine’s January 1946 issue warning that “the Americans are losing victory in Europe.” Dos Passos traveled throughout war-torn Europe recounting the continent’s brutal conditions where money was worthless, cigarettes were used as a “lunatic travesty on a currency” and where “no one can think beyond food for today.” This, he warned, has sparked sharp resentment across Europe with charges that the Americans had turned their backs to humanitarian crisis. “Never had U.S. prestige in Europe been lower” Dos Passos admonished.

A year later, former president Herbert Hoover’s mission to Europe confirmed the worst of Dos Passos’s concerns, generating more public attention for Europe’s desperate conditions and their danger to the United States.

By 1947, the promise of U.S. wartime efforts had already faded from Europe’s collective memory and in their stead were increasingly effective Soviet propaganda operations coordinated with pliant communist parties across Western Europe to subvert economic recovery and fuel resentment against the United States. The Soviets’ goal was to prevent European stabilization and pave the way for local communist parties to seize power, particularly in France and Italy — which would have meant the effective takeover of the continent by the Soviet Union.

One of the Soviets’ most potent methods was to have the French Communist Party organize strikes across France beginning in the coal mines, then spreading to transportation companies and communication lines, until the entire country was shut down. These strikes were ostensibly launched to improve working conditions; however, the political goals were self-evident and resulted in repeated collapses of the French government.

By June 1947, Washington was focused on the deteriorating conditions across Western Europe. The American response came in an address from Secretary of State George Marshall at Harvard University, where he outlined what would soon be called the Marshall Plan. The program’s massive economic benefits have been well chronicled, but less well known was that it also jump-started American public diplomacy and informational warfare on the continent.

American public diplomacy operated hand-in-hand with economic programs, especially the vast efforts to rebuild the European food chain that made up nearly one-third of the Marshall Plan’s investment. Public diplomacy played a key role in refuting Soviet propaganda regarding American intent — i.e., U.S. aid wasn’t intended to destroy indigenous European industry — and explaining how its industrial investments would modernize outdated European manufacturing. By the early 1950s the food crisis was a distant memory and Europe’s economies were rapidly expanding.

As with World War II, when the military conflict in Ukraine ends, the battle over Ukraine’s future will continue. Only this time, once the guns fall silent, Russia will quickly shift its focus to a large-scale covert campaign to upend Western efforts to rebuild Ukraine, much like Soviet efforts tried to sabotage Europe’s economic recovery; both Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election demonstrate Russia’s expertise in fomenting chaos.

It would seem inconceivable today that Ukrainians who have already suffered so much would succumb to Russia’s information wars. However, the brilliance of Russia’s modern information campaigns, much like their Soviet predecessors, is the use of intermediaries that hid connections to Moscow. For instance, before the 2016 election, Russia’s Internet Research Agency effectively used social media to spread disinformation, shrouding Moscow’s role in these efforts.

Should the United States and its allies falter in providing the vast amounts of aid necessary to rebuild destroyed Ukrainian cities and revive its devastated economy, and should Ukrainian civilians remain living in squalor, without power and services, then resentment will build. Indeed, these feelings will be magnified by the fact that, unlike during World War II, American soldiers did not directly take part in Ukraine’s defense. Should reconstruction lag and instability spread, as it did after World War II, the ire of the Ukrainian people will grow, providing Moscow with the opportunity to run disinformation campaigns to undermine Ukrainians’ faith in the West — leaving Ukraine unstable for years to come.