For entirely understandable reasons, most Western eyes have been fixated on the daily progress of the Ukrainian offensive, and more broadly on Kyiv’s prospects to win its war against Russia. Hidden behind the headlines, however, there is a larger issue developing for Ukraine – almost irrespective of how the war concludes: the physical damage done to Ukraine’s country, its industry, its agriculture, and its people is severe – and it will take decades for the country to fully recover.
There are many Western sources that talk about the potentially hundreds of thousands of troops killed and wounded and about the number of planes, tanks, and ships destroyed. These are serious and immediate costs to Ukraine, impacting its near-term ability to continue fighting. It is the consequences beyond the battle updates, however, that pose a far more serious threat to Ukraine long term.
For the purpose of this analysis, I will focus on three of the most profound and pervasive costs: the damage to Ukraine’s agricultural sector, the migration of millions of its citizens abroad, and perhaps most important of all, the trauma done to its young male population as a result of fighting the war. The longer the war continues, the worse the problem and the deeper the consequences for Kyiv long term.
There is no shortage of American and European cheerleaders encouraging Ukraine to fight on, no matter the cost, “for as long as it takes.” These well-meaning supporters typically argue that the Ukrainians themselves want to fight, so enabling them to continue doing so seems justified, if not noble.
I have long argued there is no reasonable path to military victory for Ukraine, and thus providing open-ended support won’t result in a Ukrainian victory but will only prolong the war (akin to keeping a patient alive via life-support when the person won’t be able to survive off the machine). Yet whether my assessment proves correct or the optimism of many U.S. leaders eventually wins out, the long-term cost to the Ukrainian people is certain and egregious. We need to be clear-eyed about what our support for the war is going to mean for Ukraine after the fighting stops.
Prior to the beginning of the civil war in 2014, Ukraine was the world’s third-largest exporter of corn and produced a staggering 57 percent of global sunflower oil. In 2015, agriculture composed nearly 12 percent of Ukraine’s economy. Last year that figure dropped to 8 percent. The International Food Policy Research Institute found that as of last September, “the total damage to Ukraine’s (agricultural) infrastructure was an estimated $127 billion, equal to 64 percent of the country’s 2021 GDP.” The risk for the future is far worse.
In 2021, Ukraine planted 16 million hectares of farmland. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reported that in 2023, owing to mines and other war-related impediments, only 10.2 million hectares will be planted. Both the Russian and Ukrainian armies have mined both sides of more than 1,000km of Ukrainian territory, which cuts through some of the most fertile farmland in the country.
In addition to mines, much of the soil is contaminated by the conservative count of ten million artillery shells, bombs, and mortar rounds (based on estimates that over 20,000 rounds have been fired by both sides per day – but possibly a lot more – over the first 500 days of the war). The United Nations Environmental Programme claims the effects of the war could leave “a toxic legacy (on the land) for generations to come.”
It will take literally decades to demine the millions of acres of farmland once the war is eventually concluded. In Vietnam, for example, since 1975 over 100,000 people have been killed and wounded by old land mines. Demining operations continue to this day, almost 50 years after the end of the Vietnam War. The future for Ukraine is just as bleak.
Citizen Migration from Ukraine
Since the civil war, which broke out between the western and eastern parts of Ukraine in 2014, the part of Ukraine controlled by Kyiv has been reduced by 14 million people. Additionally, the International Organization for Migration reports that a total of 7.1 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced within the country as a result of the war.
A European research center projects, however, that the population drain may continue even after the war. According to the researchers, “If current demographic trends continue, Ukraine’s population is projected to decline by (an additional) 16 percent over the next two decades.” When war casualties are added in, the study darkly warns, “the country’s population is projected to decline by 33 percent.” This could have serious implications for economic recovery for Ukraine, even after the war eventually ends.
The Ukrainian economy was gutted in 2022 because of the war, shrinking by a stunning 35 percent; an even more troubling figure is that 60 percent of the population lived in poverty. Ukraine’s GDP has presently stabilized owing to huge infusions of cash from Western supporters and loans from the International Monetary Fund, but this debt burden will be difficult to service – and will only build as long as the war continues. Without sufficient quantities of qualified workers, it will be very difficult to even regain Kyiv’s 2021 economic performance, much less to rise above it.
Perhaps the most troubling and ominous challenges Ukraine will have to face following the war will be the harm imposed on the men and women of its armed forces. A Brown University study in 2021 found that the long-term cost to the United States to care for its post-9/11 veterans (those who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other related conflicts), to be as much as an astounding $2.5 trillion. Ominously for Ukraine, the report finds that a considerable portion of that cost will continue to be required “decades after the conflict, as veterans’ needs increase with age,” as more than 40 percent of U.S. veterans “have already been approved to receive lifetime disability benefits.”
Consider that in total, since 2001, the United States troops suffered a total of about 60,000 killed and wounded, and the cost is upwards of $2.5 trillion. As of April, Ukrainian battle casualties were estimated to be 131,000; some estimates suggest they are far higher.
As one who was deployed into four combat zones during my 21-year Army career, I can authoritatively state that the level of combat endured by the Ukrainian troops is orders of magnitude more than what most American soldiers endured. The trauma even the survivors have experienced cannot yet be fully realized.
Worse than the physical wounds, however, are the unseen injuries of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. American troopers suffered PTSD and TBI injuries well into the hundreds of thousands. By any measure, the number of Ukrainian soldiers suffering from these twin maladies will likely be in the millions, and the severity much worse than that of their American counterparts. They will likely require trillions of dollars over decades to provide adequate care for the Ukrainian troopers.
Regardless of how this war ends, with a Russian or Ukrainian victory – or more likely, a negotiated settlement entirely unsatisfactory to either party – the level of difficulty that will be imposed on the Ukrainian government and people cannot be overestimated. Economically, personally, and militarily the country will be hard-pressed to endure, much less thrive. For example, even if the international community proved willing and able to help Ukraine out with trillions of dollars over several decades, more would be needed to solve the monumental challenge of taking care of their veterans.
In a country one-tenth the size of the United States, it will be nearly impossible for Ukraine to create enough medical facilities or trained medical personnel to service the complex needs of the veterans, much less the general health of its population. If hundreds of thousands of seriously wounded veterans don’t get the care they need, if hundreds of thousands more don’t get treatment for PTSD, the country could face serious long-term problems of angry former soldiers – with unpredictable consequences.
To keep the economy growing, Ukraine will need trained and qualified workers across the spectrum, and in sufficient numbers, to staff various concerns. It will take Kyiv decades to fully demine their territory – and it will be challenging to keep sufficient numbers of farmers employed when they know some percentage will be killed and injured by unseen mines in fields that must be plowed and harvested.
If the world economy suffers another economic setback or recession – virtually inevitable, at some point – the willingness of various governments to continue making payments to Ukraine could wane, depriving Kyiv of desperately needed funds to keep their fragile economy above water. Regardless of how the war unfolds for Ukraine over time, the greatest threats to Ukraine’s viability are medium and long-term after the war ends.
Required Next Steps
Providing ammunition to Ukraine “for as long as it takes” is more likely to deepen their harm rather than lead to freedom. Every day the war continues, the life of Ukrainians for decades will worsen. Providing endless streams of bullets, missiles, and tanks will almost certainly be insufficient to enable the UAF to win the war but will instead increase the destruction. It will do nothing to end the conflict.
It is time we genuinely demonstrated our concern for the lives of Ukrainians by starting the long and difficult process of seeking a diplomatic solution. The lack of nearly any success after almost two months of Ukraine’s offensive – argued by some European statesmen as Ukraine’s last chance – reveals there is little to no rational prospect for Kyiv to attain its maximalist objectives via military means. The longer we ignore this reality, the more deeply the Ukrainian people will suffer.
Only by acknowledging this unpleasant reality can Ukraine and the West begin the process of building the diplomatic machinery necessary to end the fighting. The diplomatic track is the best chance Ukraine has to start the long, painful, expensive process of getting their country back to having a quality of life.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Davis is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.