Ukraine could win but still become a failed state

Much ink has been spilled on how Putin’s war in Ukraine has weakened Russia’s economy, military and international standing. Less attention has been paid to the future of Ukraine as a nation. Even if Ukraine is able to expel all of the Russian invasion, it could still become a failed state.

It is worth remembering that Ukraine was not thriving before February 2022. After his 2019 election, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took over a state suffering from economic malaise, low birth rates and high rates of corruption. Ukraine’s population, after peaking at 52 million in 1993, had already fallen to 45.5 million by 2013, before the annexation of Crimea, with UN estimates concluding that it would fall by a further 20% by 2050.

Widespread emigration has plagued Ukraine, which was suffering from extensive brain drain well before the war. Emigration and population decline are parts of a vicious cycle — citizens leave countries due to political instability or low economic prospects, which tends to worsen the very problems that immigrants are fleeing from.

In addition to a declining birthrate and negative net migration, Ukraine’s economy has floundered since the nation achieved independence in 1991. Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe — before the war, its GDP per capita was comparable to that of Iraq, and unemployment was about 10 percent. Ukraine’s economy is the second-most corrupt in Europe, behind only Russia. This corruption and lack of opportunity fueled Ukraine’s pre-war emigration and poverty.

The invasion and subsequent Russian military strikes have wreaked havoc on this already weak economy. Infrastructure has been devastated, with an estimated $138 billion in damage. Power systems, roads and other critical assets have been left in ruins. Ukrainian agricultural production, which made up 40 percent of Ukraine’s exports, has fallen by a third, which will only be exacerbated by recent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Finally, Russian minefields and artillery attacks have also left much of eastern Ukraine inundated with unexploded ordinance, the effects of which will continue to be felt for decades.

Moreover, many of the 15 million refugees and internally displaced persons are either unable to contribute to the country’s war effort or dependent on state resources for survival. Those who have fled may be gone for good. Ukrainian refugees have been able to effectively integrate with host communities, and many have built lives in other countries. The experience of refugees from Syria, who have suffered far worse treatment in their host countries and have much more difficulty integrating, shows that refugees are unlikely to return even once the war ends. Those least likely to return are individuals with high education and key skills, further exacerbating the flight of valuable human resources.

Ultimately, no matter the result of the war, the damage has already been done. Ukraine’s infrastructure is in ruins, its economy in shambles, and its ongoing decline into failed statehood has been terminally accelerated. The people of Ukraine are still fleeing the country in search of better lives, and those who remain are dependent on foreign aid. The pill will be even more bitter to swallow if Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues to stall and it must accept territorial losses — which could lead to a coup against Zelenskyy, or perhaps even the onset of civil war.

Even if Ukraine achieves the total liberation of the territories currently occupied by Russia, its difficulties will only increase. First, winning such a campaign might take years, and would further damage and depopulate eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Ukraine’s economy would continue to be strangled by the displacement of workers, infrastructure damage and investor uncertainty. Protracted warfare may achieve political and moral objectives, but any recaptured territories will become a significant economic and humanitarian burden on Kyiv. At the same time, the loss of wartime unity and foreign aid, combined with the high cost of rebuilding and resettling, is likely to create further political instability. Even in victory, Ukraine’s future is bleak.

American leaders should be well aware of the consequences that protracted warfare can have on a state — our experiences in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan all resulted in massive human costs and the destruction of economic and governmental institutions. Regardless of whether or not Ukraine “wins” the war, Europe and the U.S. will be forced to reckon with both a failed state dependent on foreign aid and a protracted migrant crisis that rivals the one that Europe already faces with the Middle East and North Africa. Only this time, the crisis will sit on the West’s doorstep.

Austin Wu is a researcher at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn. His work focuses on American foreign policy and Sino-Indian affairs.

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