Winning in Ukraine requires a special representative and strategy to rebuild

Just as it is always darkest before the dawn, wars look the most uncertain before the system changes and reveals the next phase of the clash of wills. There are emerging personnel and logistical signs that Russia has reached a key decision point about the depth of its campaign objectives. Ukraine can exploit this turn to gain momentum and set conditions for the largest post-war reconstruction effort in modern history. The U.S. can help by sustaining, if not expanding, its massive logistical support to Ukraine and, more important but less appreciated, appointing a special representative to start coordinating wartime strategy with post-war reconstruction planning.

Just like World War II, planning how a war ends starts before the fighting stops. From the Casablanca and Cairo conferences to those at Yalta and Potsdam, allied leaders in the 1940s appreciated that military strategy and political strategy for rebuilding countries could not be separated. Political and military leaders aligned the desired end state with objectives, creating a framework to prioritize military campaigns and mobilizing resources. In Ukraine, that means starting the detailed planning now about how best to rebuild the country and ensuring the priorities inform ongoing diplomatic and military decision-making.

The war won’t end when the shelling stops. Like the aftermath of Russia’s invasion in 2014, it likely will shift back to a mix of provocation and gray zone coercion aimed at destabilizing Ukraine and limiting its economic and political potential. Winning that fight starts with setting strategic priorities and creating focal points for multilateral and public-private partnerships to rebuild a stronger, more Western-oriented Ukraine. 

There are important signs of hope. The larger donor community met in Switzerland to start planning the challenge. The same month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) launched a bipartisan and international Ukraine Economic Reconstruction Commission. What these efforts need now is a focal point for coordination inside the U.S. government capable of coordinating across the myriad of agencies and bureaus that can all play an important role in rebuilding Ukraine.

Most commentary to date on rebuilding Ukraine focuses on mobilizing a Marshall plan of sorts, or determining the extent to which the effort can tap into seized Russian funds. The costs and scale of rebuilding Ukraine will be larger than the military aid mobilized to keep Kyiv in the fight against Moscow. As of early July, the Ukrainian government projected it will cost $750 billion, roughly 10 times the military aid mobilized to date. Those costs will only increase as the war drags on and could be complicated further by global inflationary pressures and supply chain challenges. The effort also will involve thinking about migration and mental health, as much as it does which infrastructure projects to prioritize.

Despite the fact the scale of the effort to rebuild Ukraine is well understood, the U.S. government has not yet appointed a focal person to coordinate with allies and partners, as well as the private sector, to rebuild Ukraine. The position seems tailor-made for a special envoy or representative, a senior appointee who can coordinate not just with partners but also the ongoing strategic effort providing intelligence and military support to Ukraine.

While special representatives, envoys and coordinators have been scrutinized recently, the position still plays an important role in helping coordinate government activities. Starting with efforts to reform the number and alignment of special representatives and envoys under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson through the intrigue surrounding activities in Ukraine linked to American domestic politics in 2020, there have been growing concerns about these diplomatic positions across both parties. Yet, crises on the scale of the war in Ukraine — which combine wartime strategy with forward planning for rebuilding the economy and reforming political institutions — are larger than what National Security Council staff and any one agency in government can manage. The complexity requires planning and creating focal points for coordination inside the U.S. government and across a diverse network of partners, a role that fits a special representative.

Absent a special representative, most government agencies will appoint their own lead and not harmonize efforts, leading to diminishing marginal returns and reducing the prospect of returns to scale. There will be duplicative reconstruction projects across bilateral and multilateral agencies not aligned with the larger security strategy. The fact is, the daunting task of reconstruction cuts across the federal bureaucracy, as well as a complex of international partners including the private sector. Multiple stakeholders create coordination challenges only overcome by creating a mechanism to exchange information and balance the range of strategic objectives held by each actor.

The war is now at a turning point that requires new thinking about aligning strategic ends and means across the coalition supporting Ukraine. To date, the Biden administration has made a heroic effort to coordinate U.S. and partner support to Ukraine within the existing national security enterprise. The approach must evolve as the war changes and the scale and complexity of helping Kyiv end the war merge with the challenge of rebuilding a Ukraine that is oriented toward Europe, not Eurasia. The executive cannot act alone. Appointing a special representative to help guide Ukrainian reconstruction will require congressional support and consultation, based on Section 5105 of the Department of State Authorization Act of 2021. The more bipartisan the effort — a daunting but doable task, despite midterm elections — the better. War termination and building a new deterrence architecture in Europe need not be a partisan issue.

The United States and Europe, along with a coalition of democratic nations, showed they can help Ukraine fight. Now it is time to help Ukraine start planning its long walk along the road to reconstruction. To coordinate those activities, the Biden administration needs to work with Congress and appoint a new special representative. Strategy starts with aligning objectives with resources and priorities. Absent a special representative to coordinate efforts, that process almost certainly will get bogged down inside the bureaucracy in multiple capitals, despite best intentions.

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ivan Vinnyk, the former secretary of the Ukrainian Parliament Committee on National Security and Defense, and Carolina Ramos, a research associate at CSIS, contributed to this article.