Project Fortress: Pondering Postwar Ukraine

October 2022

As the Ukrainian army pushes deeper into Russian-occupied Ukraine, it’s obvious, as some of us noted months ago, that Vladimir Putin has failed to achieve his main objectives (eliminating President Volodymyr Zelensky, erasing Ukraine as a sovereign state, checking and splintering NATO). Now, there is hope that Ukraine’s army of citizen-warriors can reverse what Putin began in 2014 and eject Putin’s invasion force from Ukrainian territory. While we must guard against euphoria—given Putin’s latest fusillade of mobilization orders, threats and distortions of reality, it’s possible that his war will grind deep into 2023, and it’s possible that Putin could take the drastic step of using nuclear weapons in a spasm of vengeance—we also have to recognize that it’s possible the Russian military will continue to retreat or even collapse, or that someone in Moscow will end this blood-soaked blunder. When/if we arrive at that point, Ukraine and its partners need to be ready to rebuild, stabilize, secure and defend postwar Ukraine—and to prevent a wounded, humiliated Russia from exploiting the fog of postwar chaos. 


During this pivotal stretch of battlefield brilliance—marked by feints, misinformation campaigns, artillery barrages, targeted missile strikes, encirclements, combined arms maneuvers, exacting civil-military coordination—Ukraine’s clever and tenacious army has liberated more than 3,500 square miles of Ukrainian territory. There’s likely more to come, as Ukraine’s defenders press the initiative, Ukraine’s occupied cities rise up, and growing numbers of Russian military units prove unable or unwilling to fight. (The 300,000 military reservists and retirees Putin is ordering back to duty won’t be able to help in the near-term—and would seem to offer little more than a mass of new targets in the long-term: After all, if Russia’s best-equipped, best-trained young soldiers—sent into Ukraine on a lie and unaware of the hell that was awaiting them—couldn’t subdue Ukraine, one wonders how poorly-equipped, poorly trained old soldiers can. And one wonders about their zeal for battle, given what they have heard about Putin’s planned three-day “special military operation.”)

A few threshold questions come to mind: How much of Ukraine will postwar Ukraine possess—and hence need to rebuild? Will it be everything up to the February 24 lines? The Ukrainian army’s advance suggests Kiev will control more than it controlled when Putin launched his war. Will it be everything except a chunk of southeastern Ukraine? Will it be all of Ukraine except Crimea? Again, that seems possible, given the Ukrainian army’s stunning gains—and Russia’s staggering retreat—in recent weeks. Or will it be the whole of pre-2014 Ukraine, including Crimea? That will be more difficult, given that Russia has deeper roots on the peninsula. But again, it’s a distinct possibility. There are reports that Russian government personnel and their families are evacuating Crimea. This is prudent given that the Ukrainian military could soon take up positions allowing its missilery and artillery to range all of Crimea—and strike Russian military bases, intelligence nodes, lines of communication and transportation infrastructure (especially the Kerch Strait Bridge).

Another important question: How much will reconstruction cost? A recent analysis pegs the cost of rebuilding Ukraine at $350 billion—a number sure to rise as Putin orders more scorched-earth attacks on civilian infrastructure. A robust reconstruction effort will be key to securing Ukrainian sovereignty and fending off Russian encroachment. As other post-conflict examples remind us, hollowed-out cities and broken infrastructure invite foreign interference (something Putin has illustrated time and again), corrode nation-states from within, and serve as breeding grounds for a host of transnational pathologies.

A modern-day Marshall Plan—led by the EU, with support from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Japan, South Korea and others—can prevent that outcome by rebuilding what Putin’s war of war crimes has destroyed. Ideally, most of the costs of Ukraine’s reconstruction should come from Russian assets. The Stockholm Free World Forum’s Anders Aslund persuasively argues that conversion of Russia’s frozen currency reserves—amounting to some $400 billion—into reparations payments is “entirely possible” through national legislation in countries where reserves are held “on the grounds that Putin is committing crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.”

Stabilizing Ukraine

Even when the guns fall silent and reconstruction is underway, postwar Ukraine will need help with internal stability and border security.

First and foremost, responsible parties will need to muster a peacekeeping force tasked with monitoring the Ukraine-Russia and Ukraine-Belarus frontiers, Ukraine’s coastline and territorial waters, and any regions where Ukrainian and Russian forces are in close proximity (in the event that Ukraine is unable to dislodge all Russian forces from all of Ukrainian territory).

Given Russia’s actions, it’s difficult to see how such a peacekeeping force could be administered by the UN Security Council (though if events on the ground continue to progress in their current direction, Putin may welcome UN intervention in helping him save face). In addition, given sensitivities on both sides of the NATO-Russia divide, it’s unlikely that NATO could replicate its role in the former Yugoslavia keeping the peace and separating belligerents (IFOR, SFOR and KFOR).

An alternative model is the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission, which has been deployed in the Sinai since 1981. The MFO is funded by a group of donor nations and manned by a group of troop-contributing nations. In a similar, though not identical, way, Ukraine could invite trusted partners to contribute personnel and funding to a multinational border-protection mission. Owing to their unique capabilities, certain NATO members would be needed to provide muscle and enabling support—which underscores that such a border-protection force wouldn’t be neutral. Rather, it would work with Ukraine’s military to monitor Ukraine’s borderlands.

As for Ukraine’s territorial waters and coastline, the U.S. and key regional allies and naval powers—Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Britain, France—could form a standing maritime taskforce charged with securing Ukraine’s coastline and reopening the sealanes that connect Ukraine with global commerce. Ukraine’s long-term security, stability, independence and prosperity are linked to its access to the Black Sea and to the security of its coastline. Because this multinational naval taskforce would ensure delivery of grain and other vital goods (Ukraine accounts for 10 percent of global wheat supply and 15 percent of global corn supply), its mission would be humanitarian. As such, many of the countries that rely on Ukrainian grain—Philippines, Egypt, Morocco, Thailand, Indonesia, Tunisia—would likely join the effort. For allies and partners concerned about the need for some sort of blessing from international law, Articles 11, 14, 51, 52 and 55 of the UN Charter check that box.

Second, the devastation wrought by Putin will likely require some sort of force focused on stabilization and security inside Ukraine. Many thousands of Ukrainian men—those who would fill most of the security and policing roles—have been killed. Thousands more will likely fall as Ukraine presses its advance and liberation. A multinational constabulary force could work with Ukrainian authorities to provide stability, security and civil order during the reconstruction process.

This would be no small task. However, EU and OSCE organs have played a similar role in Bosnia and Kosovo—and have been largely effective. Importantly, as a developed nation, a cohesive nation, a nation committed to democratic governance, postwar Ukraine will be in far better shape than postwar Bosnia or postwar Kosovo. The Ukrainian state (political-governmental institutions) and nation (people) are stronger today than they were on February 24. Ukraine has been galvanized by war, rather than weakened or broken by it. That reality will promote internal stability, which will enhance and accelerate reconstruction efforts.

Deterring Russia

As important as reconstruction, border protection and internal security are to Ukraine’s future, external security and defense are just as critical. After all, Putin and his government do not view Ukraine as a sovereign nation-state. In the past eight years, Putin has annexed part of Ukraine, tried to absorb all of Ukraine and laid siege to Ukraine. In short, Putin’s Russia is certain to menace postwar Ukraine and represents an existential threat to Ukraine. Deterring and defending against this threat will be the overarching national-security priority for Ukraine as long as the Kremlin is controlled by people who want to reconstitute the Russian Empire.

In his December diktat, Putin demanded Ukraine’s demilitarization and Zelensky’s removal. When Ukraine rejected those demands, Putin ordered his invasion, expecting the rapid collapse of Ukrainian defenses and the swift installation of a puppet regime. None of this came to pass. The core reasons why: the Ukrainian people’s ferocious defense of their democracy, the Ukrainian military’s tailored military capabilities, and the supply arteries that have pumped a steady stream of military and humanitarian aid into Ukraine. These reasons for Ukraine’s wartime success provide a roadmap for Ukraine’s postwar posture.

Defending Democracy
Ukraine’s commitment to democracy and democratic principles will sustain both internal cohesion and external support over the long haul. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that citizens in democracies are generally not inclined toward war because they are focused on “their peaceful occupations.” But once they are impacted by war, “the same passions that made them attach so much importance to the maintenance of peace will be turned to arms.” For democratic nations, war and security are thus transformed from affairs of state into all-encompassing national movements. America experienced such a transformation after Pearl Harbor—a transformation that continued to shape America throughout the Cold War. Something similar has happened in Ukraine. Postwar Ukraine’s democracy—because of shared sacrifice and shared understanding of the threat posed by Putin—will be well-suited to sustain its own “long twilight struggle” against Moscow.

Tailored Security
Postwar Ukraine’s security posture will be tailored to its unique situation and indeed will be unique among European nations. After all, the vast majority of European nations derive their security from NATO membership. Ukraine won’t be joining NATO anytime soon. Kiev has even conceded this. However, Ukraine can carve a path to security—a bristly self-defense posture akin to that of Israel or pre-NATO Sweden.

The bad news is that Ukraine, like Israel after the 1967 and 1973 wars, is butted up against a bitterly hostile and well-armed foe. The good news is that postwar Ukraine will enjoy close security ties with neighboring democracies and the U.S., just as pre-NATO Sweden enjoyed EU membership, cultivated a thick thatch of security ties to the U.S. and fashioned itself into a muscular neutral. It’s worth noting that Ukraine already has a pathway to EU membership. While it’s not the equivalent of NATO’s Article V, EU membership ensures that if a member is subjected to “armed aggression on its territory,” other EU members have an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power.”

That will be important for postwar Ukraine. Yet we can expect Ukraine, like Israel, to pursue additional self-defense measures. Recall that in 1994, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a commitment from Russia to “refrain from the threat or use of force” and respect Ukraine’s “independence…sovereignty and the existing borders.” That agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, obviously failed to shield Ukraine from attack. So, it’s understandable that Ukraine has proposed “an international mechanism of security.” Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and key Zelensky advisor Andriy Yermak recently unveiled a “security compact” that would feature “sustained investment in Ukraine’s industrial defense base, the transfer of NATO-standard weapons, intelligence sharing, and intensive training missions under both EU and NATO flags”; provide “security guarantees” to Kiev; and include “politically and legally binding commitments” from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, Australia, Turkey and other trusted partners.

Given America’s inward-looking posture, that last proposal may be a heavy lift for the Biden administration. But the U.S. could contribute to any border-protection mission, develop military-exchange programs with Kiev, and redeploy military training units to postwar Ukraine (U.S. trainers were withdrawn on the eve of Putin’s assault). Washington also could secure Ukraine’s place among NATO’s “global partners”—a select group that includes Australia, Colombia, Iraq, Japan and South Korea, among others. And Washington could elevate Ukraine to the status of “major non-NATO ally”—a designation Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, South Korea, Taiwan and others enjoy that allows for enhanced military cooperation.

The Free World’s Frontline
Overland supply arteries have sustained Ukraine’s war effort and democracy. With NATO reawakened to the threat on its doorstep, the alliance is primed to become a 21st-century “arsenal of democracy” for Ukraine.

Toward that end, postwar Ukraine will need Stinger (U.S.), Starstreak (Britain), Patriot (U.S.), S-300 (Slovakia) and Iron Dome (Israel) air-defense systems; Predator (U.S.), Switchblade (U.S.) and TB2 (Turkey) ground-attack drones; MiG-29 fighter-jets (which Slovakia and Poland have, and Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly), AV-8B Harrier VTOL jets (which the U.S. Marine Corps is in the process of replacing with F-35Bs) and tank-killing A-10 attack planes (which the U.S. Air Force is trying to retire); NLAW (Britain, Sweden), Matador (Germany) and Javelin (U.S.) antitank systems; T-72 tanks (which the Czechs are already sending) and PT-91 tanks (which Poland is replacing with M1A2s); counter-artillery systems (Germany); armored vehicles (which Britain and Australia are sending); coastal defenses (Britain, Sweden); border-surveillance systems (ROK); anti-tank mines (ROK, U.S.); real-time intelligence (U.S., NATO); and cyber-defenses (U.S., NATO). An underreported aspect of the war has been U.S.-NATO efforts in the cyber domain. Just after the invasion, NATO invited Ukraine into its cyberdefense center. In the spring, Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, revealed that CYBERCOM “bolstered the resilience of Ukraine” by conducting “operations across the full spectrum: offensive, defensive, information operations.”

Acquisition of these defensive systems and requisite training should be well-publicized, with an eye toward deterring Putin. Indeed, if Ukraine wants a glimpse of its future, it should look to Israel. With Putin vowing to muster another 300,000 men to throw at Ukraine, this may seem premature, but even Zelensky is already thinking in these terms, concluding that Ukraine will need to “become a big Israel”—constantly on alert for and prepared for another war. It’s a grim existence. But it’s preferable to the alternatives.

If Zelensky and his countrymen can secure what they define as victory before winter, the Free World must be ready to move rapidly on multiple fronts to rebuild what Putin has destroyed and deter Putin from another war of aggression. If the battle stretches into 2023, then this winter must be used to replenish Ukraine’s arsenal, reconstitute broken units, and lay the groundwork for long-term rebuilding plans, security priorities and deterrent measures.


Discussing naval taskforces, antiaircraft batteries, killer drones, fighter-bombers, tanks and antitank missiles in the Project Fortress context of faith, liberty and security may seem incongruent to some. But it is not incongruent if we understand these tools as the key to deterrence—and deterrence as the key to some semblance of peace in this broken world full of broken men.

The wisdom and morality of deterrence are not only proven by the history we’ve endured; they are validated by scripture. Recall that the Lord directed Moses and Aaron to count “all the men in Israel who are 20 years old or more and able to serve in the army.” This ancient selective-service system is a form of military preparedness. Recall that King Jehoshaphat built forts, maintained armories in strategically located cities “with large supplies” and fielded an army of more than a million men “armed for battle.” Not surprisingly, “The fear of the Lord fell on all the kingdoms of the lands surrounding Judah, so that they did not go to war against Jehoshaphat.” And recall that the Prince of Peace even used the language of deterrence, asking, “What king would go to war against another king without first sitting down to consider whether his 10,000 soldiers could go up against the 20,000 coming against him? And if he didn’t think he could win, he would send a representative to discuss terms of peace while his enemy was still a long way off.”

Scripture is counseling us that while we should work for peace, we must be prepared for war—prepared to help those under threat, prepared to protect innocents, prepared to defend what is right, prepared to stand up to those, like Vladimir Putin, who would murder and steal and destroy.

Alan W. Dowd leads the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose and the Project Fortress initiative. Shorter versions of this essay appeared in the Landing Zone and Providence.

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