How to Stabilize Ukraine Long Term? Securitize Well-Being

Ukraine Development

What’s the best way for the United States to support Ukraine? The country is the principal arena in the high-stakes geopolitical standoff between the United States (with its NATO allies) and Russia. While a horrific and seemingly intractable war with Moscow ongoing in eastern Ukraine since 2014 has overwhelmed the government, the fledgling administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also now finds itself enmeshed in American domestic politics. Remarkably, the impeachment case against President Donald Trump hinges on the specifics and timing of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.

Indeed, military aid presently makes up the lion’s share of American funding for Ukraine. Data for Fiscal Year 2017 — the last year for which a detailed breakdown is available — summarizing all U.S. aid to Ukraine shows that roughly half of the $511 million total went for military purposes, either through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative or other allotments.



Although undeniably important, military aid is not what Ukraine requires most from Washington. Ukraine needs help in providing a better standard of living and promoting greater civic engagement for its citizens. Consequently, the United States should provide Ukraine with greater civilian assistance to improve its ability to deliver public goods.

Why? Because when people have confidence that their government is delivering basic services such as health care and education, and also ensuring that elections take place in a free and fair manner, they are more supportive of the state and more resistant to attempts to undermine the government’s legitimacy. These are components of what social scientists refer to as state capacity. In our view, state capacity — the means by which human security issues and challenges are addressed — should properly be seen as part of the state’s overall security architecture; that is, it can and should be securitized.

Put another way, if one imagines a continuum from peace and tranquility at one extreme (e.g., Switzerland) and all-out multi-domain warfare at the other (e.g., Syria), then securitizing well-being and civic engagement (more robust human security) would be a domain toward the Swiss end; that is, well before the shooting starts and, perhaps, preventing conflict in the first place.

The reverse, of course, would be true. The failure to prioritize and securitize state capacity frequently leads to geopolitical instability, especially in border areas and ethnic minority regions. Hostile states or internal/proxy insurgents can weaponize perceived shortfalls in capacity through propaganda or agitation to weaken a state, especially as media are now more pervasive and easily penetrated. This part of the continuum — that is, toward the Syria end — is where Ukraine is situated. If Ukraine fails to build state capacity, it will continue to be a target of Russian aggression and a major source of instability in Europe.

Ukraine’s State Capacity Crisis

Compared to the rest of Europe, Ukraine is poor and has weak institutions. Three decades after independence from the Soviet Union, it is seriously lacking in state capacity to reliably provide for the well-being of its citizens. Of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, only tiny Moldova ranks lower than Ukraine on the U.N. Development Programme’s  Human Development Index, the widely used measure for estimating human security. Statistically, Ukraine is worse off than Mexico, Sri Lanka, Algeria, or Ecuador in key living standards like life expectancy. A comprehensive study of transitional economic depressions in all post-communist countries found that Ukraine ranked among the six worst cases, with gross domestic product per capita in 2016 lower than what it had been in 1989. Health care outcomes in Ukraine are shockingly poor, with very low immunization and resultant high communicable disease rates, including an HIV epidemic. As the conflict with Russia continues, the Ukrainian government has been forced to shift more of its budget to defense (up to 6.4 percent in 2019 from 3.8 percent in 2014) while the share for health has declined in relative terms.

Corruption in Ukraine also complicates the attainment of a more secure state capacity and contributes to bad governance. The breadth and depth of official malfeasance in Ukraine makes it the most corrupted country in Europe (not including Russia). A crucial three-year loan from the International Monetary Fund is pending, with fund officials stating that Ukraine needs to demonstrate its commitment to rein in “pervasive corruption” before a deal can be finalized, illustrating, yet again, the salience of this problem. Having made anti-corruption efforts a cornerstone of his election campaign, Zelensky certainly has his work cut out for him. His task is complicated by his own ties to a notoriously corrupt oligarch and Ukraine’s most unwelcome, involvement in Washington’s current partisan political crisis.

Military Aid to Ukraine Is Essential

The first, and most obvious, imperative for Kyiv is an end to the devastating war with Russia in eastern Ukraine, a region known as Donbas. When polled, Ukrainian citizens rank this as their number one concern. Zelensky consistently makes clear that finding a solution to the conflict is his highest priority.

U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which averaged around $62 million per year from 2000 to 2013, rose dramatically following Russia’s seizure of Crimea. As Defense News reported, since 2014, when tensions between Moscow and the West escalated, “…the U.S. has committed more than $1.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine.” In early 2015, a number of experienced and well-respected senior U.S. national security figures actually advocated $1 billion per year in direct military aid to Ukraine, including a variety of lethal weaponry.

But despite this surge in military aid, the war continues, if at lower intensity. The desperate plight of citizens remaining in the conflict zone itself demands a response. Céline Marangé’s excellent overview of the human costs of the Donbas conflict — especially for the millions of internally displaced persons — underscores the urgency to conclude hostilities. Beyond that, the scale of destruction wrought by the Donbas war on that region’s environment and infrastructure is enormous. The legacy of soon to be six years of insurrection and heavy fighting includes collapsed coal mines; wrecked roads, railroads, and airports; severe damage to water and sewer facilities; destroyed housing; and a landscape littered with mines and unexploded ordnance.

State capacity functions have been especially hard hit by the war with Russia. Even outside the conflict zone, the Ukrainian state has been pushed to its limits. Our research — based on compiling data from official, nongovernmental, and press sources — determined that as of 2018 fully one-third (82) of hospitals and clinics in the Greater Donbas region had been reported as damaged or destroyed by the fighting. Since then, another nine have been attacked, including five in 2019 to date, one of them a children’s hospital. As part of that same study, we also found that over 250 schools throughout eastern Ukraine’s war zone have been damaged or destroyed (including 14 in 2019 alone). UNICEF reports an even higher number overall.

Contributing to their misery, the Donbas war and annexation of Crimea have also disenfranchised millions of Ukrainian voters. Thousands of polling stations were shuttered in the 2014 and 2019 elections, unable to function because they were out of central government control or under direct threat near the line of contact. While some of our research shows that Ukraine in general effectively contained the effects of the war on elections, conflict-affected regions of the country lack appropriate representation. Ukrainians living in territory still held by Moscow’s proxies and Russian forces are unable to participate in free and fair elections.

Beyond an immediate need for peace, the challenge is to restore state capacity, enhance human security, and reestablish the loyalty of citizens to the state, in some cases as part of what will be a difficult reconciliation process. In addition to their desire for an end to the Donbas war, in several national polls Ukrainian citizens also expressed “worries about income, housing, inflation, corruption, social services, and inadequate healthcare.” The Migration Policy Institute recently made clear that the problem of internally displaced persons in Ukraine is bigger than previously thought, and has, tragically, been made worse by shortsighted government policies that have pauperized and disenfranchised its own citizens. This problem is most acute in areas adjacent to the Donbas war zone — the very areas that a more judicious approach would seek to shore up.

Civilian Assistance to Ukraine Is Essential, Too

Compared to security assistance, the United States has allocated relatively little funding to basic state capacity functions in Ukraine, despite the pressing need in those areas. Ukraine is one of the 16 most serious conflicts (and the only one in Europe) identified in the U.S. Departments of Defense and State and U.S. Agency for International Development’s Stabilization Assistance Review for 2018. The report highlights — correctly, in our view — the need for “the United States [to] be more selective and targeted about how we define stabilization missions, deploy our limited resources, burden-share with local and international partners, and ultimately produce more tangible, long-term outcomes for our taxpaying public.”

Washington needs to dedicate more civilian aid to Ukraine. Health and population, humanitarian assistance, education, infrastructure, election administration, civil society participation, and anti-corruption institutional support accounted for only about 34 percent of all American aid in 2017. True, adding money for state capacity purposes will not immediately move the dial very far, and may be viewed by Russia as signaling weakness if security assistance is reduced. But if targeted toward more vulnerable regions within Ukraine that are currently overwhelmed by the need to accommodate hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, the impact of more non-military funding — combined with recent increases in U.N. assistance — would be magnified and will reduce vulnerabilities that Russia and its proxies might exploit.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the European Union’s assistance to Ukraine, at more than 15 billion euros ($16.6 billion) since 2014, greatly exceeds U.S. contributions. In terms of aid to Ukraine, the European Union’s emphasis is mostly within the civilian sector, although individual countries and the NATO alliance have provided some training and command and control advice to the Ukrainian military. Even here, however, E.U. (and Canadian) aid has declined by over half since 2016. Further, a comprehensive study by Chatham House concluded that E.U. aid has been too narrowly focused and short-term, reducing its effectiveness in longer-term institution building. Thus, more goal-relevant non-military U.S. assistance in keeping with the Stabilization Assistance Review criteria would have relatively greater impact going forward.


The most recent Gallup World Poll showed that only 9 percent of Ukrainian citizens had confidence in their national government, the lowest of any country globally by far. A large part of that dismal number owes, of course, to the debilitating effects of corruption, misgovernance, and the hybrid and kinetic destabilization efforts of neighboring Russia.

The Ukrainian state has failed to provide adequately for its citizens. Absent major enhancements in state capacity, Ukrainians will continue to lack confidence in their government. No amount of military assistance will provide the human security that this strategic and besieged country deserves. Washington should prioritize both funding and expertise that address human security shortfalls in Ukraine. State capacity building is a long-term project. Best to start now.



Cynthia Buckley is Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ralph Clem is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. Erik Herron is the Eberly Family Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University. They are currently studying state capacity challenges in the post-Soviet space under a project funded by the Department of Defense Minerva Research Initiative. The authors wish to acknowledge fieldwork support in Ukraine from the Walter J. and Gail B. Woolwine Faculty Travel Fund at West Virginia University and thank an anonymous reviewer for several helpful suggestions. The opinions expressed herein are the authors’ alone.

Image: U.N. Ukraine