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Ukraine: A focus on emergency aid rather than reconstruction

June 11, 2024

As Russia continues to destroy critical infrastructure and power plants in Ukraine, Kyiv remains focused on its defense and emergency repairs, while looking ahead to its future at the "Recovery Conference" in Berlin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz talk at the start of the recovery conference in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, June 11, 2024
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attended the Ukraine Recovery Conference in BerlinImage: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP/picture alliance

As Russia continues its war in Ukraine, Germany on Friday gave the go-ahead for Kyiv to use German weapons against military targets inside Russia, following a similar decision from the US. This came after several Russian missiles hit civilian buildings in Ukraine's eastern city of Kharkiv.

These developments overshadow a conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine. The German government has invited 1,500 representatives from countries that support Ukraine. Together with Ukrainian representatives, they are meeting in Berlin on June 11 and 12, for the "Ukraine Recovery Conference 2024."

Since March, Russia has increasingly been firing "glide bombs" — cheap but highly destructive ordnance — destroying civilian infrastructure and power plants on a massive scale. Against this backdrop, negotiators in Berlin may see themselves forced to pledge emergency aid, rather than plan long-term reconstruction for after the war is over. 

Kharkiv death toll from Russian attack rises to 16

"We should be helping Ukraine maintain its energy supply and critical infrastructure right now, and keep its economy running as smoothly as possible," Robert Kirchner, economist with consulting agency Berlin Economics, told DW. Kirchner, who worked as a consultant in Ukraine for 15 years, says any reconstruction effort must focus first and foremost on rebuilding the country's energy sector.

Energy supply crisis

Ukraine's energy company DTEK recently announced that Russia had destroyed 90% of its "fossil generation capacity." The company owned by multi-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov provides 40% of Ukraine's electricity supply.

Now Ukraine will have to allocate electricity supplies yet again. It will be forced to decide who will receive electricity — and when. "Critical infrastructure, hospitals, military enterprises and companies carrying out mobilization tasks, will be prioritized," according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

Kirchner fears the heating plants that were destroyed will not be repaired before wintertime. He points out that the central thermal power plants crucial to supplying Ukraine's major cities with heat were built during the Soviet era.

"That might become a massive problem in wintertime. We might see new refugee movements if it's not resolved," said Kirchner.

More than 11,000 Ukrainians fled during Russia's most recent offensive north-east of Kharkiv. Satellite images show dozens of corpses on the streets of villages recently taken over by Russian soldiers.

"You don't want to imagine the scenario of a big city without a functioning sewage system. Plans have to be prepared for this eventuality," said Kirchner.

The question of how to mobilize private capital for the reconstruction of Ukraine will be a priority for German Development Minister Svenja Schulze, whose ministry is co-organizing the conference with the German Foreign Ministry. Schulze herself is committed to "an international skilled labor initiative for Ukraine," she said at the end of April.

How Europe is trying to help Ukraine fight Russian advances

Defense and reconstruction

During a preparatory conference focused on carrying out specialist training in Berlin, Ukrainian ambassador Oleksii Makeiev urgently requested more air defense from the 50 supporting nations, led by the US. He stated that Ukraine needs "at least seven new Patriot systems."

Ukrainian infrastructure that is successfully protected by Western air defenses will not require reconstruction, he pointed out. But air defense systems have been a sticking point between Kyiv and its Western allies for months.

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Defense Minister Boris Pistorius jointly appealed to NATO partners to send more air defense systems to Ukraine, to protect other major cities such as Kharkiv. Germany took the lead, pledging another Patriot system. But so far, other NATO partners have failed to follow suit.

The question how to help Ukraine successfully defend itself against Russian airstrikes overshadows Berlin's Ukraine Recovery Conference. For Robert Kirchner, one thing is certain: "The attacks are continuing, the destruction is continuing. So reconstruction costs are continuing to rise, even as we speak."

This article was originally written in German.

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