Ukraine anniversary: how cities rebuild after being ravaged by the devastation of war

The Ukraine conflict has seen eight million people flee their homes since Putin launched a full-scale invasion

The past year has seen mass devastation for Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion.

In the 12 months since the conflict broke out, eight million people have fled their homes, missiles have wreaked havoc on cities, causing mass destruction, and tens of thousands of people have lost their lives.

Around 17 million people are currently displaced, either within Ukraine or as refugees across Europe, as a result of the war, which is expected to rage on for at least another year, the UK Defence Secretary has suggested.

Russia recently intensified its push to capture all of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas, while Kyiv and its western allies also say Moscow could try to launch a wider, more ambitious attack elsewhere along the more than 1,000-kilometre (600-mile) front line.

Ukraine is now waiting for battle tanks and other new weapons pledged by the West for it to reclaim occupied areas, and a settlement in the conflict is still nowhere in sight. What is nowhere in sight is a settlement.

Experts warn that Europe’s largest conflict since the World War II could drag on for years, and some fear it could lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and Nato.

Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the past three US administrations, saw little prospect for a settlement and said the Russians have “no intention of losing” and are “digging in for the long haul”.

She said: “Putin has made it very clear that he’s prepared to sacrifice whatever it takes. His message there is basically saying you can’t possibly counteract me, because I’m willing to do whatever and I’ve got so much more manpower.”

Ms Hill said Putin is hoping for western support for Kyiv to dissolve – “that it goes away and that Ukraine is left exposed, and then that Russia can force Ukraine to capitulate and give up on its territory”.

The Ukraine conflict has seen eight million people flee their homes since Putin launched a full-scale invasion
The Ukraine conflict has seen eight million people flee their homes since Putin launched a full-scale invasion
The Ukraine conflict has seen eight million people flee their homes since Putin launched a full-scale invasion

Rebuilding in the wake of war

As experts predict the conflict between Ukraine and Russia to continue, it calls into question how countries are ever able to recover and rebuild after such devastation.

Cities can take around 10 to 20 years to fully rebuild. London, for example, had bomb sites after World War II from the 1940s which were still present until the 1960s. The city suffered from widespread devastation and developed slowly, with the focus on living and employment to help boost the economy.

In Nagasaki, which was hit by a US atomic bomb during World War II, most buildings were finished after four years of construction, after facing issues with financial difficulties, lack of human resources, and shortages in land and materials.

Dr Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham City University, said that after destruction, cities must be careful to distinguish between the initial emergency response and the overall permanent plans. He said: "People are going to need rehousing - the infrastructure, the services, need to go back in so people can actually live but that isn’t (the same as) replanting or rebuilding a city for the next 50 plus years."

He stressed the importance of envisaging the future of a city long-term by understanding how society may adapt and go forward. Regarding Ukraine, he said: "Once we’ve got ideas for housing, we’ve got to think about two very closely related things - location and employment.

“So what sort of employment spaces do we need? Are we looking for traditional production? Ukraine is a very big agricultural location so storage and processing of agricultural products is going to be important."

Cultural identity is important

Every city has an identity and houses a range of heritage that blossoms from art, tradition, food and culture. When rebuilding a town or city, its cultural identity has to be taken into consideration.

Dr Timothy Clack, a fellow in Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford said: “Cities are shaped by cultural identities and vice versa. The city can, of course, be symbolic of nation, religion, industry and way of life. Interactions from industry, trade, exchange and housing are drivers of social cohesion.

"Cities often also develop their own identities through dialects, accents and even architecture, sports teams and the arts."

War has a huge impact on a cities cultural identity, as it becomes part of its history. Dr Clack said: "War affects cultural identity in a number of ways. It can, for example, be reinforcing of identity as threats and hardships serve to galvanise and bond people together. This has been very evident in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.

"Five years after the Russian invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, for instance, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine became autocephalous, meaning that it was no longer answerable to the Moscow Patriarchate Church.”

He adds: “War often targets cultural identity. Brutal attacks are used to break the will of the people. As people and place are inextricably linked, attacks on either are injurious to both.

“President Putin has stated clearly and publicly that he believes Ukraine is an inalienable part of Russia, and that Ukrainian is not a real identity.

"Within the maelstrom of Russian thermobaric weapons, ballistic missiles, cluster munitions, and mass artillery bombardments, the Ukrainian identity is today on the frontline, particularly in cities such as Donetsk, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Borodyanka.

"The Kremlin’s rubblisation strategy is, essentially, a campaign of cultural ‘unfixing’, intended to leave people emotionally and psychologically adrift”.

Dr Larkham agreed that adding identity is hugely important and there are many important factors to consider when rebuilding. “Cities are big things - they’ve got to keep going. You’re going to need pleasure and recreation, and outdoor space is really important. If we don’t build that into our new city design, we are making a big mistake.”

This also includes war landmarks to serve as a reminder of what has happened. "The cost of staying where you are because you’re not going to rebuild everything differently helps keep a lot with psychological investment. In a lot of European towns, damaged buildings act as a landmark and a reminder.”

What lies ahead for Ukraine?

With no sign the war in Ukraine will be ending soon, experts have predicted a more disastrous path which lies ahead. While Russia is focused on capturing Donbas, experts also say Moscow could try to launch a wider attack along the front line. Ukraine, on the other hand, is waiting for battle tanks and other new weapons pledged by the West for it to reclaim occupied areas.

Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at RUSI in London told PA that both sides are  “irreconcilable on their current positions”. Major Ukrainian battlefield successes this summer could fuel “significant political turmoil in Russia, because at that point, Putin’s own position within the leadership becomes very, very difficult to see as tenable”, he said.

At the same time, if Ukraine fails to reclaim more territory before Russia builds up its troops, it could lead to a “long-term stalemate and sort of a grinding attritional war that just kind of goes on and on”, Mr Bronk added, playing into Moscow’s plan “to prolong the war and just wait for the West to get exhausted”.