Three lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War – what we learned during our high school internship at UNU-WIDER

We had the most interesting work experience at UNU-WIDER, but the highlight of our time at the institute was the two-day workshop on war and reconstruction in Ukraine. So, what did we learn during the workshop? Here is our take on this exciting new research critical to understanding and planning for Ukraine’s social and economic recovery.

Research workshop on war and reconstruction in Ukraine
Participants of the research workshop on war and reconstruction in Ukraine held 8–9 May 2023.

As of 9 May 2023, UHNCR has recorded over 8.2 million Ukrainian refugees due to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. This number accounts for around 20% of the population. Many have found refuge in Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and many other European countries. In a survey of female Ukrainian refugees in August 2022 (only 5 months after Russia’s invasion), Philip Verwimp and Renate Hartwig show that 41% reported no intention of returning within the next three months, 38% didn’t know, and only 21% wanted to return. Of those that wanted to return, only half had the intention to do so permanently. Return intentions are motivated by wanting to see family and return to their own culture. In turn, most respondents stated lack of safety and economic opportunities as crucial for their intention to stay.

This shows that to plan for the reconstruction of Ukraine it is important to ensure that those displaced by war feel safe in their return and are assisted in their search for economic opportunities in Ukraine. It is, however, also critical to acknowledge that not all will want to return, even as the security situation may stabilize. Those that have left Ukraine are establishing a new life abroad that will be more difficult to depart from the longer the conflict endures. It is thus critical for policymakers to coordinate and plan the return of the displaced but also to think of long-term integration strategies for those wishing to remain in their host communities.

Social cohesion

In a survey conducted in areas recaptured by Ukrainian forces, Martin Ottman and Kit Rickard find that over 70% of people report that one should be on guard towards other people, including neighbors and friends. They suggest that these statistics may be driven by Russian occupation, which has been accompanied by civilian collaboration that might have weakened their ability to trust others. Their findings show that there were lower levels of communal trust when directly exposed to occupation and possibly even under indirect occupation. Nonetheless, while suspicion may be relatively high amongst respondents currently, over 50% report to at least somewhat trust neighbors and friends, and over 30% reported to complete trust. Only around 15% reported little to no trust.

Policy panel on war and reconstruction in Ukraine
Photo taken at the policy panel on war and reconstruction in Ukraine event held 9 May 2023 organized in partnership with the Development Policy Committee of Finland, in collaboration with the Households in Conflict Network (HiCN) and the Network of European Peace Scientists (NEPS). 

Trust is essential for development outcomes in settings emerging from war, and collaboration with Russian forces is likely to have affected trust in Ukraine. Using a survey experiment, Lesley Ann-Daniels and Amélie Godfrey examined the attitudes of Ukrainian citizens towards collaborators. They find that the reaction is conditioned by the motivation of the collaborator (e.g., for survival purposes) and the extent of participation (e.g., to share information, to provide food). Yet, respondents were not more likely to forgive collaborators based on engagement in restorative action such as asking for forgiveness or actively helping in the reconstruction process.

Social cohesion is critical for development. The reconstruction of societies goes beyond rebuilding infrastructure. Creating a sense of unity and building trust within communities will be critical for the success of reconstruction efforts.

Global consequences

The war has substantial effects on other countries and economies that are not directly involved as warring actors. Laia Bacells, Juan Fernando Tellez, and Francisco Villamil find that the Russian invasion of Ukraine strengthened Spanish nationalism but weakened trust in the military. They attribute this to an increased sense of external threat and fear that the military is not strong enough to protect them. Although these patterns may have reversed by now, this shift in public opinion is reflected in an extensive surge in military spending across Europe.

The war has also affected economic development, trade, and food security in many countries around the globe. Russia and Ukraine are among the top exporters of wheat and maize on the global market. Prices of wheat and maize have been severely affected since the onset of the conflict. This is likely to have important consequences at a global scale, explained Dominic Rohner. He presented findings from a recent publication entitled ‘Global Economic Consequences of the War in Ukraine: Sanctions, Supply Chains and Sustainability’, and argues that higher prices of a given commodity will reduce conflict in areas that produce said commodity. Yet, higher staple food prices are likely to also increase conflict in Africa, due to a rise in food insecurity.

The need for a youth perspective

Reconstruction of Ukraine and future development will hinge upon its youth. While the presented studies provided important insights into the complexity of the situation and the need for aid flows into Ukraine, we believe that the perspectives of the youth in Ukraine and how these policies and reformations will affect them should be more central in future analyses. How will current low levels of social trust affect the younger generation and shape their perceptions of others as time progresses? How is conscription into the military of many fathers impacting their children? How does displacement impact the capacity of children to learn and develop? Answering questions around reconstruction with a youth lens will help policymakers understand how to design sustainable policy interventions for a peaceful Ukraine for generations to come.


Kate Lee and Kristofers Masi participated in a high school internship programme at UNU-WIDER in spring 2023. They are high school students at the International School of Helsinki.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.