Short of cash as well as personnel and equipment for its war against Russia, Ukraine’s government says it has cobbled together financing to last several months without long-stalled aid from the United States and Europe. But further delays would trigger an all-but-certain economic crisis, officials and analysts say.
Government workers might not get paid or lose their jobs. Retirees, already living close to a subsistence level, could slip deeper into poverty if their pensions are not topped up to keep pace with inflation. Museums and theaters — as well as government research institutes and universities — could be forced to shut their doors.
Restaurants, department stores and a host of other businesses currently remain open in Ukrainian cities away from the front line. But without enough financial aid, the ripple effects would quickly be felt across the economy, as the government runs out of cash to support a wide range of people and institutions.
Along with artillery shells, missiles and drones, Russia’s war in Ukraine is fought in the economies of both countries. Western sanctions are intended to curb Moscow’s resources, and Western aid is aimed at sustaining Ukraine. An economic crisis in Ukraine could severely undermine its ability to successfully fight the war, experts say.
“It’s the economy that wins wars,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukrainian program at Chatham House, a London-based research group.
Ukrainians are already strained economically by war and ill prepared for financial turmoil. In a poll by conducted by the Red Cross in November, 42 percent of Ukrainians said they had insufficient income to meet basic needs including food and paying for housing.
Ukraine needs the Western aid to cover about a quarter of its national budget this year, but has faced numerous hurdles getting it.
On Thursday, European Union leaders will meet in Brussels, hoping to reach agreement on a 50 billion euro, or about $54 billion, multiyear aid package that was blocked by Hungary in December.
The Biden administration is also struggling to get through Congress a package worth about $60 billion of military, humanitarian and financial aid for this year.
If Ukraine fails to get the aid it needs from the West, the economic stability that has been an unexpected wartime success could start to crumble.
Serhiy Marchenko, the country’s finance minister, warned in an interview of the risks of a looming financial crisis. “Achieving macroeconomic stability is not easy,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to boost confidence in businesses, in the citizens of Ukraine.”
Ukraine has also contributed to its own problems, with chronic corruption that has made Western allies more skeptical that money donated is going to the right cause.
The prospect of ever shrinking government funds is one that worries Olena Bondarenko, a 30-year-old single mother who works for a private utility company in Zaporizhzhia. She supplements her meager income of about $210 a month with a monthly payment of about $135 given to people forced to flee their homes, in her case an apartment in the frontline town of Orikhiv, damaged by shelling.
On Friday, the government announced cutbacks in such payments for internally displaced people in Ukraine, to save about $530 million this year.
“I’m not sure I will get by” when the payments end on Feb. 1, Ms. Bondarenko said. “I’m really worried. I’m afraid I will have to return to my town and live there with my child amid explosions because I don’t have financial help.”
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s minister in charge of eventually reintegrating the territories occupied by Russia, said in an interview on Ukrainian television on Friday that the cuts were necessary because of declining government revenue.
Ukraine could also delay paying some government salaries and increase domestic borrowing to extend its finances through February, Mr. Marchenko, the finance minister, said, confirming a report in The Wall Street Journal last week.
Ukraine relies on foreign aid for about half its annual budget, and is prohibited by donors from spending that assistance on the military. It receives separate aid from both the United States and the European Union for military purposes.
This aid instead covers things like salaries for teachers, pensions and medical care for the population. For this, Ukraine was getting $13.5 billion from the European Union and expecting $11 billion from the United States this year.
The E.U. aid package that Hungary blocked in December and which European leaders will be discussing on Thursday would provide grants and loans to Ukraine from 2024 to 2027.
Ukraine can make ends meet in the first quarter of the year by shuffling funds between the central and local government, raising taxes and cutting spending, Mr. Marchenko said.
Part of the plan is to tap funds that would normally have been held by local governments, like taxes paid by soldiers, he said. But while that will help provide wiggle room as Ukraine awaits more aid, it would come at the cost of squeezing local governments.
The government will raise funds with a new tax on banks, and cut all capital spending, except what is needed for the military, deferring things like road repairs or purchases of railroad cars, Mr. Marchenko said.
And it is borrowing money from within Ukraine, issuing three tranches of domestic bonds so far this year that officials said exceeded expectations.
Tymofiy Mylovanov, the president of the Kyiv School of Economics and a former minister of economy, also said that the government was not filling vacancies in public sector jobs and had withheld some funding for higher education.
Even with all these measures, the loss of the foreign aid from the United States and the European Union would have devastating effects.
Wartime support from the International Monetary Fund is contingent on the United States, for example, continuing to support Ukraine’s government. If the United States backs out, Ukraine would have to renegotiate the fund’s $5.4 billion program this year.
And support from the world’s richest nations can convince other donors and markets that Ukraine has sufficient financial backing, opening the door to even more money from different sources.
Ukraine’s central bank is already quickly going through reserves to prop up the value of the national currency, the hryvnia, amid market jitters over delayed aid. The bank spent $2.4 billion in the first four weeks of the year.
“The only way to preserve macroeconomic stability is support from the United States,” said Mr. Marchenko.
If that were not forthcoming, he said, Ukraine would seek additional assistance from other allies; increase domestic borrowing, regardless of the rates on the bonds, which are now 18 percent; or print money to cover immediate needs, even if it leads to inflation and the devaluation of the hryvnia.
He raised the specter of bank runs and people rushing to change their hryvnia into dollars or euros, crashing the local currency. “I am talking about a nightmare scenario,” he said.
“It would start in one day, last a week,” and the consequences of a collapse of the hryvnia “would be catastrophic,” he said. “People on the one hand try to protect our country and on the other hand try to flee and protect their assets.”
Russia has been raising the cost for the West of supporting Ukraine by targeting infrastructure important to the economy. Last winter, it bombarded heating and electrical plants and over the summer it hit ports that export grain and other agricultural goods.
That Ukraine has maintained a stable economy after an initial shock from the Russian invasion in 2022 is something of a surprise, said Ms. Lutsevych, the Chatham House researcher.
“Wars usually are accompanied by hyperinflation” and huge debt, she said. “What this Western assistance allows is more balanced life in Ukraine. People can sustain civilian life, and live and pay taxes in Ukraine. If that collapses, we have a major problem.”
Cuts to education, medical care and infrastructure such as roads will harm future economic growth, she said. “Ukraine is already losing its future.”
In the United States, combined military and financial assistance to Ukraine is equivalent to about 4 percent of the defense budget.
“The amount of assistance coming from the West, while extraordinary for Ukraine, is not extraordinary for the West,” said John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “If you understand Putin’s objectives in Europe go beyond Ukraine, it’s a very smart investment.”
Whatever maneuvers keep the government solvent in the short term, Ukraine will inevitably rely on foreign aid as long as the war continues, said Serhiy Fursa, deputy director of Dragon Capital, an investment firm in Kyiv. If the aid vanishes, financial crisis looms, he said.
“We will rely on financial support, or we will lose,” he said. “It’s a black-and-white situation.”