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Ukraine, refugees, Russia

Planning for a Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

The US should learn from its experience in Afghanistan.

Words: Evan Cooper
Pictures: Marjan Blan

The prospect of a major Russian invasion of Ukraine has continued to increase over the past weeks, with the potential for it to be the largest invasion since World War II. A war in Ukraine would be horrific, with significant loss of life and destruction, and as with all wars, would displace people from their homes and communities. A full invasion of the country could lead to one to five million refugees, which would pose the greatest resettlement crisis since the Syrian civil war, which created 6.8 million refugees, and the largest in Europe since World War II. 

The Biden administration learned the hard way that managing sudden refugee waves is a challenge. The collapse of the US-backed government of Afghanistan led to hundreds of thousands of Afghans trying to flee the country. Heart-wrenching images of people trying to grasp onto US planes departing Kabul featured prominently on televisions around the world and the Biden administration was criticized across the political spectrum for a failure to have planned for all those trying to escape Taliban rule. There was anger at the broken process behind the scenes as civil servants desperately attempted to put together a plan and evacuate Afghan partners. 

There is a significant risk of greater death, chaos, and displacement in Ukraine. A Russian invasion could happen rapidly and with a large show of force. So far, the United States has positioned about 2000 troops to assist with evacuating US embassy personnel and citizens, but that contingent will not be able to handle Ukrainians attempting to flee and could be impeded by their attempts, just as US Marines were in Afghanistan. Evacuations will not be able to happen by air because of Russia’s ability to quickly control Ukrainian air space and concerns of civilian aircraft being shot down, increasing the possibility of disruptions to evacuations from fleeing Ukrainians. 

And while Ukraine is more developed than Afghanistan, it already has a large amount of internally displaced people and substantial humanitarian needs. There are approximately 3.4 million Ukrainians currently in need of humanitarian assistance, a majority of whom are located near the border with Russia. This group, which includes 110,000 internally displaced people, has been ravaged by war and COVID-19, and the Ukrainian government’s ability to provide services to them has been limited. An already bad situation could quickly turn catastrophic if millions are scrambling to flee to the west amidst fighting with no coordinated plan in place to manage the flow of people. 


The Biden administration would be wise to learn from its Afghanistan experience and assist European countries and nongovernmental partners in establishing a refugee management and burden sharing agreement prior to an invasion taking place. The best way to start this process in good faith would be a pledge from the Biden administration that the United States will take a substantial share of refugees. 

The United States has a greater capacity to take in displaced people compared to most of its European partners and has consistently resettled Ukrainians with little issue, with Ukrainians making up 15% of all refugees permitted into the United States since 2019 under the highly restrictive policies of the Trump administration. Although Biden raised the cap on the number of refugees from the 15,000 under the final year of Trump to 62,500, that number is still well below past levels. The 125,000 refugees the United States is slated to accept this fiscal year is higher, but with the slowest population growth rate on record and mayors asking Biden to allow them to take more refugees, there is an opening to welcome thousands of Ukrainian families fleeing war.

The struggles refugees face do not end when they flee war. Coordinating among parties to develop long-term resettlement plans, with resources provided to the countries and groups doing that work, is a process that can start today. 

The United States has much more to offer in this situation that goes well beyond just taking people in. The US military has the greatest airlift and logistics capacity of any country, as was demonstrated in Afghanistan, but to utilize this capacity successfully, a plan needs to in place. The first part of a plan should include emergency services in potential host countries before refugees arrive. Emergency services should include basic needs like beds, food, and medical needs. The burden of an initial influx of Ukrainian refugees will be on Ukraine’s neighbors, namely Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, all of whom are NATO members. Poland alone anticipates that it could receive a million Ukrainians displaced by war. As such, the Biden administration should work closely with NATO members, along with international humanitarian organizations and local nongovernmental organizations, to set up a network of supplies for emergency services. 

The second part of the plan must include the ability to quickly process the information of refugees for resettlement purposes. After all, not just host countries but other peripheral countries need to be able to know how many they can take in and how fast they can be processed. The United States failed to do this in Afghanistan, and Afghan refugees continue to languish, stuck on military bases and others in limbo in third party countries. The struggles refugees face do not end when they flee war. Coordinating among parties to develop long-term resettlement plans, with resources provided to the countries and groups doing that work, is a process that can start today. 

What would make refugee resettlement significantly harder is waiting to put emergency planning in place once the war has begun. War is chaotic and people will do whatever they can to escape it. Europe is no stranger to political upheaval, especially from refugee crises. The influx from Syria, where millions fled the civil war and now 80% of whom now reside in Europe, changed the political landscape in Europe — and anti-refugee sentiment ballooned. While Ukrainians may be more easily assimilated, another acute refugee crisis could cause further destabilization within Europe, which is the last thing needed when dealing with a major war on the continent. The best way to head that off is to begin diplomatic talks over managing refugee flows before they begin and public hostility toward refugees starts to play a far larger role in negotiations.  


It is politically tricky to plan for a refugee crisis before it happens. Ukraine’s government complained about the United States describing a Russian invasion as “imminent” because of the panic it was causing. A public statement from the Biden administration that they would resettle a certain number of Ukrainian refugees could spark a preemptive flow of people who were worried about being caught up in an exodus. The administration should instead come up with its internal number of how many Ukrainians they can handle, and be bold with it. They then should communicate that number to their European partners, who are already quietly preparing for a flow of refugees, and work to distribute the burden as effectively as possible, offering increased assistance to the countries likely to face the greatest immediate influx. 

There is always a danger in learning the wrong lessons from the last war, and the US approach to Ukraine shows some signs of doing just that. The focus on evacuating US personnel and citizens, while understandable, risks overshadowing what needs to be done to prevent Eastern Europe from facing a crunch of refugees that could undermine the policy of demonstrating NATO resolve in the face of Russian aggression. 

Refugee resettlement is a complex process, particularly at the potential scale of millions of refugees, but it is doable with proper planning and coordination between the countries and organizations involved. While the United States is protected by geography from the immediate consequences of war in Ukraine, it has an opportunity to help Ukrainians and its European partners by being proactive in its approach to a refugee crisis. Doing so will help to prevent severe problems further down the road.

Evan Cooper is an associate director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Evan Cooper

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