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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a speech remotely on the first day of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London, England, on June 21.WPA Pool/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has implored investors and governments to help rebuild his country, arguing that a stable and free Ukraine will strengthen the cause of democracy around the world.

Mr. Zelensky spoke via video link Wednesday at the opening of the Ukraine Recovery Conference, an international meeting in London that is mobilizing support for the reconstruction of the country, which has been devastated by a Russian invasion that has lasted almost 16 months.

“It’s not about bricks, but about life in general,” Mr. Zelensky told the meeting. “We are building much more than one country. We are building a world, as it will be during the lifetime of our generation and after us. Will it be peaceful? Will it be stable? Will it be democratic? It depends on each and every one of us.”

Delegates representing 61 countries are attending the two-day conference, and despite pledges of financial support from several governments, including Canada, the challenge facing Ukraine was laid bare in the opening sessions.

The World Bank estimated in February that it will cost at least US$411-billion to rebuild all the houses, businesses and infrastructure that have been destroyed by Russian air strikes and artillery. That figure is certain to climb much higher and did not include the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, which collapsed on June 6 and caused extensive flooding.

Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister, said his officials have identified 600 apartment buildings, 20,000 houses, 1,000 schools and 122 bridges that have to be rebuilt. And that was a preliminary estimate, he said.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told the meeting it will cost US$14.1-billion this year to meet the most urgent needs for housing, energy and water supplies in war-affected regions. Ukraine has raised most of that money, but the government is still short US$6-billion, which Mr. Shmyhal is hoping to secure from foreign donors.

“We have set an ambitious goal of securing pledges for this amount as a result of this conference,” he told the delegates.

Financial support has been forthcoming, and more commitments were made Wednesday. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an additional US$1.3-billion for Ukraine’s transportation and energy sectors. The European Union stepped up with a US$54-billion package of grants and loans, while Britain pledged US$1.3-billion in new loan guarantees.

Canada urged to set up trust fund to distribute seized Russian assets to Ukraine

Canada’s International Development Minister, Harjit Sajjan, said Ottawa would contribute $20-million to support climate adaptation and mitigation projects. “Canada is honoured to stand shoulder to shoulder with you as we stand up for Ukraine,” he told the conference.

But many delegations wanted to make it clear that their governments, and taxpayers, wouldn’t be the only ones shouldering the financial burden. Nearly every foreign affairs minister who spoke Wednesday said they would work to ensure that Russia ultimately picks up the tab.

“Let’s be clear: Russia is causing Ukraine’s destruction and Russia will eventually bear the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction,” Mr. Blinken said to loud applause. “Until that time, we will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Mr. Shmyhal added bluntly: “Russia must pay for what it has destroyed.”

There are moves afoot to make that happen. The British government has introduced legislation that will keep sanctions against Russia in place until it compensates Ukraine. The law would also make it easier to donate frozen Russian assets toward Ukraine’s reconstruction. The U.S. Senate is considering similar legislation, and Canada has already passed a law that allows Ottawa to sell the assets of foreigners who have been sanctioned. However, EU officials have said that selling seized assets is not straightforward and could risk legal challenges.

The conference also heard repeatedly that private investors and companies must play a greater role in rebuilding Ukraine. “Only the private sector can mobilize the level of investment necessary to meet the country’s massive needs,” Mr. Blinken said.

Executives from dozens of companies, including Virgin Group, Citibank and AON Insurance, are attending the conference, and many of them spoke about the business opportunities in Ukraine. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also been encouraging companies to sign the Ukraine Business Compact, a pledge that commits them to invest and share best practices in Ukraine “when the time is right.” Mr. Sunak said Wednesday that more than 400 companies from 38 countries have signed up to the compact, including Sanofi SA, Philips N.V. and Hyundai Engineering.

But many investors and companies remain leery about sinking money into Ukraine. They’ve raised concerns about corruption, insurance, building standards and uncertainty about the direction of the war.

“We need judicial reform,” said Natalie Jaresko, a former Ukrainian minister of finance who is now a turnaround specialist at U.S.-based consultants EY-Parthenon. “It’s the single greatest impediment to massive private investment.”

Some European companies have been reluctant to take on construction projects in Ukraine because of the country’s outdated building regulations. Many date back to the Soviet era and can’t accommodate components and designs based on EU standards.

Mr. Shmyhal said the government was working to reform its institutions and practices. And he said officials were encouraging foreign investment in energy, agriculture, public infrastructure, digital technology and housing. “Those who invest in Ukraine today will have extraordinary prospects in coming years,” he told the conference.

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