The damage has become so widespread that some experts believe the sites are deliberately targeted, endangering the architecture of Ukrainian identity. They call on the UN and the US government to protect and promote Ukraine’s cultural identity before it’s too late.
“In addition to a purely conventional military attack, Russia knows that it is more strategic to target Ukrainian culture with the primary goal of destroying it,” said Yuri Shevchuk, a lexicographer and professor of Ukrainian language at the University of Columbia. “They know that even if Ukraine wins, but Ukrainian culture loses and the Ukrainian language disappears, there will be no Ukraine.”
It is against international law to intentionally target cultural heritage and wartime property, in line with the 1954 Hague Convention. Given that Russia and Ukraine are among the 133 signatories, damage to Ukrainian cultural institutions could become evidence in a possible war crimes case.
“Ukraine is a country well known for its rich history, the place where the cultures of East and West have come together,” Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the World Heritage Center of Ukraine, told POLITICO. UNESCO. “We are seriously concerned because Ukraine is losing not only an important part of its cultural heritage, but also its identity. A piece of themselves and a piece of history will disappear if the war does not end.
In a March letter to Moscow, obtained by POLITICO, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay urged Russia to abide by the 1954 treaty.
“The need to provide this protection stems from the commitments made by the Russian Federation under the 1954 Convention and other relevant norms of international humanitarian law,” Azoulay said in the letter. “Any violation of these standards will engage the international responsibility of its perpetrators.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded that Moscow is aware of its obligations under the treaty and remains committed to them, a UNESCO spokesperson said.
There are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ukraine, including Saint Sophia Cathedral near kyiv, the entire historic district of the city of Lviv, and the Geodesic Arch of Struve. In the letter to Lavrov, Azoulay notes that contact details for heritage sites have been attached separately – even though they are already available online – with some properties marked distinctly with the United Nations “Blue Shield” emblem.
None of the World Heritage sites in Ukraine have been damaged so far.
Whether the attacks are indiscriminate or targeted, the consequences of the loss of cultural heritage could be disastrous. Cultural centers such as the Mariupol Museum and Makarivska Public Library in Kyiv, which contain unique art and literature, were destroyed. Historic buildings and monuments dedicated to Ukraine’s fight against Nazism during World War II, including the Drobitsky Yar Holocaust memorial, were damaged.
Despite several months of shelling, Eloundou explained that UNESCO is still in its preliminary assessment phase, which the organization describes as cross-checking reported incidents with credible sources. Once completed, UNESCO will be “fully prepared to cooperate” with the International Criminal Court and other judicial institutions and plans to produce and share a final assessment “as appropriate”, Eloundou said.
This is not the first time Russia has attacked antiquities in recent history. Research funded by the Department of State found airstrikes by Russia and other groups in Syria in 2011 damaged medieval towns, cultural centers and monuments. This not only led to the destruction of heritage and the looting of museums of ancient artifacts, but also created a pathway for relics to be directed out of the Middle East.
“There could be acts of war that would destroy areas [and] there was concern about looting,” said Elizabeth Repko, director of the US Government Accountability Office. physical infrastructure team that worked on a 2016 report analyzing the United States’ response to the protection of cultural property in Iraq and Syria. “One of the concerns about the looting was not only that ISIS would sell the cultural property and that it could fund terrorism, but also that there might be a traffic in stolen artworks to United States.”
Just like what happened in the Middle East already seems to be in motion in Ukraine. The mayor of Melitopol says Russian agents robbed ancient Scythian Empire gold and other artifacts from a local museum. In Mariupol, officials reported that Russian agents broke into a museum to steal valuable artifacts, paintings and works of art.
It will take five years after the assault on cultural artifacts in Syria began for the United States to pass the International Cultural Property Act in 2016, legislation that created an interagency coordinating committee known as the Center cultural heritage within the State Department.
While the 2016 law explicitly protects Syrian antiquities, the creation of the center gave the State Department jurisdiction to address and prevent cultural destruction in Ukraine and other threatened regions.
There is no bill in Congress to protect Ukrainian cultural property. And it’s not clear if the The Biden Administration’s Recent $33 Billion Request for Ukraine includes funding to save heritage sites.
At a recent press conference, Cultural Heritage Center director Eric Catalfamo said it was “impossible” to know how many buildings, memorials and monuments have been destroyed or damaged in Ukraine.
“If we look back over a period of years, even before Russia’s 2022 war against Ukraine, we know that Russia illegally exported Crimean artifacts and took them for display in Russia,” Catalfamo said.
He added that Russia “has carried out unauthorized archaeological expeditions, demolished Muslim burial sites and damaged cultural heritage sites”.
For now, the center is performing remote monitoring and tracking, a State Department official told POLITICO. But Ukraine experts say time is running out to protect Ukrainian culture amid heavy Russian bombardment.
“Culture is as powerful a weapon as a 155 millimeter howitzer or a cruise missile,” Shevchuk said. “The difference is that the culture has much more lasting consequences and is projected much further.”