Ukraine’s cultural heritage is threatened by Russia and desperately needs America’s help

Amid the enormous suffering inflicted on Ukrainians, another less heralded tragedy is unfolding. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only trying to wipe Ukraine off the map, but also to eliminate the cultural artifacts that frame the country’s national narrative.

Although the immediate human needs, the equipment of the Ukrainian army and the quest for an end to the war inevitably capture the world’s attention, Ukrainian cultural objects must also be protected and preserved. It is another form of resistance against Putin’s assault on democracy.

In addition to refugee aid and armaments, US President Joe Biden’s administration should publicly highlight and activate its vast cultural property protection resources and experts who know how to safeguard wartime treasures. This will foil Putin’s ludicrous mission to wipe Ukrainian heritage off the map. Failure to do so will advance Moscow’s monstrous goals, help deprive the world of historic treasures, and undermine Washington’s leadership in cultural diplomacy, which helped win the Cold War of the 20th century and could do so again in the course of this century.

Amid the enormous suffering inflicted on Ukrainians, another less heralded tragedy is unfolding. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only trying to wipe Ukraine off the map, but also to eliminate the cultural artifacts that frame the country’s national narrative.

Although the immediate human needs, the equipment of the Ukrainian army and the quest for an end to the war inevitably capture the world’s attention, Ukrainian cultural objects must also be protected and preserved. It is another form of resistance against Putin’s assault on democracy.

In addition to refugee aid and armaments, US President Joe Biden’s administration should publicly highlight and activate its vast cultural property protection resources and experts who know how to safeguard wartime treasures. This will foil Putin’s ludicrous mission to wipe Ukrainian heritage off the map. Failure to do so will advance Moscow’s monstrous goals, help deprive the world of historic treasures, and undermine Washington’s leadership in cultural diplomacy, which helped win the Cold War of the 20th century and could do so again in the course of this century.

Consider what Putin has done to Ukraine’s legacy so far. During the first four days of the invasion, Russian forces deliberately incinerated the Ivankiv Museum of History and Local History and its treasure of Ukrainian folk art, located northwest of the capital, in violation flagrant violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of armed conflict. Days later, Moscow damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, where the Nazis massacred nearly 34,000 Jews in 1941. Russian soldiers later looted the Popov Manor House museum and continue to relentlessly destroy cultural treasures Ukrainians. So threatened by Ukrainian cultural expression, they bombed an art school.

Even, or perhaps especially, in the midst of horrific battles and the fog of war, the world must protect the art, antiquities, monuments and other cultural assets that are the tangible expressions of a society and its existence. There are seven UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites in Ukraine: one of which in Crimea has been under Russian control since 2013 and the others are vulnerable. The world risks losing the 11th-century gold-domed Saint Sophia Cathedral; 15th century wooden churches; medieval coins; religious icons from the renaissance era; early 20th century ceramics from Kosiv, Ukraine; contemporary paintings; and hosts of other Ukrainian cultural objects.

Over the past 25 years, beginning as a foreign correspondent in Ukraine shortly after its independence from the Soviet Union, later as a CIA officer overseas, and most recently as head of intelligence for FBI Art Crime Squad, I came face to face with undemocratic forces who defiled, stole and destroyed cultural symbols. The authors have rarely been signatories to the Hague Convention, which obliges Russia, Ukraine, the United States and all other signatories to protect cultural property in times of war. Most of the perpetrators were non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, or criminal traffickers who sold items for hard currency.

Not since Nazi Germany has a powerful European nation so blatantly targeted a people’s cultural artifacts for destruction. Putin, like Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, understands that removing and destroying a society’s cultural objects accelerates the removal and destruction of its people. Russia’s behavior is all the more shocking given that just five years ago, on March 24, 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted its first resolution focusing on the protection of cultural heritage in as a matter of peace and security.

As the American Committee of the Blue Shield — an international organization that is to cultural heritage what the International Committee of the Red Cross is to people in a disaster — gathers March 24-25 for its annual meeting, the moment came for the The White House will convene federal agencies, scholars and practitioners from the cultural heritage community for a Ukraine emergency response summit. Drawing on lessons learned in other war zones, the White House should appoint a National Security Council official to lead a coordinated response.

Washington is already well placed and resourced to contribute, so the White House will not need to create a new political apparatus. In the face of global condemnation after US military personnel passively watched looters ransack the Iraq Museum in 2003, the US government established a loose but effective coalition of federal agencies, nonprofits, and government agencies. academics who protect cultural objects around the world. For example, the US Departments of Defense, State and Justice and the US intelligence community together dismantled the Islamic State’s “Ministry of Antiquities”, which looted and trafficked in cultural objects. Syrians to finance terrorism. The US Treasury Department has sanctioned Syrian cultural objects to thwart their black market sales. The Smithsonian has trained foreign museum professionals in the preservation of collections threatened by bombing. Investigators helped the FBI identify and repatriate stolen art and antiquities. The Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed US officials to present evidence, including satellite photos, and discuss potential solutions with art trade experts. All of this and more can be done to help Ukraine preserve its cultural heritage.

Initially, US government cultural property programs need to liaise with their Ukrainian counterparts to understand what kind of assistance they need. In some regions of Ukraine, such as Mariupol, it may be too late to protect cultural property from Russian aggression. However, Washington can, without putting Americans inside Ukraine, support people who urgently display Blue Shield emblems (like the Red Cross symbols) on vulnerable cultural property, as well as secure and evacuate objects in areas where combat is minimal or non-existent. The greatest immediate need appears to be technical assistance in identifying the location and condition of cultural heritage objects, protecting those that remain intact, and documenting evidence of destruction and theft.

The Smithsonian’s Cultural Rescue Initiative (CRI), a crown jewel in the cultural heritage community, provides a helpful example of how Washington can help from afar. The CRI now offers emergency technical advice via the Internet and remote video to museum professionals still in Ukraine, such as those at the Lviv-based Heritage Emergency Response Initiative. CRI also transferred practical packing materials to the field for packing, shipping and storing important art collections.

Presumably the Pentagon has already mapped significant cultural sites and objects in Ukraine that are off-limits to military attack, as this is part of routine war planning exercises today. Pentagon leaders should share this information with NATO and Ukraine and engage Fort Drum’s cultural resources unit, which specializes in collaboration between military and cultural institutions. Like the U.S. Army’s World War II “monument men” who saved thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazi regime, the Fort Drum team can speak both the languages ​​of military institutions and cultural.

The Department of State, with its Cultural Heritage Center and the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, has long supported the protection of cultural property in Ukraine. Now, Foggy Bottom should bring the subject to the UN Security Council and to the diplomatic negotiating table. It should also lobby UNESCO and other international member organizations to direct funding to the situation in Ukraine. For example, the State Department should urge the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to prepare an emergency “Red List” for Ukraine, which international law enforcement agencies can use to identify ( and therefore seize) cultural property likely to be trafficked during and after the war. The department should consider creating a mobile application that would allow Ukrainian civilians to document the condition of cultural property in the field by uploading images anonymously.

Finally, without siphoning off scarce resources, the US intelligence community has a role to play. The full spectrum of government intelligence assets should collect information on Russian plans and operations against cultural targets in Ukraine and should share this information with Kyiv and NATO allies. Similarly, the US Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security should share what they already know about transnational criminal trafficking networks that prey on vulnerable cultural objects in Europe.

In the midst of this emergency and looking forward to this week’s Blue Shield discussions, I recall that when she was living in Ukraine in the mid-1990s, a museum tour guide named Masha said that Moscow forced her to lie to survive. She must have blamed murderous Christians for the skulls on display at the Cave Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. After independence, she told the truth, that the remains belonged to Christians, buried in one of the most important cultural sites of the Eastern Orthodox Church. When the war ends, Ukraine’s cultural assets will serve as an important link to Ukraine’s past and an inspiration for its future. I hope Masha will still live in a democracy and be free to speak her truth.

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