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Ukraine’s Cultural Heritage Is Desperate for Help

Russia could destroy Ukrainian history, unless the United States does something about it.

By , a former CIA operations officer.
Vistors arrive at St. Michael's monastery May 18, 2005  in central Kiev, Ukraine.
Vistors arrive at St. Michael's monastery May 18, 2005 in central Kiev, Ukraine.
Vistors arrive at St. Michael's monastery May 18, 2005 in central Kiev, Ukraine. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Putin’s War

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

Although immediate human needs, the equipping of Ukraine’s military, and the quest for an end to the war inevitably capture global attention, Ukrainian cultural objects also should be protected and preserved. This is another form of resistance against Putin’s assault on democracy.

In addition to refugee assistance and armaments, the administration of U.S President Joe Biden should publicly emphasize and activate its extensive cultural property protection resources and experts who know how to safeguard treasures during times of war. Doing so will foil Putin’s grotesque mission to wipe Ukrainian heritage off the map. Failing to do so will advance Moscow’s monstrous goals, help rob the world of historic treasures, and undermine Washington’s leadership in cultural diplomacy—which helped win the 20th century’s Cold War and may do so again this century.

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

Although immediate human needs, the equipping of Ukraine’s military, and the quest for an end to the war inevitably capture global attention, Ukrainian cultural objects also should be protected and preserved. This is another form of resistance against Putin’s assault on democracy.

In addition to refugee assistance and armaments, the administration of U.S President Joe Biden should publicly emphasize and activate its extensive cultural property protection resources and experts who know how to safeguard treasures during times of war. Doing so will foil Putin’s grotesque mission to wipe Ukrainian heritage off the map. Failing to do so will advance Moscow’s monstrous goals, help rob the world of historic treasures, and undermine Washington’s leadership in cultural diplomacy—which helped win the 20th century’s Cold War and may do so again this century.

Consider what Putin has done thus far to Ukraine’s heritage. Within the first four days of the invasion, Russian forces purposefully incinerated the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum and its trove of Ukrainian folk art, located northwest of the capital, in staggering violation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. A few days later, Moscow damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, where Nazis slaughtered nearly 34,000 Jews in 1941. Russian soldiers subsequently looted the Popov Manor House museum and continue to obliterate Ukrainian cultural treasures unabated. So threatened by Ukrainian cultural expression, they bombed an art school.

Even, or perhaps especially, amid gruesome battles and the fog of war, the world must protect art, antiquities, monuments, and other cultural properties 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 rest of which are vulnerable. The world risks losing the 11th century gold domed St. Sophia Cathedral; 15th century wooden churches; medieval coins; renaissance-era religious icons; early 20th century ceramics from Kosiv, Ukraine; contemporary paintings; and hosts of other Ukrainian cultural objects.

During the last 25 years, starting as a foreign correspondent in Ukraine soon after its independence from the Soviet Union, later as a CIA officer overseas, and more recently as the head of intelligence for the FBI’s Art Crime Team, I came face to face with anti-democratic forces that defiled, stole, and destroyed cultural symbols. Rarely were the perpetrators signatories to the Hague Convention, which obliges Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and all other signatories to protect cultural objects during times of war. Most perpetrators were nonstate actors, such as the Islamic State, or criminal traffickers who sold objects for hard currency.

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

As the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield—an international organization that is to cultural heritage what the International Committee of the Red Cross is to people during a disaster—gathers on March 24 and March 25 for its annual meeting, the timing is right for the White House to 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 drive a coordinated response.

Washington already is well-positioned and resourced to contribute, so the White House won’t need to create a new policy apparatus. Facing global condemnation after U.S. military personnel passively watched looters ransack the Iraq Museum in 2003, the U.S. government established a loose but effective coalition of federal agencies, nonprofits, and scholars who protect cultural objects around the world. As an example, the U.S. Defense, State, and Justice Departments as well as the U.S. Intelligence Community together dismantled the Islamic State’s “Ministry of Antiquities,” which looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects to finance terrorism. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Syrian cultural objects to thwart their black-market sales. The Smithsonian trained foreign museum professionals how to preserve collections under threat from shelling. Scholars assisted the FBI with identifying and repatriating stolen art and antiquities. The Metropolitan Museum of Art provided a venue for U.S. officials to present evidence, including satellite photos, and discuss potential solutions with art trade specialists. All this and more can be done to help Ukraine maintain its cultural patrimony.

At the outset, U.S. government cultural property programs must connect with Ukrainian counterparts to understand what type of aid they require. In some regions of Ukraine, such as Mariupol, it may be too late to safeguard cultural property from Russian aggression. However, Washington can, without putting Americans inside Ukraine, support people who urgently are posting the Blue Shield emblems (like Red Cross symbols) on vulnerable cultural property as well as securing and evacuating objects in areas where fighting is minimal or nonexistent. The greatest immediate need seems to be technical assistance 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 useful example of how Washington can help from afar. The CRI today offers emergency technical advice via internet and remote video to museum professionals still inside Ukraine, such as those with the Lviv-based Heritage Emergency Response Initiative. The CRI also has transferred field-expedient packing materials to wrap, ship, and store significant art collections.

One can presume that the Pentagon has already mapped significant cultural sites and objects in Ukraine that are off-limits to military attack, as this is a routine part of war planning exercises today. Pentagon leaders should share this information with NATO and Ukraine as well as engage Fort Drum’s Cultural Resources unit, which specializes in military and cultural institution collaboration. Like the U.S. Army’s World War II “monuments men,” who rescued thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazi regime, the team out of Fort Drum knows how to speak both military and cultural institution languages.

The State Department, with its Cultural Heritage Center and Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, has long supported cultural property protection inside Ukraine. Now, Foggy Bottom should elevate the topic to the U.N. Security Council and diplomatic negotiating table. It also should press UNESCO and other international member organizations to direct funding toward 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 establishing a mobile app that would permit Ukrainian civilians to document the state of cultural property on the ground by uploading images anonymously.

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

Amid this emergency and awaiting this week’s Blue Shield discussions, I’m reminded that when living in Ukraine during the mid-1990s, a museum tour guide named Masha said Moscow forced her to lie to survive. She’d had to blame murderous Christians for the skulls on display in the Monastery of the Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. After independence, she told the truth, that the remains belonged to Christians, buried within one of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s most important cultural sites. When the war ends, Ukraine’s cultural property will serve as an important link to Ukraine’s past and inspiration for its future. I hope Masha will still live in a democracy and be free to tell its truth.

Laura Ballman is a former CIA operations officer.

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