open-source evidence of damage to and destruction of cultural heritage, natural heritage and other civilian objects through Russia’s war in and occupation of Ukraine

These are a few pieces of open-source evidence, primarily summaries of findings of investigations by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Truth Hounds, which are part of a study that I’m doing with an archaeologist in Ukraine.

open-source evidence of damage to cultural heritage, natural heritage and other civilian objects in the Donbass

All crimes are to be condemned and combatted – and there have been cases of militarisation of civilian sites and their surroundings by Ukraine’s armed forces and aligned forces, as well as disproportionality in attacks and other disregard for civilian life and property by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (Truth Hounds, 2018).

However, differences in conduct and responsibility must also be recognised – and the ‘vast majority of documented attacks’ on civilian objects in eastern Ukraine have been ‘perpetrated by forces’ that were ‘stationed on territory’ that was ‘controlled by DPR or LPR forces’ (International Partnership for Human Rights and Truth Hounds, 2018: 40; see also International Partnership for Human Rights with Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, 2016; International Partnership for Human Rights and Truth Hounds, 2017; Truth Hounds, 2017). ‘Severe damage’ was done to the House of Culture in Avdiivka by shelling by DPR forces, for example (International Partnership for Human Rights and Truth Hounds, 2018: 46 – table 4.2.3).

Destruction of civilian infrastructure, as well as assassination of civilians, is a policy of Russia’s proxy forces (Malyarenko and Galbreath, 2016: 126). Indeed, ‘churches and other buildings or structures dedicated to religion other than those belonging to the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate’ are ‘regularly vandalised, appropriated and used to prepare or conduct attacks’ by the occupying powers (International Partnership for Human Rights, 2015: 90; 103; see also Truth Hounds and International Renaissance Foundation, 2019).

It should also be noted that natural as well as cultural heritage has suffered the consequences of the war. There has been ‘massive shelling’ of the protected natural heritage site of Kreidova Flora and ‘extensive damage’ to protected sites and other sites of natural heritage across the Donbass, due to fortification, entrenchment, shelling and collateral damage in the form of environmental contamination as well as disruption of natural resource management (Truth Hounds, 2019: 11; see also Truth Hounds, 2021: 43-45).

Provocation and propaganda through damage to civilian objects in the Donbass

Whether Russia-backed forces shelled a school in Vrubivka (Tokariuk, 2022) and a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska (Miller, 2022) as ‘provocation[s]’ (as suspected by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, 2022) or by accident when they were targeting other civilian property (as if they aimed at the railway station in Stanytsia Luhanska and ‘missed’, as suggested by Pan Poplava, 2022), those incidents were immediately manipulated and exploited for propaganda by Russia’s operatives. Russian ‘state-controlled media and their proxies… portray[ed] #Ukraine as responsible for the attacks’ (according to the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, see Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group, 2022).

With regard to the incident in Stanytsia Luhanska, first, Russian state-controlled media and pro-Russia propagandists falsely claimed that it was an attack on a kindergarten in occupied Luhansk (e.g. Patrick Lancaster, as documented by Röpcke, 2022; Lancaster has been characterised as a propagandist by Ukrainian human rights workers, e.g. Coynash, 2017, Ukrainian civil society, e.g. EMPR, 2018 and international journalists, e.g. MacDonald, 2018).

Then, they falsely claimed that it was a provocation by Ukraine, a false flag attack on a kindergarten in free Luhansk by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (e.g. Vladimir Solovyov, as documented by Barabanov, 2022a; 2022b; see also Luhn, 2022; Solovyov has been characterised as a propagandist by Russian journalists, e.g. Moscow Times, 2019, Polish journalists, e.g. Belsat, 2019 and EU-funded counter-disinformation workers, e.g. East Stratcom Task Force, 2021).

Whether or not those acts of harm to civilian property were originally provocations or accidents, their manipulation in propaganda and exploitation as provocations demonstrates a disregard for civilian property – and thereby a disregard for customary international law as embodied in the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, as well as ordinary international law as embodied by the 1954 Hague Convention – by Russian state actors and Russian state-backed actors. It can only be expected, then, that a similar disregard is shown towards cultural institutions and historic monuments.

open-source evidence of damage to cultural heritage, natural heritage and other civilian objects in occupied Crimea

This study’s findings of damage to civilian objects in the Donbass are corroborated by evidence of damage to civilian objects in occupied Crimea, where there are a range of threats to cultural property. These include the construction of a firing range within the buffer zone of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tauric Chersonese (according to the Acting Minister of Culture and Information Policy for Ukraine, Svitlana Fomenko, cited by Ukrinform, 2020); the destruction of archaeological remains through “development” at Tauric Chersonese; and the manipulation of historic buildings through “restoration” at the Bakhchysarai Historical, Cultural and Archaeological Museum-Reserve (Ablyalimova, 2019; Baranov, 2019).

The Monument to Deported Crimean Tatars in Eklizi-Burun, a monument to a Tatar saint in Shchbetovka and the Monument to Azerbaijani Fighters (against the Nazis) in Sevastopol have been destroyed. The mosque in Solnyachnaya Dolina and Chukurcha-Djami Mosque in Simferopol have been set on fire (and another mosque in Simferopol has been attacked). And the mosque in Zavet-Leninskii, the Memorial to the Victims of the Deportation (of Tatars) in Koreiz and the Holocaust Memorial in Sevastopol have been vandalised (International Partnership for Human Rights, Crimea SOS and Truth Hounds, 2016: 98; 108-109).

The Alushta Tatar Cultural Centre, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Martyr Clement of Rome in Sevastopol and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Perevalne have been seized without compensation; in the process, the door was broken and relics were destroyed by the forces that occupied the Church of Martyr Clement of Rome (International Partnership for Human Rights, Crimea SOS and Truth Hounds, 2016: 98; 107).

Furthermore, collections have been removed from Feodosia Museum, the Historical and Archaeological Museum Reserve of Tauric Chersonese, the Central Museum of Tavrida in Simferopol and the Fortress Museum Reserve in Sudak and transferred to the Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg (International Partnership for Human Rights, Crimea SOS and Truth Hounds, 2016: 103).

Together, the seizures, transfers, damage and destruction manifest the ‘cultural cleansing’ of the Tatar community (Crimea SOS and Truth Hounds, 2018), as well as broader persecution of non-Russian Orthodox communities and erasure of material embodiments of Ukraine’s multicultural history (Ablyalimova, 2019). Such harms persist (Venediktova, 2021).

Looting and trafficking of antiquities from occupied Crimea was beyond the scope of this study. However, it is a matter of ongoing concern and a subject of ongoing research. Nonetheless, the evidence of violent damage alone reinforces the ever-increasing risk to cultural heritage in zones of hostilities and territories under occupation.

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Ablyalimova, E. 2019: “ Захист культурної спадщини на території окупованого Криму: пошук міжнародно-правових шляхів [Protection of cultural heritage in the territory of occupied Crimea: Pursuit of international legal channels]”. Paper presented at the Seminar on Archaeology in Occupied Territories and in Zones of Armed Conflict [Археологія на окупованих територіях та у зонах збройних конфліктів], Kyiv, Ukraine, 16th May. [YouTube, 2nd June.] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZgEXrNdtR0

Barabanov, I (@barabanch). 2022a: “Пропаганда с утра разгоняет тему про обстрел детского сада. Они сами не могут решить: в ЛНР находится этот населенный пункт или в ДНР. При этом Новая Кондрашовка вообще находится на подконтрольной Украине территории, так что если кто и обстрелял детский сад, то совсем не ВСУ [Propaganda in the morning disperses the theme of the shelling of the kindergarten. They themselves cannot decide: this settlement is located in the LPR or in the DPR. At the same time, Novaya Kondrashovka is generally located on the territory controlled by Ukraine, so if someone fired at a kindergarten, then it’s not the Armed Forces at all.]” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/barabanch/status/1494235227035742217

Barabanov, I (@barabanch). 2022b: “То есть сначала сами обстреляли детский сад, потом попытались свалить это на Украину, а когда их поймали за жопу, начали рассказывать, что никакого детского сада не было и это провокация все [That is, at first they fired at the kindergarten themselves, then they tried to blame it on Ukraine, and when they were caught by the ass, they began to say that there was no kindergarten and this was all a provocation]”. Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/barabanch/status/1494256282622173184

Baranov, V. 2019: “Кримська археологія в умовах окупації [Crimean archaeology in conditions of occupation]”. Paper presented at the Seminar on Archaeology in Occupied Territories and in Zones of Armed Conflict [Археологія на окупованих територіях та у зонах збройних конфліктів], Kyiv, Ukraine, 16th May. [YouTube, 20th June.] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TwamkuNz8o

Belsat. 2019: “Russian propagandist Solovyov known for demonizing West buys Como Lake villas”. Belsat, 24th January. Available at: https://naviny.belsat.eu/en/news/russian-propagandist-solovyov-notorious-for-demonizing-west-buys-como-lake-villas/

Coynash, H. 2017: “Russian TV produces ‘witness’ of Ukraine downing MH17, then quickly removes report”. Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, 13th October. Available at: https://khpg.org/en/1507577040

Crimea SOS and Truth Hounds. 2018: Under the Russian heel and trowel: Cases of cultural cleansing and erasing of the Crimean Tatar authenticity. Kyiv: Crimea SOS and Truth Hounds.

East Stratcom Task Force. 2021: “Pro-Kremlin propagandist – the most popular Russian journalist of 2020”. EU vs Disinfo, 8th January. Available at: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/pro-kremlin-propagandist-the-most-popular-russian-journalist-of-2020/

EMPR. 2018: “Russia uses English speaking people to spread its fake news about Ukraine”. EMPR, 4th January. Available at: https://empr.media/video/war-in-ukraine/russia-uses-english-speaking-people-spread-fake-news-ukraine/

Hardy, S A. 2019: “In the line of fire: The exploitation of cultural heritage in hybrid warfare – occupation, destruction, trafficking, espionage and propaganda. [На лінії вогню: культурна спадщина в гибрідній війні – окупація, руйнація, торгівля, шпигунство та пропаганда.]” Paper presented at the Seminar on Archaeology in Occupied Territories and in Zones of Armed Conflict [Археологія на окупованих територіях та у зонах збройних конфліктів], All-Ukrainian Festival of Science, Kyiv, Ukraine, 16th May. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0fj_Ie1PAQ
Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group (@hwag_ucmc). 2022: “At the same time, Ru state-controlled media and their proxies spread #disinformation to portray #Ukraine as responsible for the attacks. This apparently coordinated campaign is attempting to discredit Ukraine before the meeting at the UN Security Council initiated by Kyiv.” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/hwag_ucmc/status/1494293147605733378

International Partnership for Human Rights. 2015: Fighting impunity in eastern Ukraine: Violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes in eastern Ukraine. Brussels: International Partnership for Human Rights.

International Partnership for Human Rights, Crimea SOS and Truth Hounds. 2016: International crimes in Crimea: An assessment of two and a half years of Russian occupation. Brussels: International Partnership for Human Rights.

International Partnership for Human Rights and Truth Hounds. 2017: Scorching winter 2016-2017: An analysis of the shelling of settlements in eastern Ukraine. Brussels: International Partnership for Human Rights.

International Partnership for Human Rights and Truth Hounds. 2018: Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in eastern Ukraine. Brussels: International Partnership for Human Rights and Truth Hounds.

International Partnership for Human Rights with Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. 2016: Where did the shells come from: Investigation of cross-border attacks in eastern Ukraine. Brussels: International Partnership for Human Rights.

Luhn, A (@ASLuhn). 2022: “Russia state TV host posted that a Ukrainian shell hit a kindergarten in separatist Luhansk. ‘Novaya Kondrashovka’ is actually in Ukraine-controlled territory. The post has been replaced by one arguing that Ukrainians shelled their own kindergarten. (@barabanch).” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/ASLuhn/status/1494250354795593736

MacDonald, E. 2018: “The excellent Polygraph rips into American propaganda blogger Patrick Lancaster’s falsehoods on Ukraine and its martial law, as shared on Kremlin propaganda channel RT”. Twitter, 7th December. Available at: https://twitter.com/Euan_MacDonald/status/1071023050827563009

Miller, C (@ChristopherJM). 2022: “Russia-backed forces shelled the music room of a kindergarten in far-eastern Stanytsia Luhanska, Luhansk region, at 9am this morning, according to local reports, local city admin, & NGO Proliska. Children were present but unharmed. Two teachers said to have suffered concussions.” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/ChristopherJM/status/1494232112328843265

Moscow Times. 2019: “Russian TV propagandist challenged to duel for calling church protesters ‘demons’”. The Moscow Times, 23rd May. Available at: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/05/23/russian-tv-propagandist-challenged-to-duel-for-calling-church-protesters-demons-a65707

Pan Poplava (@zubozht). 2022: “It’s easy to check that the kindergarten is in the Ukraine-controlled town of Stanytsia Luhanska. Russians fired at nearby railway station and missed.” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/zubozht/status/1494236485213728774

Röpcke, J (@JulianRoepcke). 2022: “Desinformation 101 by @PLnewstoday. ‘This kindergarten is in Stanytsia Luhanska in Ukrainian government-controlled Luhansk oblast. He just turns it around, claiming this is in ‘LPR’ and the shelling was done by Ukraine.” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/JulianRoepcke/status/1494230565234565120

Stop Fake. 2014: “Fake: City authorities of Vinnytsia will dismantle the Monument of Glory”. Stop Fake, 9th July. Available at: https://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-city-authorities-of-vinnytsia-will-dismantle-the-monument-of-glory/

Stop Fake. 2015a: “Fake: Kyiv administration plans to demolish monument to Soviet military commander”. Stop Fake, 19th March. Available at: https://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-kyiv-administration-plans-to-demolish-monument-to-soviet-military-commander/

Stop Fake. 2015b: “Fake: Monument to Bandera torn down in Lviv”. Stop Fake, 15th September. Available at: https://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-monument-to-bandera-torn-down-in-lviv/

Stop Fake. 2016: “Fake: Shevchenko statue demolished in Zaporizhzhia region”. Stop Fake, 7th February. Available at: https://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-shevchenko-statue-demolished-in-zaporizhzhia-region/

Stop Fake. 2017: “Fake: Lviv to demolish WWII glory monument”. Stop Fake, 11th July. Available at: https://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-lviv-to-demolish-wwii-glory-monument/

Stop Fake. 2020: “Fake: Ukraine demolishing and desecrating Red Army soldiers monuments”. Stop Fake, 2nd February. Available at: https://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-ukraine-demolishing-and-desecrating-red-army-soldiers-monuments/

Tokariuk, O (@olgatokariuk). 2022: “Photos of damaged yard of a school/lyceum in Vrubivka, near Popasna in Luhansk region, government-controlled territory of Ukraine. According to local authorities, two civilian houses were damaged, gas pipeline hit, gas supply interrupted.” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/olgatokariuk/status/1494276616343724034

Truth Hounds. 2017: Investigation of the shelling of Mariupol on 24 January 2015: Report of a Civic Solidarity Platform field mission for war crimes documentation. Kyiv: Truth Hounds, International Partnership for Human Rights and Civic Solidarity Platform.

Truth Hounds. 2019: Assessing environmental impacts of armed conflict: The case of eastern Ukraine. Kyiv: Truth Hounds.

Truth Hounds. 2021: Donbas environment: Invisible front – environmental consequences of the war in the east of Ukraine in the context of international humanitarian law and in the practical dimension. Kyiv: Truth Hounds.

Truth Hounds and International Renaissance Foundation. 2019: War in religious dimension: Attacks on religion in Crimea and Donbas region. Kyiv: Truth Hounds.

Venediktova, I. 2021: “Підписали інформаційне повідомлення до Міжнародного кримінального суду стосовно злочинів проти культурної спадщини у Криму [Signed an information message to the International Criminal Court regarding crimes against cultural heritage in Crimea]”. Facebook, 12th August. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/VenediktovaIryna/posts/209217041215972

Zelenskyy, V (@ZelenskyyUa). 2022: “The shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation. It’s important that diplomats & the @OSCE remain in 🇺🇦, their monitoring activities are an additional deterrent. We need an effective mechanism for recording all ceasefire violations.” Twitter, 17th February. Available at: https://twitter.com/ZelenskyyUa/status/1494283786531618822

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