Russia’s occupation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas have transformed the role and the perception of historical and cultural heritage in Ukraine – and this is true for both the Ukrainian state and for Ukrainian society. In particular, Ukraine has increasingly realised that cultural heritage is an inherent element of national security, an element that is crucial both for preventing external aggression and for countering it.
Russia has appropriated Ukraine’s cultural property in Crimea, including 4,095 state-protected sites of national and local importance. However, this appropriation, a breach of international law in itself, is just a lever for Russia’s broader and long-term strategy to increase its historical, cultural and religious dominance over Crimea’s past, present and future.
Russia pursues such a policy through several cultural fronts, including the unlawful transfer of artifacts from Crimea for exhibitions in Russia pursuant to its curatorial narratives, unauthorised archaeological excavations and the erosion of the Crimean Tatar cultural presence in the peninsula along with the simultaneous weaponization of their religion, which cumulatively belittles the foundational role this Islamic indigenous people’s played in Crimea’s pre-Russian and non-Russian history. Through these activities, Russia aims at strengthening the ideological and historical justification of its occupation of the peninsula – in the eyes of its own citizens, in those of Ukrainian citizens residing in Crimea and before the international community.
Ukraine and its international partners, including the EU and NATO, should seriously consider the role of cultural heritage in the case of Crimea and develop layered pre-emptive and reactive policies which consider cultural heritage as a matter of national security and its abuse as a powerful hybrid threat with lasting deeply ingrained reverberation