"In today's armed conflicts, heritage plays an increasingly important role in the domination and display of power." This is the conclusion of Frederik Rosén, director of the Nordic Center for Cultural Heritage and Armed Conflict (CHAC). This institution has just published a report on the role of heritage in armed conflicts, with special attention to Ukraine. The study argues that warring armies destroy cultural property "to fuel anger and antagonism." And that the misappropriation, manipulation and destruction of heritage are being used as elements of "hybrid warfare" to achieve the desired effects.
"Our understanding of a hybrid threat is blurred and our defenses are incomparably weaker than against conventional weapons," the report titled NATO and cultural property: a hybrid threat perspective. That is, there is nothing in the world today that cannot become a weapon (or a victim). From CHAC they report that the effects of manipulation and destruction of cultural heritage as part of cultural engineering in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, "are even more difficult to predict." Just as the value of cultural property escapes definitions, the effects of playing with them as a hybrid weapon of war "must be considered unpredictable and totally dependent on the immediate political context."
The heritage expert indicates how NATO has stopped seeing the destruction of churches, museums, monuments or libraries as a purely material loss. He says the Alliance has broadened its view of heritage by checking its "strategic, operational and tactical implications." Because the goal of heritage destruction "is never to destroy the enemy's military force or critical infrastructure." The objective "is to compromise the feelings and affective dispositions of the populations", to achieve the desired effects during the conflict.
Rosén explains how both the tactical uses (promotion, destabilization and escalation of conflict) and the strategic uses (geopolitical objectives) of cultural heritage belong to the "cognitive domain" of war. That is the rationale for what NATO calls "hybrid warfare," in which attacks on heritage "can affect the resilience of society and signal an attempt to undermine national unity or identity." The organization has understood that it must establish another importance in the protection of heritage in all phases and operational functions. In fact, until 2015 the protection of heritage in NATO was a matter in the hands of the Environmental Protection Working Group (EPWG), under the orders of the Joint Standardization Board of the Military Committee.
the hybrid war
The director of CHAC explains that, from a hybrid threat perspective, heritage constitutes an element of social vulnerability. Adversaries can exploit it given the "strong emotional reactions" that come into play. It also affects Alliance cohesion. "This reinforces the need for heritage to be an integral part of NATO's ongoing strategic awareness," notes the 2020 NATO Strategic Command Directive.
The belligerent powers are aware of this weakness and increasingly exploit, says the study, the social power of cultural heritage "to show moral superiority, induce fear, provoke, destabilize communities and nations, increase tensions and conflicts and restructure the cultural dimension of geopolitical orders". This has been pointed out by NATO, UNESCO, the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. In these hybrid wars, the objective is not so much conquest as it is to influence the will and spirit of the citizens, as well as those who make the decisions. Rosén points out two clear intentions: "Alter consciousness and challenge strategic calculation."
Hence, the CHAC report maintains that the security challenges of cultural property in armed conflicts go beyond legal protection: "Heritage has become a border." Heritage has come to be understood as "an international security problem". The NATO directive also notes that "powerful images" of destruction of World Heritage sites have become "tools of information warfare."
The lack of protection of cultural property may have "tactical and strategic consequences". The destruction of heritage "can hamper the reconciliation and recovery of post-conflict societies," they add. "The social power of cultural heritage has proven to be prone to exploitation by adversaries in order to fuel antagonisms and stimulate unrest, destabilization and violence," reads the CHAC study.
He gives the example of the NATO mission in Kosovo, with KFOR, where heritage-related destabilization issues are one of the three reasons why NATO maintains the mission. The same is happening in Syria and Iraq, Yemen, Mali, Myanmar, Cyprus, in addition to Israel and Palestine. Heritage conservation is a global challenge for military interests.
The invasion of Crimea
The report reviews various conflicts in which heritage has been used as a weapon of persuasion, stopping at Russia's invasion of Crimea in March 2014. "From the beginning, the cultural dimension was central to the annexation and impending conflict with Ukraine," says the text. The arguments for invading the Crimean peninsula also included arguments about heritage and "true ownership" of the peninsula and its cultural landscape. Putin then declared: "In our hearts he was always ours." Now Putin's narrative again emphasizes the historical and cultural ties between Ukraine and Russia. He defines himself as the person who united the "Russian world", based on a cultural conception.
Russia clearly used and continues to use heritage appropriation to intimidate Ukrainian communities
Nordic Center for Cultural Heritage and Armed Conflict
A 2021 UNESCO report concluded that Russia appropriated Ukrainian cultural property on the peninsula, "including 4,095 national and local monuments under state protection." In addition, UNESCO explained that Russia uses this appropriation to execute a long-term strategy to "strengthen its historical, cultural and religious dominance over the past, present and future of Crimea." And, of course, from Ukraine. According to the CHAC report, "Russia clearly used and continues to use heritage appropriation to intimidate Ukrainian communities. When one nation claims ownership of another nation's cultural property and appropriates it, it constitutes a strong symbolic act."
Since the seizure of Crimea, Russia has erected in place of the original cultural property "monuments of dubious quality to glorify the greatness of Russia's power". And the report concludes that with these actions "Russia tries to deceive the whole world that Crimea has always been Russian." However, the peninsula "was, is and will be the land of its indigenous people: the Crimean Tatars."
CHAC denounces that Russia also plans to establish a museum of Christianity in Ukraine's UNESCO World Heritage site, the ancient city of Chernosenos. In the case of Ukraine and Crimea, heritage emerges as a tool "for domination and destabilization" but also "to destroy communities from within and reformat Ukrainian regions through acts of cultural engineering."