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Assimilating Heritage in Irregular Warfare: Ukraine 2014 through 2021

(Russian flag flying over the ruins of the Fortress Calamita near Sevastopol, Crimea.)

By Edward Salo, PhD

Recent conflicts in the Middle East have renewed the focus on the protection of cultural heritage, heritage sites, and artifacts during combat operations. Most of the time we emphasize the destruction of heritage as the major problem. The examples of ISIS destroying Palmyra,[i] or the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan[ii] come to mind and illustrate the wanton disregard for the international treaties that promise the protection of heritage during armed conflict.[iii] This protection of heritage continues during the occupation of territory. While the destruction of heritage is a problem during armed conflict, we also see that intact heritage (either heritage sites or museum collections) can be “weaponized” and used as a weapon in irregular warfare. The assimilation of the heritage of one of the ways heritage is weaponized. I propose that assimilation of the heritage occurs when an aggressor state takes the tangible heritage of another state as a means to erode the nationalism of a people and make it easier for outside nations to accept territorial claims that are based on “history” or a “common heritage.” Most of the time assimilation is achieved through taking existing heritage and re-interpreting it, but it also can be done through the destruction of heritage. Assimilation of heritage can be part of a larger irregular operation that erodes nationalism, serves as a rallying point for collaboration, and paints false narratives as part of psychological operations.

First, we need to define tangible heritage and heritage. UNESCO defines heritage as “the cultural legacy which we receive from the past, which we live in the present and which we will pass on to future generations.” The US Army adds to that definition as “the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present, and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.”[iv] Furthermore, tangible heritage can be buildings (may include installed art, such as organs, stained glass windows, and frescos), large industrial installations, or other historic places and monuments; or also it can be moveable items like books, documents, moveable artworks, machines, clothing, and other artifacts.[v]

With the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, this is an opportune time to examine how Russian forces have previously used the assimilation of Ukrainian heritage sites and items in Crimea as part of its campaign of irregular warfare in the region (2014-2021) as a case study. The destruction of Ukrainian heritage sites remains part of a larger Russian strategy of destroying the foundation of Ukrainian nationalism and presenting a narrative that Russia has a historical claim to the region. This claim was made by President Putin in 2008 and continued until the eve of the invasion of Ukraine.[vi] Furthermore, the irregular warfare tactics of using heritage to craft a false historical narrative can easily be used in other regions and conflicts and further edify Russian disinformation strategies.

The Russian campaign against Ukrainian heritage began in 2014 after Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in January and February. Soon after the invasion and the Russian-backed forces established the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and the Russians began a process of changing the heritage of the region to support their claims on Crimea. On August 8, 2014, the Russian-controlled State Council of Crimea passed the “Law on the Sites of the Crimean Cultural Heritage,” which turned over “all museum artifacts and cultural monuments of the peninsula” to the Russian Federation.[vii] The next year, the Russian State Duma passed a similar law that established the bureaucracy needed to obtain these collections for Russian museums. As a result of these laws, the collections from the 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 were removed from Ukraine and transferred to the Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg. [viii] The International Partnership for Human Rights argued that the removal of the collections was done illegally because there was no military necessity for the action.[ix] I suggest that the removal of the collections had a two-fold mission. First, the removal of the collections weakened the museums in Crimea’s ability to tell the story of their history and heritage because the institutions lacked the tangible heritage to populate the museum. Furthermore, having the artifacts in Russian museums in-directly supports Russian claims over the region and allows the Russians to craft the museum interpretation of the collections. Both of which weaken Ukrainian claims to the region.

In addition to taking the museum collections, on October 17, 2015, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed an order that inscribed more than 220 previously identified cultural and historical monuments of Crimea onto the Russian national roster of "places of cultural heritage (historical and cultural monuments) of the peoples of Russia."[x]These Russian actions were designed to remove Ukrainian control of their heritage sites and items and placed them with Russia who could then use them to promote a pro-Russian historical narrative that would weaken any nationalist claims by Ukraine on the peninsula. The Ukrainian Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Rostyslav Pavlenko described the movement of the sites to the Russian list as, "Russia's encroachment on Ukrainian cultural heritage."[xi] Inscribing the monuments on the Russian list made them part of Russian history and heritage, again further weakening the idea of non-Russian heritage in Crimea.

In addition to gaining “legal control” of the museum and heritage sites in Crimea, Russia also targeted heritage resources related to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which criticized the invasion and is another bastion of Ukrainian identity. In 2015, Russia closed thirty-eight out of forty-six parishes of the church, and in three cases, they seized the actual buildings.[xii] Taking away access to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church forced people to the Russian Orthodox church further eroding Ukrainian identity.

In addition to the assimilation of sites, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) has documented the destruction of monuments that represented the cultural heritage of ethnic minorities, particularly Crimean Tatars in Ukraine. These actions included the destruction of include memorials to the Tatar deportation conducted by the Soviets in 1943, a Holocaust memorial, four mosques, and three other monuments of historical and cultural significance to Tatars. These actions were further efforts of the Russians to remove portions of Ukraine’s history that do not fit their historical narrative of Ukraine being part of Russia. [xiii]

Viewed individually, the removal of the museum collections and the listing of the Ukrainian heritage sites on the Russian register of historic places do not seem as destructive as the bombing of medieval cathedrals or ancient ruins, but those actions represented an effort to remove Ukrainian heritage as a component of Ukrainian nationalism. These actions are part of a larger irregular warfare campaign to attack the history of the nation and to install a false narrative that would support an invasion to “unify the nation.” Likewise, as the former Director-General of Bakhchisaray State Historical-Cultural Reserve and current Project Coordinator of the Crimean Institute for Strategic Studies, Elmira Ablyalimova argued that Russia’s efforts were also directed at erasing sites and monuments that highlight Ukraine’s multicultural history.

Assimilation of heritage has occurred at some level in other conflicts. The Nazi government looted many of the museums of occupied Europe with plans to move those collections to museums in Germany after the war. The collections would be housed in a large art museum that would make Germany the cultural center of Europe and the world.[xiv] Likewise, during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990-1991, the Iraqi government looted the Kuwait museum and moved the collections to Iraq. The collections could have been used to bolster the claim that Kuwait was part of Iraq; however, after the defeat of the Iraqi forces by the Coalition, most of the artifacts were returned to Kuwait.[xv]

To counter the assimilation of heritage, one should rely on a strong information campaign to counter the false claims using well-respected historians and scholars, museums, and historic sites outside of occupation that can be used to edify the narrative. Furthermore, personnel could be ready to return museum collections and aid in the removal of any false interpretations at museums or heritage sites after liberation. Of course, this would be part of a larger information warfare operation, and this strategy will not be the responsibility of just the Army but needs to be coordinated between the Civil Affairs, State Department, Smithsonian, and various NGOs.

The assimilation of heritage by an aggressor state may not be tactically important; however, strategically it is part of a larger irregular operation. The assimilation of heritage can erode nationalism and the will of a people to fight. It can also serve as a rallying point for collaboration. In addition to serving as an avenue to paint false narratives as part of psychological operations, the “proof” offered by assimilating the heritage can serve as evidence for allies and other nation-states to accept territorial gains are based on “history” or a “common heritage” because the aggressor is just gaining what is historically theirs.

About the Author

Edward Salo, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history, and the associate director of the heritage studies Ph.D. Program at Arkansas State University. Linkedin Profile:

Standard Disclaimer. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

[i] Magazine, Smithsonian, and Brigit Katz. 2018. "Ancient City of Palmyra, Gravely Damaged By ISIS, May Reopen Next Year". Smithsonian Magazine. [ii] "The Death of The Buddhas of Bamiyan". 2022. Middle East Institute. [iii] "The 1954 Hague Convention Blue Shield Emblems of Protection - Blue Shield International". 2022. Blue Shield International. [iv] Headquarters, Department of the Army. 2007. Civil Affairs Arts, Monuments and Archives Guide: Gta 41-01-002 This publication supersedes GTA 41-01-002, March 2015 ed. (Washington: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 2015), 1. [v] Ibid. [vi] Daniel Baer, “Ukraine’s not a country, Putin told Bush. What’d he tell Trump about Montenegro?” Washington Post.; "Opinion | Sorry, Mr. Putin. Ukraine And Russia Are Not the Same Country.". 2022. POLITICO. [vii] Elina Sulyma “RUSSIA METHODICALLY DESTROYS AND REMOVES CULTURAL TREASURES FROM OCCUPIED CRIMEA.” Published Tuesday, June 13, 2017: 2017/06/09. QHA Crimean News Agency. [viii] International Crimes in Crimea: An Assessment of Two and a Half Years of Russian Occupation SEPTEMBER 2016. Available at chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html? [ix] International Crimes in Crimea: An Assessment of Two and a Half Years of Russian Occupation SEPTEMBER 2016. Available at chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html? [x] "Russia Adds Crimean Cultural Sites to Its Official Monuments List". 2015. Newsweek. [xi] Ibid. [xii] "Russia’s Destruction of The Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea Hits Unexpected Hurdle". 2019. Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. [xiii] International Crimes in Crimea: An Assessment of Two and a Half Years of Russian Occupation SEPTEMBER 2016. Available at chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html? [xiv] "The Story of Hitler’s Unrealized Art Museum in Linz". 2022. Dailyart Magazine. [xv] Norman, Kirsty. “The Retrieval of Kuwait National Museum’s Collections from Iraq: An Assessment of the Operation and Lessons Learned.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 39, no. 1 (2000): 135–46.


3 comentarios

Mikle Jackson
Mikle Jackson
08 sept 2022

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Ian Thigpen, MSG
Ian Thigpen, MSG
29 abr 2022

This concept is important. Thank you for bringing it forward. I was confused on the terminology. I have understood assimilation to be the process of taking in or becoming similar to something (e.g., immigrants assimilating to the culture of the population the immigrate into). I have understood "cultural appropriation" to mean how it is used here (i.e., the act of taking something from others and using it for personal ends). Is there a difference between "cultural appropriation" and your use of "assimilation?" Is this just semantics?

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Edward Salo
Edward Salo
17 may 2022
Contestando a

I was using the term assimilation more in the way that the Borg in Star Trek assimilate something (i.e. spacecraft, person, technology) to then be part of the Borg's collective. I argue that the Russians are taking elements of Ukrainian culture and making them Russian as part of a larger information warfare campaign.

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