Ukraine has registered the shipwreck of Russia’s Moskva vessel as “underwater cultural heritage” — in a move described as “trolling” Moscow rather than having a basis in international law.
“The ‘Moskva’ missile cruiser was the flagship of the Russian fleet, and became number 2064 in the register of underwater cultural heritage of Ukraine,” the country’s defense ministry wrote on its Facebook page. “The famous cruiser and the most sunken object at the bottom of the Black Sea can be admired.”
The Russian navy’s Black Sea flagship vessel, the Moskva — a 510-crew missile cruiser and symbol of Russia’s military prowess — sank during a towing operation last week after a fire broke out on board. Ukraine claimed its troops were behind the attack and had fired missiles that sank the ship — while Moscow has said exploding ammunition inside the ship caused the fire.
But legally, the move by Ukraine is dubious at best.
The country’s defense ministry argued that “all traces of human activity on the bottom of the Black Sea within the economic activity of our state” are national property, according to “the UNESCO Convention.”
Eden Sarid, a lecturer at the University of Essex and expert on cultural heritage law, said this is wrong.
“They can register any site or any underwater object in their territorial waters as a site of cultural heritage,” he said. “It gets a little more complicated when … international law kicks in.”
The international agreement governing underwater heritage is the UNESCO-led Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention, created in 2001 and signed by 71 countries, including Ukraine. It aims to preserve “all traces of human existence” — including shipwrecks and sunken cities — with a “cultural, historical or archaeological character” found underwater, and create a framework to combat illegal looting.
This designation means the site can only be accessed for research or recreational purposes, and cannot be salvaged, Sarid said. But on multiple fronts, he argued, the law doesn’t apply to the Moskva.
First, the convention states that any heritage site must be “partially” underwater “for at least 100 years.” Second, the Moskva is a foreign vessel flying a foreign flag, preventing Ukraine from claiming it as its own national heritage. Finally, Russia is not a signatory to the UNESCO agreement, meaning it does not have to abide by any of its guidelines.
“They’re trolling Russia,” he said. “This is part of the story Ukraine is writing … about the way it opposed the Russian invasion —and this becomes part of the story when it’s your cultural heritage.”
Nonetheless, Russia was actually the first to use such a move against Ukraine.
In 2011, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went diving into the Taman Gulf, next to Crimea, and retrieved two ancient ceramic jars. Then in 2014, after Russia annexed the peninsula, Moscow used supposed archeological evidence of proto-Russian kings around Crimea as part of its wider arguments justifying the annexation on historical grounds.
Despite not being a member of the convention, Russia presented UNESCO with a document citing the “protection of cultural heritage in Crimea” as one of the reasons for its move.
UNESCO declined to comment on the legality of the Ukrainian move and its implications.