Sunday, 3 July 2022

TDCP (Targeted Damage to Cultural Property) in Ukraine as Seen from USA

Another report on damage to cultural property in Ukraine. Before 24th Feb 2022, for some reason there was no great interest, but now I presume there's funding floating around for research, but you need to invent a research topic to qualify. The "Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML)" and the "Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SICRI)" together with the "University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM)", apparently want a slice of it. They are related in some unclear way to yet another group called the "Conflict Observatory" that declares itself to be "a central hub to capture, analyse, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine", which is a bit odd, because it seems to be based "centrally" in Esri a private company based in Redlands, California  - so not in Ukraine at all. Esri ("Environmental Systems Research Institute" [sic]) is involved in the supply of geographic information system (GIS) software, web GIS and geodatabase management applications.

They say they have analysed and confirmed damage to 104 sites through satellite image analysis and review of open-source news and social media. Anyway, they now proudly invite you to download and read their report:
Bassett, H. F., Aronson, J., Cil, D., Hanson, K., Narimanova, N., Averyt, K., Carroll, C., Koropeckyj, D. V., Harrell, K., Welsh, W., Wegener, C., and Daniels, B. I. (2022). 'Analysis of Damage to Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Sites: A Case Study as of 08 June 2022'. Virginia Museum of Natural History, Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab; University of Maryland, Center of International Development and Conflict Management; and Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. [30 June 2022]
This document makes rather disturbing reading, though I will wager not for the reasons the authors intended. We don't know anything of these "104 sites", the actual report has just a little over two pages (that's 12 authors for a report that is basically 1130 words long, including a 133 word 'executive summary') with two dozen muddy, fuzzy satellite photos showing a handful of (seven/eight) sites as case studies. The sites discussed are scattered all over the place. In their captions, information is muddled and repeated. 

It is not clear why these sites were chosen and why. The only evidence offered for what happened to them and when comes from the satellite photos. They claim to have used social media for their account, but in several of these cases we have more precise data from on-the ground reports in social media. I guess using those data did not fall into the GIS mapwork format of ESRI. Most of these sites have also already been listed and discussed elsewhere, several times. So, it's not clear what the actual function of this report is. 

The acknowledgements, such as they are, do not mention a single Ukrainian cultural official or organization. The Ukrainians seem to be excluded. The "executive summary" is in English not Ukrainian... Who are the authors? There are no affiliations given in the text. On checking them out on the Internet they all seem to be US-based and most are CHML and SICRI staff.  One of them is listed as "Disaster Response Coordinator" at the latter, so we come back to the mentality of the US "command centre"... 

These authors paint a glowing picture of their own capabilities as experts: 
This report seeks to distinguish between collateral damage and other military activity at cultural heritage sites in Ukraine. It proposes that damaged cultural heritage sites distant (>3km) from ongoing conflict activity, Ukrainian bases or stationary military assets, and dual-use transportation infrastructure (e.g., train stations, railways, airfields, and airports) are unlikely to be damaged as a consequence of military activity. Therefore, not all site damage can be explained by collateral damage or proximity to a potential military target. Among the 104 cultural heritage sites with confirmed damage, 21 are situated >3km from a potential military target or reported military activity.
It is not totally clear what they are trying to do here. Although not explicitly stated in the report's two-page (!) text, taken in context of other rhetoric coming out of the USA at the moment, it looks like this is an attempt to demonstrate Targeted Destruction of Cultural Property (TDCP) by the invading army of the Russian Federation (see the aims of the CO). Does it do that? Absolutely not. Let's take a look at the case studies. They do not say so, but none of them are ">3km from a potential military target or reported military activity" as even the most superficial of research into the course of the ongoing military action would have shown. And why are the Ukrainians excluded from this "central" (but remote) attempt to co-ordinate research into analysing damage to Ukrainian cultural heritage sites?

1) Rubizhne City Museum, Luhansk Oblast ("Image from March 29, 2022 shows damage to the roof of the building"). Far from being 3km from any military action, the city [just N of Severodonetsk] is on the Eastern Front and was fought over in the 'Battle of Rubizhne' (15 March 2022 and - 12 May 2022). I really do not see, bearing in mind the state of the city by the third week of May with extensive regions flattened by shelling, one can talk of 'targeting'. The houses all around this building were flattened by the time this report was written. Note that in their photo, a monument stands in front of the museum, not damaged.

2) Yatsevo cemetery, just to the east of the city of Chernihiv, in Chernihiv oblast. This cemetery  with an area of more than 100 hectares and more than 97,000 graves is one of the largest necropolises in Ukraine. It began to operate in 1974, after the closure of another cemetery in Yalovschina. The necropolis lies on the eastern outskirts of the city - ie in the path of the Russian Federation's advance. The  Siege of Chernihiv began on 24 February 2022, and was over (for the moment at least) by the 4 April 2022. The report looks at the Church of St. Theodosius (built in 1996) just inside the cemetery gate. It was damaged between the photos of March 10th [fig 3] and March 18th [fig. 4].
The report also illustrates a memorial chapel in the 108th sector in the middle of the cemetery that was damaged probably at the same time (but for some reason treats it as a separate monument). In the case of this Memorial Chapel of the Archangel Michael, like the church, the photo of March 10th shows no damage, but photos [Figs 21 and 22] from March 16, and April 28, 2022 show damage to the chapel. What the report however omits to say is that this chapel was opened on the "Day of Dignity and Freedom" (November 21st) 2018 in honour of the soldiers from the region who died for Ukraine fighting in the OOC and ATO [the Joint Forces Operation and Anti-Terrorist Operation]. That is they died between 2014 and 2018+ fighting against the 'separatists' in Luhansk and Donetsk, part of the very army that was now moving through the area of the cemetery to take Chernihiv. The report under discussion does not clarify that this building is only four years old and has this function. 

3) Church in Hostomel, Kyiv Oblast. Photos 5 and 6 of the report show damage occurred between Feb 28th and March 18, 2022. Intent on pushing some narrative, the authors fail to point out the extensive damage to buildings visible in the same photo on both sides of the road. This is a very good example of the problems with this report. The authors admit that the church (as are several others they do not mention) is on the line of European road E373. This is of course the road on which the famous Russian convoy was stalled (from c. 28th Feb/1st March to c. 11th March). In fact it passed/stood right next to the Church. And moreover the reason it was stuck was that at the head of the convoy (not very far to the south of the church in Hostomel) is that Ukrainian forces were knocking out vehicles trying to pass other knocked out vehicles that were blocking the road. Hostomel was the scene of heavy fighting 25th February to before April 1 2022. Looking at other satellite shots shows that behind the church fronting the road is part of precisely the same forest that UA troops were using to hit the stranded military column and then hide their movements (in other words, they were attacking Russian troops on the road to Kiev from behind the very church that was damaged in the fighting). If you look on the photo you can see what look like foxhole firing positions dug by the side of the road and opposite the church a massive bomb crater. Certainly this building was in the thick of the fighting when it was hit.

4) Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, Kyiv Oblast. Photo 7 shows it undamaged before the War (Feb 14, 2022) and the next shows the burnt out building on February 27, 2022. We know a lot about the damage to this building (see a summary: 'More Sensationalist and Superficial Claims on Organized Russian Looting to Order in Ukraine' PACHI Sunday, 19 June 2022) which also occurred during the heavy fighting near the crossing of the River Teteriv (the bridge a few hundred metres from the building was indeed, Conflict Observatory, a military target).

5) Izyum Historical and Local History Museum, Kharkiv Oblast. Here the report uses photos  9-11 to show the damage, noting: "As a rural area, the region around Izyum has limited periodicity of pre-conflict imagery". For the record, Izyum, the town the monument discussed is slap-bang in the middle of is six kilomtres across and 10 km long. The image from July 18, 2021 shows no visible damage and then another two from March 12, and Mar 20, 2022 showing damage to the building. Again, what they do not say is that there is damage to several buildings in the area of the museum. This is not surprising as the town has been exposed to constant Russian rocket fire since 3 March 2022 going right through until the end of March. As a result of these attacks, most of the town's residential areas were severely damaged., given the scale of this, it would be surprising if the museum was not hit. Establishing Russian control over Izyum was an important military goal in March. 

6) Wooden church (built in 2018)  in the village of Kamyanka, Kharkiv Oblast. In image [12] from July 09, 2020 it is undamaged, in one from March 23, 2022 they say the image "shows damage to the building" in the pdf its too fuzzy to see what they are talking about. The next image [Fig 13], taken March 23, 2022 shows damage to the building, while one taken a few days later shows the building has been razed/burnt down to its foundations. There was a lot of fighting precisely on the segment of the eastern front around Izyum in March 2022, Kam'yansk was the site of a Russian tank regiment that was destroyed in the village by 11th March. Another tank group moved into the area at the end of the month. Again, having a tank battalion stationed in the region of the church does not exactly support the idea that at the time the damage occurred there was no military target within three kilometres of the site.

7) St. Elijah's Monastery in the village of Varvarivka, Luhansk Oblast [Figs 15-17]. The image from March 29, 2022 shows no visible damage, while those of April 07 and April 27, 2022 show damage to the building, but the reproduced photos are too 'muddy' to see if apparent damage to buildings both sides is real or an artefact of the photography. Varvarivka was on the outskirts of the battle for Rubizhne and between 19 and 20 March it was captured by Russian and LPR forces. There was still fighting going on north of Rubizhne in May, for example in 3 May, the village of Mykhailivka near Rubizhne was shelled, and among other things, another monastery was hit and a priest died

8) I have discussed the memorial chapel in the Yatsevo cemerey above. This was the last site discussed in the report (so seven or eight not "ten").  

It is worth noting that of the seven (treated as eight) 'Ukrainian cultural heritage sites' discussed in this report, three were museums, while four were churches (two modern ones related to a 1974 cemetery, one other also built four years ago). There are a number of problems treating damage done to churches merely as an attack on Ukrainian culture, and the conservation issues of restoring a damaged sixteenth century church and one from 2018 are very different. There are other much more extensive lists (such as this one from sources on the ground by the National News Agency of Ukraine - Ukrinform) on damage being done to places of worship due to the current phase of this conflict. I am not sure whether duplicating information like this adds much, especially as the "Observing Conflict" report ignore so much of the context (in fact that of the conflict), as in the case of the memorial chapel in the cemetery, and also this whole phenomenon must be seen in light of the context of the political role of the institution of the Church, in particular in the current power struggle between Moscow and Kyiv.  

The report makes no reference to local, Ukrainian, attempts to collect information on the destruction, "Conflict Observatory" claims there were 104, but the one compiled on the ground by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy (DESTROYED CULTURAL HERITAGE OF UKRAINE ЗРУЙНОВАНА КУЛЬТУРНА СПАДЩИНА УКРАЇНИ) contains almost four times that number already. The information can be reported by people actually on the ground, to the officials directly concerned, not some academics pontificating while sitting in some "command centre" the other side of an ocean.  

As for "seeking to distinguish between collateral damage and other military activity at cultural heritage sites in Ukraine", the report as it stands significantly fails to do that. The information required to do that simply is not presented. None of the damaged cultural heritage sites are "distant (>3km) from ongoing conflict activity", many of them are in the middle of areas that at the time the damage occurred were strongly affected by military action, being on active fronts. Moreover the report fails to take into account that the specific building it illustrates (like many of those it does not illustrate) is surrounded by other destroyed structures. The authors say they have the ambition to show that  through "utilisation of advanced statistical methods suitable for observational data, it is possible to understand how and why cultural heritage is damaged during armed conflict". This report does nothing to show the  authors are anywhere near that aim. Firstly the 2022 invasion already has had several different tactical (if one can call it that) phases, reflected in what the troops on the ground have been doing - but none of the evidence the report presents is in any way related to analysing that. 

There simply seems to have been an attempt to produce "something" ("something that shows damage to a few sites") but without any underlying ideas in the way of setting out any real aims for the report or justifying which sites are presented in this way and how they relate to the greater whole, or what can be done with the information gathered and presented. The apparent exclusion of Ukrainians from the project is a huge error.    

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