If Ukraine’s scuba-diving defence minister was winding Russia up when he expressed his relish at the prospect of diving its newly sunk Black Sea Fleet flagship, the insult to the invaders has now been pushed further – as Ukraine has registered the Moskva as its own “underwater cultural heritage”.
Last week minister Oleksii Reznikov mocked Russia for the loss of its 186m guided-missile cruiser, which caught fire and sank to a depth thought to be 45-50m on 13 April. “Will definitely visit the wreck after our victory in the war,” he stated, as reported on Divernet.
The circumstances of the sinking were disputed, with Russia claiming that Moskva had sunk following an ammunition stores explosion but Ukraine, supported by US reports, insisting that its missiles had sunk the ship.
Russia’s own defence ministry also denied for a week that the sinking had resulted in any casualties – but yesterday (22 April) admitted to the death of one crew-member with 27 missing and 396 evacuated.
“The missile cruiser Moskva was the flagship of the Russian fleet, and became number 2064 in the register of underwater cultural heritage of Ukraine!” Ukraine’s defence ministry has now stated. “Eighty miles from Odessa, the famous cruiser and the most [famous] sunken object on the Black Sea floor can be admired without much diving!
“According to the UNESCO Convention, all traces of human activity on the bottom of the Black Sea within the economic activities of our state are the property of Ukraine!”
This claim might not hold much water under international law, though that is unlikely to concern Ukraine at this point. University of Essex lecturer Eden Sarid, a cultural heritage law expert, told Belgium-based newspaper Politico that Ukraine was simply “trolling Russia”.
Protection from looters
Ukraine, unlike Russia, is a signatory to UNESCO’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention, designed to protect shipwrecks and underwater archaeological remains from looters.
The Moskva would need to be submerged for at least a century to qualify as cultural heritage, said Sarid, and as a non-Ukrainian vessel under a foreign flag could not be claimed as national heritage anyway. Also, as a non-signatory Russia was not obliged to observe the convention’s guidelines.
“This is part of the story Ukraine is writing… about the way it opposed the Russian invasion,” said Sarid, “and this becomes part of the story when it’s your cultural heritage.”
However, Politico also pointed out that Ukraine’s move came from Vladimir Putin’s own playbook. In 2011, while serving as Russia’s prime minister, he had gone diving in shallow Black Sea waters in Crimea already long-scoured by archaeological divers but claimed to have discovered two ancient Greek amphoras, posing with them for the TV cameras.
Media even within Russia had been unimpressed at the time, and it was widely suggested that the urns had been planted for Putin to find. But when Russia was justifying its annexation of Crimea three years later, despite not having signed the UNESCO convention it presented such finds as evidence that it had acted to protect the region’s cultural heritage.
The Russian navy has been reported to have had a salvage fleet near the Moskva wreck-site and to be sending down submersibles, possibly in a bid to recover sensitive contents or bodies.
Also on Divernet: Mixed: Diving’s Reaction To Ukraine Invasion