Nov 12, 2023 - World

Ukrainian officials: Russian forces kidnapping museum staff in war on heritage

CBS'  Bill Whitaker with Ukrainian museum official Ihor Poshyvailo during their "60 Minutes" interview in a church destroyed by Russian forces.

CBS' Bill Whitaker (left) with Ukrainian museum official Ihor Poshyvailo during their "60 Minutes" interview in a church destroyed by Russian forces. Photo: Eric Kerchner/CBS News/"60 Minutes"

Ukrainian officials accused the Kremlin in a "60 Minutes" report broadcast Sunday of orchestrating the deliberate destruction and looting of the country's museums, churches and monuments during the ongoing Russian military invasion.

The big picture: Their comments that the attacks amount to war crimes come days after the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said it had verified damage to 327 cultural sites in Ukraine since Russian leader Vladimir Putin's forces launched a full-scale military invasion of the country on Feb. 24, 2022.

  • Vitaliy Tytych, a lawyer who leads a Ukrainian military unit investigating the targeting of heritage sites, told "60 Minutes" that claims by Kremlin and pro-Russian officials in occupied regions of Ukraine that they're preserving the historical heritage by seizing artifacts and plan to return them was a "lie, and we are ready to prove it."

Zoom in: Kyiv museum officials told CBS' Bill Whitaker that Russian forces had arrested and even abducted "many" museum workers during the war.

  • Melitopol Museum director Leila Ibrahimova said via a translator on "60 Minutes" that Russian forces seeking the Ukrainian institution's priceless Scythian gold collection at the Melitopol Museum put a bag over her head and kidnapped her.
  • She refused to tell interrogators where the 198 ancient gold artifacts were and was later released. However, she fled Ukraine after discovering her name on a kill list. Whitaker interviewed her from an undisclosed location.
  • Milena Chorna, head of international exhibits at Ukraine's National War Museum, told Whitaker in Kyiv that museum workers were "among the first people Russians come for" because they're community leaders and Putin's forces are "interested in the collections" and their value.
  • Ukrainian museum official Ihor Poshyvailo told "60 Minutes" the attacks were part of a Russian war on the country's heritage. "This is a war against our historical memory," he said.

Zoom out: UNESCO has warned that Ukraine's world heritage sites were at risk from Russian military attacks. The UN agency said that a July deadly Russian missile attack that severely damaged an 18th-century Orthodox church "may amount to a war crime" if the target of the act was deliberate.

  • War crimes have been historically hard to investigate and often even more challenging to prosecute, per Axios' Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath.
  • Tytych noted to Whitaker via a translator that there had only been two convictions for cultural war crimes since the law was passed in 1954 and the International Criminal Court and treaties to prevent war crimes had not been effective, "but that's all we've got."

Go deeper: Russian forces looted thousands of artifacts, Ukrainian officials say

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