In the deep waters of the Black Sea, Russia and Ukraine are engaged in a bitter battle over unlikely objects – ceramic jugs and sunken treasures. For years, both countries have been using underwater cultural heritage objects, such as sunken ships and submerged ports, to shape historical narratives, claim sovereignty in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and take rhetorical jabs at one another. On April 22, Ukraine made its latest move in this battle by declaring Russia’s sunken warship Moskva – formerly the pride of the Russian navy – a Ukrainian Underwater Cultural Object. While Ukraine’s move is politically significant — boosting the morale of its war-torn population and ridiculing Russia — it is legally questionable and must be understood within the broader geopolitical context, in which underwater cultural heritage is increasingly used by various countries to claim disputed waters.

Designating the Moskva as a Ukrainian underwater cultural heritage item is legally dubious because international law, including Art. 95-96 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and Art. 2(8) of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, grants sunken foreign vessels with immunity that prohibits a country from declaring the sunken vessel as its own national cultural heritage artefact. Furthermore, Art. 1(1) of the UNESCO Convention stipulates that a sunken vessel must be submerged for 100 years before it can be considered underwater cultural heritage. While this means that Ukraine’s move may have no actual legal effect in international law, it can be seen as playing Russia at its own game.

Russia has long used underwater archaeology as part of its strategy to claim Crimea and eastern Ukraine as historically Russian and justify annexation. As early as 2011, Vladimir Putin personally retrieved two ceramic jars from the submerged harbor of the city of Phanagoria in the Taman Gulf, a few miles from Crimea. Putin’s political allies were said to have invested $3.5 billion in archaeological research in Phanagoria. Hardly the archaeological enthusiasts, they had an agenda. Indeed, three years later, in justifying the annexation of Crimea, Putin highlighted Russia’s historical ties to the peninsula by referencing archaeological finds that, he claimed, demonstrated that Crimea is “the spiritual source” of the Russian nation.

Now Ukraine is using underwater cultural heritage to take a jab at Russia and to make a political statement. Defining the Moskva as a Ukrainian cultural heritage item can be seen as an attempt by Kyiv to reaffirm its sovereignty in the Black Sea. In fact, Ukraine justified its move by emphasizing that, “[a]ccording to the UNESCO Convention, all traces of human activity on the bottom of the Black Sea, within the economic zone of Ukraine are its property.” Additionally, the new status may help in guaranteeing that the story of the Moskva’s sinking becomes part of Ukraine’s national ethos for generations to come. Finally, by inviting divers to visit this underwater cultural site, Kyiv is ridiculing avid diver Putin, who has previously retrieved underwater cultural items in the area.

Ukraine’s move, while seemingly puffery in times of war, may have additional unwanted ramifications. A key concern expressed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries during negotiations of the UNESCO Convention was that despite safeguards in the Convention, coastal states’ access to sunken vessels may erode international law principles of foreign states’ sovereignty over their sunken vessels. Ukraine’s move might be an example wherein a country disregards its international law obligations for short-term political gain, thus weakening the Convention – and international support for it. This concern is perhaps even more pronounced given that Ukraine is a Member to the Convention whereas Russia is not, and eroding rules about maritime sovereignty may, in the long run, play into Russia’s hands. Secondly, even if Ukraine’s move is simply aimed at trolling Russia, it may contribute to normalizing the use of cultural heritage in conflict and turning cultural heritage objects into legitimate targets in the eyes of combatants in conflict zones.

When read within a wider global context, this battle between Russia and Ukraine may have much wider geopolitical implications. This is because of a growing trend in recent years of countries using underwater cultural heritage as a strategic tool to claim and assert sovereignty in disputed waters, including in the Arctic and the South China Sea, thus raising deep concerns for international law and for the global protection of underwater cultural heritage.

In 2014, Canada declared it had found lost vessels from Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition. Ottawa has invested millions in the search for artifacts from this lost expedition as part of its Arctic sovereignty strategy. Canada’s (then) Prime Minister Stephen Harper explained, “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.” Canada’s (then) President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement added, “This is part of our history, part of our heritage as a nation and, quite frankly, part of our Arctic sovereignty as well. I don’t think we’re going to find a Russian flag on the Erebus, so I think it underscores our point.” While Harper’s and Clement’s statements have no legal effect, they are a part of an ongoing battle between Canada and Russia over sovereignty in the Arctic. In fact, Clement, perhaps unknowingly, was quite literally describing Russia’s tactical moves to strengthen its Arctic sovereignty claims.

In 2007, Russian submarines planted a Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, at the North Pole. While the legal effect of this move was inconsequential, the Russian message was loud and clear – the Arctic is Russian. Then, in the 2010s, Russia began investing heavily in underwater and terrestrial archaeological research in the Arctic, describing the Soviet Union’s presence in the Arctic in heroic terms such as “a historical monument to the Soviet Union’s conquest of the Arctic.” This rhetoric is more than reminiscent of Russia’s terminology when discussing its alleged sovereignty in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Next, in 2020, Russian vessels began surveying the waters north of Alaska, within the U.S. Maritime Sphere of Interests. Subsequently, in 2021, Russia claimed sovereignty in Canada’s and Denmark’s Exclusive Economic Zones in the Arctic, all the way to the edge of the U.S. Maritime Sphere of Interests.  This is no coincidence, but part of the Kremlin’s 2040 Arctic strategy. Russia, like Canada, the United States, and others, understands the Arctic’s economic and strategic importance. Changing sea ice thickness is predicted to allow access to the Arctic’s natural resources and for transit in the Northwest Passage, which might become an alternative to the Panama Canal. This is a global strategic game-changer, providing immense economic and political power to the countries that control the Arctic.

On the other side of the globe, in the South China Sea, another global power – China – has been using underwater cultural heritage as a means to claim disputed waters. The South China Sea is remarkably rich in natural resources and boasts almost two-thirds of global maritime trade (totalling over $5.3 trillion annually), making it one of the world’s most economically important and geo-politically strategic waters. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines all claim  sovereignty to the South China Sea, or parts thereof. One of the important tools that China has been using to assert its sovereignty in the disputed waters is underwater cultural heritage. In recent years China launched serval initiatives in this vein, including  opening several underwater shipwreck museums, launching a state-of-the-art underwater archaeological research vessel, and approving plans for constructing a “National Underwater Cultural Heritage South China Sea Base.” The head of the Chinese government’s Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage explained that the aims of these actions was to provide “historical evidence that can help prove China is the sovereign owner of the South China Sea.” This rhetoric, again, demonstrates that the objective behind these initiatives is not so much archaeological research and preservation as it is providing historical “evidence” to justify sovereignty claims.

Investment in research and discovery of underwater archaeology in the Arctic, Crimea, the South China Sea, or elsewhere in the world is extremely valuable and timely. Underwater archaeology can reveal historical naval routes, changes in water composition and maritime life, and trade networks and relationships between nations. The problem arises when these discoveries are used as a tool for illegitimate land-grabs. Archaeology shouldn’t impact countries’ maritime sovereignty. Rather, archaeology should be used to promote peaceful cooperation between nations – as international law intends it. And while ridiculing Putin and inviting him for a dive in the newly designated Ukrainian underwater cultural site of the sunken Moskva can be seen a witty political move, it risks eroding long-established international law principles and weakening the already-fragile protection afforded to underwater cultural heritage – and, in the long run, playing into the hands of Russia and other states seeking to undermine established international rules of maritime sovereignty.

IMAGE: A grouper is seen between the remains of the steam engine of Le Prophète shipwreck at a depth of -33 meters on August 10, 2021, Cavalaire sur mer, France.(Photo by Alessandro Rota/Getty Images)