U.N. steps up satellite tracking of damage to Ukraine culture

Satellite images in 2020 and 2022 of the Holy Mountains Lavra of the Holy Dormition
Satellite images show the Holy Mountains Lavra of the Holy Dormition, a major Orthodox Christian monastery in Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, on Sept. 7, 2020, left, and on June 25, 2022.
(Maxar Satellite Imagery Analysis by UNOSAT via AP)

The United Nations’ cultural and satellite agencies have joined forces to more systematically track the effect of Russia’s invasion on Ukraine’s architecture, art, historic buildings and other cultural heritage, and have compiled an initial list of more than 200 sites that have been damaged or destroyed.

The Geneva-based U.N. Satellite Center and UNESCO, the Paris-based educational, scientific and cultural agency, announced Wednesday that they are finalizing a database of cultural sites that compares “before and after” images bought from private-sector satellite companies. These will be used to inform experts in a first phase and eventually the wider public about the
devastation wreaked on Ukraine’s cultural patrimony.

“It’s important for us to document the damage, but also to make sure we have the information available before the recovery,” said Krista Pikkat, who heads the culture and emergencies department at UNESCO.

She said early work began months ago. “We actually realized that, this wealth of information, we needed to put it on a platform for our experts so that we can monitor the situation.”


As of Wednesday, about 205 sites were listed, but none of Ukraine’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites — a listing of some of the world’s greatest cultural artifacts and heritage — had been affected.

Building on systems already used in places such as Syria, whose war ravaged historic sites, monuments and artifacts, UNESCO said it first tracks Ukrainian Culture Ministry alerts about damage to cultural sites. Then, it cross-checks those findings with social media and other sources, and then — if warranted — calls on the satellite center, or UNOSAT, to try to get relevant satellite pictures. Cloud cover can hamper the effort.

The sites with verified damage are plotted on a digital map — with virtual red pins to mark the impact spots — and included in a searchable database to help experts trace the devastation. Ultimately, cultural experts from UNESCO and their associates strive to visit the sites to get a firsthand look — often a tough, if not impossible, task in a war zone.

On the map, areas such as Mariupol in the south, the region around the capital, Kyiv, and the eastern region of Donetsk were littered with red dots in a demonstration of the database on Wednesday.

UNESCO experts have had no access to Russian-held areas, such as in Mariupol — whose battered remains fell into Russian control after a desperate holdout by Ukrainian forces earlier this year.

The joint effort amounts to the latest step in the painstaking process by many U.N. and other national and international organizations to keep tabs on the fallout since President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to invade on Feb. 24.


The hunt for the impact on culture adds to efforts by prosecutors, human rights experts, refugee agencies and others to document the devastation from the conflict on lives and livelihoods.