Although immediate human needs, the equipping of Ukraine’s military, and the quest for an end to the war inevitably capture global attention, Ukrainian cultural objects also should be protected and preserved. This is another form of resistance against Putin’s assault on democracy.
On Friday morning, three swords that looked to have spent much of their lives underground were laid carefully on a green cloth draped over a table at the Ukrainian Embassy in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. For over a year, Washington has been singularly preoccupied with getting weapons to Ukraine, so when an invitation arrived from the Ukrainian Embassy to a repatriation ceremony for a stone axe and three swords.
The weapons presented at the embassy were purloined artifacts sent from Russia, seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport. Experts from the Institute of Archaeology at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences have dated the swords to the fifth or sixth century B.C. and the polished flint axe head to the third century B.C. According to a handout shared by the embassy, all have been deemed to hail from territory belonging to present-day Ukraine.
Five CBP officers in full uniform milled around with a small handful of reporters, many of whom worked for Ukrainian outlets. There was surprisingly little standing in the way of the priceless artifacts and the room full of journalists. A CBP evidence bag, the temporary home of the seized axe head, sat empty in a side room on a chair with a black pea coat—possibly belonging to one of the reporters—thrown over it.
More than a million pieces of mail come in through that airport every day, Frank Russo, CBP’s director of field operations for New York, explained in opening remarks. “Finding the needle in the haystack, finding these items, is not easy,” he added, attributing the successful operation to the agency’s collaboration with the National Targeting Center and U.S. Homeland Security investigations.
The importer is known to the government “who looks to do this repeatedly,” Russo said. Are they Russian nationals? He couldn’t say but added that they were “from that area, for sure.” Little else was offered regarding this apparent black market of ancient Ukrainian artifacts.
The seized items arrayed at the Ukrainian Embassy on Friday are just the first to have been identified from more than 20 packages originating with the same sender in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai region, which abuts the Crimean Peninsula, according to a Ukrainian diplomat who asked to remain anonymous. They said CBP had intercepted all at JFK and Newark airports between July and September of last year, and the work is ongoing to clarify whether they originated from Ukraine. Like much else about this case, it’s unclear whether the items were seized during the current war or where they were taken from.
Remarks by Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, set the importance of the discoveries in the context of the current war. “We know this fight is about our territorial integrity and sovereignty. We know this fight is about our democracy and freedom,” Markarova said. “But it is also a fight about our cultural identity.”
As Russia has waged war on Ukraine in a bid to kneecap the country’s independence, its troops have looted museums, art galleries, and cathedrals in occupied areas. Some experts have described it as the biggest heist since the Nazis plundered Europe during World War II. At least 10,000 artworks are estimated to have been taken from the Kherson Regional Art Museum during the city’s occupation, according to Human Rights Watch, which has described the looting as a potential war crime.