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After 2014, Russia has openly encroached on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It all started with the illegal annexation of Crimea. It continued in 8 years, when the Kremlin officially recognized its puppet formations in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as “independent” states from Ukraine. Subsequently, Russia also announced their annexation, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. The attempt to destroy the legally and de facto internationally recognized borders of Ukraine is another dimension of Russian aggression, in addition to the actual killings, destruction, and occupation.
An absolute majority of UN member states do not recognize the legitimacy of Russian annexations. Crimea, southern and eastern regions continue to be considered an integral part of Ukraine, only temporarily uncontrolled by the legitimate authorities. At the level of diplomacy, Moscow’s chances of changing the situation are low. At the same time, public perceptions are more vulnerable to the imposition of Kremlin narratives. And Putin’s propaganda is making efforts to convince the inhabitants of different countries that the border has actually changed: Russia has expanded, and Ukraine has diminished.
To convey this idea, words are not needed. An image shall suffice: maps or contour of the territory of the country on which Ukraine and (or) Russia are shown, not within their internationally recognized borders. Simply put, these may be cartographic images where Crimea (or other Ukrainian territories) are part of Russia, or simply outside Ukraine. Immediately after the occupation of Crimea, a huge number of such maps appeared: in paper publications, in electronic media, in the visual design of public space, etc.
Moreover, we are talking not only about the information environment of the aggressor state and the territories occupied by it, where such maps are “lawful,” and all the rest are interpreted as “encroachment on the territorial integrity of Russia.” Unfortunately, false cartographic images that undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine are regularly reproduced in other countries.
For example, in summer 2021, it was reported that the British carrier CAME-RO was using a map of Europe in branding, on which the territory of Ukraine was depicted without Crimea. On February 16, 2022, a map with the “Russian” Crimea was shown on the television programme of the Slovenian public broadcaster RTV Slovenija. Even the respected BBC somehow made a similar mistake in its material in autumn 2020. Perhaps the most blatant incident was the demonstration of a map with Crimea separated from Ukraine on the official website of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021. And there are a lot of such incidents. To the credit of the culprits, in most cases, the resonance ends with a correction of the error and an official apology.
Maps without Crimea sometimes appear in Ukraine. For example, such an image was posted on the website of the popular bank Monobank due to negligence. In 2018, the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine found out how such maps got into the air of STB and UA:Pershyi TV channels. And even after that, the image of the map of Russia with Crimea appeared in the programme of the state TV channel Dom. All these errors were quickly eliminated, but managed to leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
It is much more difficult to correct the incorrect display of the territory of Ukraine when it comes to printed products: wall and folding maps, atlases and other literature, globes. It turns out that this trend is widespread not only in Russia, but also in Western countries that officially recognize the territorial integrity of Ukraine and support our country in repelling aggression.
The scale of the problem is striking. The founder of the public initiative “Stop Mapaganda! Information de-occupation of Ukraine” Mykola Holubei purchased dozens of maps, books, and globes of Western manufacturers in German bookshops, where the territorial integrity of Ukraine is visually denied or questioned.
First of all, we are talking about German brands: ADAC, Arena verlag, Columbus Verlag, DuMont Reiseverlag, Franckh-Kosmos, INTERKART, Kunth Verlag, Mairdumont, Marco Polo, Räthgloben 1917 Verlags, Ravensburger, Stiefel Eurocart, and Westermann. In addition, his collection of products involves British brands Cosmographics, Maps Worldwide and Mapsinternational, Italian Edizioni White Star SrL and Tecnodidattica Spa, Austrian Freytag & Berndt, Swiss Hallwag Kümmerly+Frey, Czech Kartografie, and even the world-famous American National Geographic.
The total circulation of products about which there are complaints can reach seven-digit numbers, and all this is bought and used by millions of consumers around the world.
Why this is absolutely unacceptable for Ukraine
The problem of incorrect display of the borders of Ukraine in cartography is not unique. Geographic maps have always been a tool of politics and the promotion of certain ideas.
The map is an interpretation of the state of things on the earth’s surface: identity, power, legality. Cartographic means is a specific language, concise and publicly available. Selection of cartographic projection, territorial coverage, fill colours, types of lines are an apt way to convey the worldview position of the cartographer. Images of territories and borders are read by people non-verbally, so psychologically they are perceived more easily than speeches and texts. Therefore, maps have a strong convincing influence.
With this in mind, the contours of the country’s borders are often recorded on the state coat of arms, flags, national currency. They convey or try to convey a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership. According to Mykola Holubei, the territory of Ukraine within the borders of 1991 is part of the identity of Ukrainians, as well as the Ukrainian flag, coat of arms, and anthem. During conflicts, such as Russia’s war of conquest against Ukraine, cartographic battles become a separate front of confrontation. The aggressor seeks to impose a “new image” of its territory on everyone. A country that defends itself tries to stand up for its own image.
Maps that show that some part of the country is “disputed” or belongs to a hostile neighbour cause direct moral harm to the victim of aggression. This is a very sensitive issue, so the indignation of Ukrainians with such images is understandable and fully justified. For these territories, Ukrainian soldiers are now giving their lives. Residents under occupation above all strive for liberation and acutely experience “being deleted” from the map of the Motherland.
In the end, incorrect materials mislead users who do not delve into the details of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Many people, buying maps in a bookshop, using electronic services, or watching cartographic images in the media, are convinced that they are dealing with reliable sources that inform about actuality and legal reality. Even having basic knowledge, but constantly facing changed cartographic images, foreigners subconsciously begin to perceive them as a new norm. And this can have a negative impact on the public’s assessment abroad of the degree of rightness of Ukraine and Russia.
Cartography: neutral and politicized
The territories of states, their borders, show primarily political and administrative maps. The political map of the world has never been better organized than it is today, in the 21st century. With the development of international law and international organizations (the UN and others), most states have come to a common understanding of legitimate borders. The international community is also making efforts to implement the principle of territorial integrity as a universal one.
There is a generally consolidated answer to the question of what most of the borders on the planet should look like. States usually depict the borders approved by the UN General Assembly on their political maps, except in cases where a certain government officially recognizes some separatist entity or annexation of territory. After all, there are cases such as Kosovo; views regarding its independence are divided, or East Jerusalem, whose state affiliation also causes debate.
In the case of Ukraine, its legitimate borders are officially challenged only by Russia and several other states, in particular, Syria and North Korea. At the same time, the problem with the incorrect display of Ukrainian territory on political maps is much wider, as already mentioned above. Cartographic firms of Western countries usually refer to the desire to show the political situation as realistically as possible.
Mykola Holubei counted several variants of the incorrect depicting of the borders of Ukraine in Western publications:
1) Crimea is depicted as part of Russia;
2) Crimea is marked as “disputed,” shaded with the colours of Ukraine and Russia;
3) certain Ukrainian territories are depicted as “neutral” (neither Russia nor Ukraine).
4) the dotted line separates not only Crimea from Ukraine, but also parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions or also Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts;
When asked about their own editorial policy, the Austrian cartographic company Freytag-Berndt (which is almost 140 years old; it also printed maps of the UPR and the Ukrainian state of hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi) replied that the conflict regions are usually designated as “disputed ones.” But this approach is very problematic.
Firstly, the very term “disputed territory” is conceptually indefinite, and therefore questionable. For example, there has never been a “dispute” between Kyiv and Moscow over Crimea involving international arbitration. Neither Ukraine nor Russia considers the peninsula “disputed”; from the perspective of each country, it belongs to them. From the perspective of the UN General Assembly, Crimea is neither “disputed” because the territorial integrity of Ukraine has never been questioned by the international community.
Another example. Austria is among those countries in the world (currently there are 101) that recognize the independence of the Republic of Kosovo. The Austrian company Freytag-Berndt marks this territory accordingly. But if one is to remain committed to the principle of “realism” rather than the official position of one’s government, then Kosovo should also be coloured as “disputed,” since its independence is not recognized by Serbia along with half the countries of the world.
In addition, in practice, there are serious differences between the phenomena that some cartographers prefer to mark as “disputed territories.” There are unrecognized or partially recognized independent states. There are occupied territories (occupied by foreign troops), and there are annexed territories (included in the administrative structure of the occupying state). In addition, there are territorial claims that are put forward, but not realized.
For example, Russia claims that Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are part of it, but it does not control these cities. Can they be considered “controversial” in such a case? A positive answer to this question is at odds with both international law and realism. After all, the latter requires focusing not on virtual territorial claims, but on real control. In Ukraine, the limit of such control is only the current front line. But in a dynamic armed conflict, the front line is a bad option for printing.
Some cartographic companies do not touch mainland Ukraine, but only focus on the “disputed status” of Crimea. But this is also contrary to the proclaimed principle of “realism.” After all, neither in military nor in legal (even from the perspective of Moscow) terms is there a difference in status, for example, of Simferopol and Melitopol. Those in favour of the “realism” need to mark them somehow in the same way on the map, but how?
Any artificial distinction between the status of Crimea and the southern and eastern regions of mainland Ukraine in the current situation by cartographers is a quiet promotion of the idea that the de-occupation of the territories of Ukraine illegally seized by Russia should not extend to the peninsula as it is “not fully Ukrainian.”
Secondly, the proclaimed principle of “realism” for the sake of objectivity requires consistent implementation — in relation to all countries represented on the map. If we show Crimea from the perspective of “realism,” and, in the meantime, Kosovo or Western Sahara – traditionally, “in a UN way,” then this is selectivity, not realism. And in this case, we are dealing not with scientific methodology, but with political expediency in cartography.
All Western maps collected by Mykol Holubei suffer from such selectivity. The “controversy” of some territories is marked, that of others is not. On National Geographic maps, opposing approaches to territories not controlled by central governments (within internationally recognized borders) coexist, even despite the company’s stated policy aspirations for apoliticization and decision-making based on thorough studies of the “real state of affairs.”
Nor do National Geographic’s attempts to appear objective and apolitical look convincing. Regarding the situation with Crimea, the company’s website states the following:
Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and, after a disputed and boycotted referendum held in Crimea approved secession from Ukraine, the Russian parliament voted to annex Crimea into the Russian Federation. The United Nations General Assembly subsequently adopted a non-binding resolution declaring the annexation invalid and affirming Ukraine’s territorial jurisdiction. Russia administers and controls the peninsula while Ukraine continues to maintain that Crimea is its sovereign territory.
Although this was published in August 2022, after Moscow recognized the independence of the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” and in the midst of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, National Geographic does not mention these aspects of the political realities in any way.
The situation is similar with Western electronic mapping services. At the request of European users, Google Maps and OpenStreetMap show the territory of Crimea separated from the rest of Ukraine by a dotted line or as disputed between Ukraine and Russia. At the same time, none of the cartographic services distinguishes, for example, Somaliland. (The features of displaying borders on electronic maps for different users will be discussed further.)
In fact, it is impractical and inexpedient to turn a political / overview map of the world into a map of real control of territories or territorial claims. There are many war-torn regions, particularly by civil, separatist, and guerrilla wars, that are difficult to convey by cartographic means. And the very idea of the political map provides for a certain stability and an official position that reflects the idea of legality and justice. The legal and political position of governments and international organizations, outlined on the political map, is not something detached from reality, but a guideline to be sought.
Therefore, the best option for a political map is to show exactly the borders recognized by the international community and national diplomacy. And it is advisable to convey different realities from this not by cartographic means, but in the text of notes. This is really convenient, besides the accuracy of the wording will help avoid complaints from stakeholders.
Of course, in addition to political, administrative, and overview maps, there are also various special ones: automobile, tourist, historical, educational, etc. Special maps may need more realism based on their purpose. And this realism can be achieved without compromising objectivity if one declares and carefully follows the scientific methodology. This is what the New Zealand educational portal Omniatlas, which is a historical atlas of the world, does, consistently implementing the principle of showing real political control over the territories.
Is there any reason to talk about Russian influence?
The mass appearance of cartographic images and maps that challenge the territorial integrity of Ukraine raises the question: is this an accident, or is this a deliberate campaign?
Of course, in Russia and in the territories under its control, this is definitely a national policy. Foreign commercial companies that continue to operate in the Russian market are also forced to adapt to this policy. First of all, we are talking about electronic mapping services such as Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Bing Maps, etc. The need to comply with the national legislation of the host countries has led to the fact that electronic maps, for example, Google and HERE show borders in different ways, depending on the place from which users enter the service. For Ukrainians, Crimea is shown as Ukrainian, for Russians — as Russian. (At the same time, for unclear reasons, Europeans see Crimea separated from the rest of Ukraine by a dotted line on Google Maps.)
Wikipedia also got involved in the “Cartographic War.” Russian users often insert the Crimea template as part of Russia in articles devoted to the topics that relate to the peninsula and are far from politics. Moreover, they do it in various language sections of the free encyclopaedia, in particular, in Ukrainian.
Not every such map is created and distributed necessarily with the malicious intention to deny the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Many designers do not realize it when they take templates for maps on the Internet, becoming victims of their own geographical and political incompetence. Examples of such unfortunate cases when the error was detected too late and caused public outcry were given above. Another thing is that publicly available templates sometimes deliberately promote the Russian perspective. In particular, so does the popular site Natural Earth, from which users download the data necessary to create maps, including data on the borders of countries.
It would seem that professional cartographers, unlike designers, should not fall for the wrong patterns. However, as Rostyslav Sossa, the president of the Ukrainian Cartographic Association, notes, even cartographic products contain shortcomings. Cartographers often copy one another without thinking or checking what they are displaying.
At the same time, coming back to the range of Western bookshops, it is difficult to explain such numerous false maps with simple unprofessionalism. According to Mykola Holubei, the systematic nature of the phenomenon is manifested “not in the fact that you can buy an incorrect image in Germany, but in the fact that it is difficult to buy the correct one.” In his opinion, we are talking about manifestations of hidden Russian lobbying or even corruption of professional and business communities in the West. This is a serious accusation that requires proof.
Russia has an obvious motive to engage in cartographic propaganda around the world. And there is no reason to expect that such a campaign will be limited exclusively to electronic mapping services, Wikipedia, and getting inexperienced designers hooked on defective templates.
The Russian Geographical Society may be involved in the promotion of the Kremlin’s position in the West. The importance and influence of this organization has increased dramatically after the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008. It was then that for the first time, contrary to the position of the international community, Russia recognized the independence of the territories occupied by it — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Thus, there was a need to protect and promote the image of “new borders” on the political map. In 2009, the patronage over the RGS was taken personally by Putin, who headed the supervisory board of the company, including the top of the ruling class of Russia. The President of the RGS since that time is the current Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu. Such attention of the Russian state calls into question the purely academic interests of the RGS.
After the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the RGS launched active cooperation with similar societies abroad, sealed with cooperation agreements: the Czech Geographical Society (2014), the Turkish Geographical Society (2014), the Italian Geographical Society (2014), the National Association of Geographers of India (2015), the Geographical Society of China (2017), the Geographical Society of Munich (2017), the Geographical Society of Berlin (2018), the French Geographical Society (2019), the Royal Geographical Society of Spain (2020), the Spanish Geographical Society (2021). Moreover, the website of the RGS contains a similar undated agreement and a memorandum of cooperation with the Association of Spanish Geographers and the American Geographical Society, signed by Shoigu.
Fighting for our map
The situation with European mapping companies is a wake-up call for Kyiv. Consciously or not, they are working to weaken international support for Ukraine’s struggle to restore its territorial integrity. So, the problem requires a response, and here, as they say, we “hold all the cards.”
The state, in cooperation with the public, primarily with Ukrainians abroad, should convey the position that it is unacceptable and inconsistent with either the scientific methodology or the official position of their governments to the publishers of incorrect products. Among public initiatives, such activities are already being implemented, for example, within the framework of the previously mentioned project “Stop Mapaganda! Information de-occupation of Ukraine.”
There should be a system of work on the inventory and monitoring of the range of goods and services to detect the reproduction of the narratives of Russian propaganda in cartography. Regarding the identified cases, it is necessary to start a dialogue with companies, distribution networks, official institutions, educational institutions, etc. Such work may require additional diplomatic, legal, and media support from Kyiv.
It is also worth initiating an investigation into possible Russian lobbying among professional communities and commercial companies in the West responsible for creating cartographic content.
During the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has demonstrated impressive capabilities to fight for its interests and defend its own truth in the international arena. This colossal potential still has relevant areas of application in the future. And the fight for our map in the world is one of the priorities.
Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security