By Elina Beketova
January 11, 2024
Since the annexation of Crimea and then the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian land has been mislabeled as Russian on maps. Such manipulations are dangerous and help the aggressor.
Throughout Russia’s illegal occupations since 2014 there have been multiple cases of Ukrainian territory being marked as “Russian,” “disputed” or “claimed by Ukraine” on maps in newspapers, online, and on television.
The International Olympic Committee was forced to apologize after Crimea was separated from Ukraine on a map for the Olympic Games website in 2021. The following year, French TV showed a map of Ukraine with Crimea painted the same color as Russia, while a separate color was chosen for the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. A similar image was shown by a Slovenian broadcaster.
After these examples, and many others, the mistakes were corrected and apologies made following protests by Ukrainian ambassadors or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv. They argued that marking the illegal occupation of territory in this way legitimizes aggression and helps the invaders hold on to stolen land.
But another trend, which is not so easy to correct, is the undermining of Ukraine’s territorial integrity on printed maps and in books – even those produced in countries friendly to Ukraine.
“In Germany up to 90% of all educational products on sale – school textbooks, atlases, globes, wall maps, tourist products, online map services – depict Crimea, and some other temporarily occupied territories, as not part of Ukraine,” said Mykola Golubei, founder of the “Stop Mapaganda” project.
“They are shown as disputed territory, a part of the Russian Federation, or a part of the Russian Federation claimed by Ukraine,” said Golubei, 37, who started researching errors on maps after buying a wall map that showed incorrect borders.
He investigated websites and cartographic products before writing a 400-page report on mistakes, misleading information, and disinformation. He also developed the concept of “mapaganda” – the conscious or unconscious misrepresentation of national borders and their dissemination to a wide audience, creating an image of a country that favors the aggressors.
The only valid borders of Ukraine are the borders of 1991, and the only correct image of Ukraine is the official UN map. Any changes to these borders blur the differentiation between the aggressor state and the nation defending itself.
In 2023, Golubei visited more than 30 bookstores across Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and the Czech Republic and noticed a continuing shift in the mapaganda to match Russian claims about their occupation.
“Now in some products in stores in Germany, the results of the sham referendum of 2022 are already being legitimized, and the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions are depicted as disputed territory,” he said. “Zaporizhzhia was never occupied, and Kherson has been liberated for more than a year.”
In August 2023 the BBC followed up Golubei’s research, ordering atlases from Falk, a brand of the German MairDumont group. In all of them, five Ukrainian regions were depicted as territories with a “disputed state border.”
The publisher said in a statement that it recognized all five regions as the territory of Ukraine, but used a dotted line to indicate “de facto conflict zones.”
National Geographic, in its online and offline products, marks Ukraine’s borders in five different ways, ranging from Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine to Crimea as a territory of Russia, “claimed by Ukraine.”
“I have a National Geographic Atlas for children in German and Italian, and the flagship National Geographic atlas, the 11th edition, simply depicts Crimea as a region of Russia,” Golubei said.
National Geographic says its policy for maps aligns with its “chartered purpose” as an educational organization since 1888.
“National Geographic’s maps incorporate our policy of depicting de facto geographic situations to the best of our judgment,” it said in a statement on its website. “By de facto, we mean states of affairs existing in fact or in reality, although perhaps not official, legal, or accepted.”
Misleading maps, atlases, and textbooks create a false perception of the status of territory, Golubei said. People are more willing to accept the position of the aggressor if it is said by a respected organization or printed in a textbook, which is likely to stay on the shelf and be used for reference for a long time.
Occupation does not change the ownership of land and organizations such as National Geographic should not mislabel territories, said Kateryna Busol, a lawyer and associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
To illustrate the importance of maps, she gave the example of a case between Cambodia and Thailand at the International Court of Justice over the Preah Vihear Temple. The court found that, since Thailand had not disputed the map that marked the temple as being on Cambodian territory, it had recognized it belonged to Cambodia.
“Ukraine, as a state, civil society, scientific community, unlike Thailand, constantly appeals against any indications of Crimea as Russian territory on maps,” Busol said. “Authoritative
publications such as National Geographic should label Crimea as Ukrainian if they want to maintain their reputation as a professional scientific publication.”
While activists are trying to find effective methods for combating cartographic disinformation, Kyiv is applying diplomatic pressure. The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington has repeatedly asked National Geographic not to mark Ukrainian territory as disputed, but despite official correspondence with the company’s management, its position has not changed.
While Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine proves inaction and appeasement can lead to a new wave of aggression, its aftermath shows that counteraction and resistance can change the course of events.
National Geographic, a primary source of information for many other publishers, has the opportunity to lead by example. It could be the first to change its policy from accepting the rules of the aggressor’s game and marking occupied territories as Ukrainian, rather than “disputed,” “claimed by Ukraine” or “part of Russia.”
This would enable dozens of other publishers and organizations to review their policies and choose justice over appeasement. It would also deny other aggressive states the chance to distort reality and undermine global order.
Elina Beketova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), focusing on the occupied territories of Ukraine. She worked as a journalist, editor, and TV anchor for various news stations in Kharkiv and Kyiv, and currently contributes to the translator’s team of Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine’s biggest online newspaper.