Crimea: A Map Controversy

National Geographic Recognizes Crimea as Russian

Show Crimea as Part of Russia?
Show Crimea as Part of Russia?

On March 18 in a Bloomberg TV video, National Geographic’s Geographer Juan Valdés made the following statements on Crimea:

The current reality is based on the [March 16] referendum held this weekend that reported the vast majority of residents of Crimea want to go back to the Russian fold, so we are now waiting to hear from the [Russian] parliament. Once the Russian parliament approves the proposed annexation, then we will have to revise our maps to reflect the current reality that the Crimea is part of Russia.

The RT (Russia Today) television network was understandably delighted with National Geographic’s position with a March 19 article entitled:

‘We map the world as it is:’ National Geographic maps Crimea as part of Russia

“Current Reality” and Russian Propaganda

On March 21 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill completing his country’s annexation of Crimea. So should Crimea be shown with the same color as Russia on maps?

No. Why? Because Crimea’s March 16 referendum, in which officials purport 97% of the voters approved secession, was held under Russian occupation. Most ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars boycotted—or were intimidated from voting in—the referendum. Many ethnic Russians, especially those married to Ukrainians, seem to prefer remaining in Ukraine, based on past votes. Ukrainians in Crimea, even those who speak Russian, are eyewitnesses to staged demonstrations of imported Russians asking for Russia’s protection. In other words, the March 16 referendum was a farce, a fake, a fraud, a fig leaf… well, you get the idea.

But Crimea’s parliament approved the referendum. True. But Russian forces stormed this parliament on February 27, installing the head of the Russian Unity party, Sergei Aksyonov, as Crimea’s premier. Mr. Aksyonov’s party received only 4% of the vote in 2010 elections. The parliamentary vote to join Russia on March 6 was held in the presence of armed (but somewhat disguised) Russian troops, and many elected lawmakers were denied entry, with many voting cards being “liberated” for pro-Russian use.

The current reality is that Russian forces controlled the parliament and the referendum. Neither reflected the will of the Crimean people.

Referendum: Crimea is Russian or Crimea is not Ukrainian
Choice: Crimea is Russian or Crimea is not Ukrainian

Considerations on Mapping Political Reality

For accurate mapping of political sovereignty, the cartographer should consider four points: political claim, control of territory, international recognition of sovereignty, and time.

Political claim to Crimea is disputed, with both Ukraine and Russia claiming Crimea. Disputed regions usually earn a special pattern or color on maps, such as Kosovo, shown with a gray tone on National Geographic maps from 1999 to 2008. Kosovo declared independence while still being claimed by Serbia.

Control of Crimea by Russia is not absolute. As of March 23, 2014, there are still Ukrainian military bases and ships that function as symbols of Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea (see map below). These may soon disappear, but it would be premature to concede Russian sovereignty while they remain. Once Russia demonstrates full military control, it must prove that it has political and economic control of the territory. Control is a multi-layered reality.

Russian Invasion: February 24 to March 23
Russia’s Invasion: February 24 to March 23, 2014

International recognition of Crimea as Russian territory is not likely anytime soon because Russia violated a key provision of the UN charter:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Time determines whether sovereignty is enduring or fleeting. Months or years may be necessary to judge a country’s claim and control of a region. For example, Morocco has claimed Western Sahara as a part of Morocco for decades, but its political control is limited and sovereignty is disputed. When Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, Iraqi sovereignty was disputed, and then it was overturned in 1991.

Showing Crimea on Maps Realistically

Currently, Crimea should not be shown as part of Russia. There are significant disputes involving political claims, control, and international recognition. How then should Crimea be shown on maps? At this time, Crimea should be shown as disputed territory, which is usually a gray color on National Geographic maps with no sovereignty color. Transdniestria, between Moldova and Ukraine, serves as an example. The Associated Press plans to treat Crimea as “geographically distinct” from Russia and Ukraine. Not recognizing Crimea as Russian may postpone the need to change geographic names from Ukrainian to Russian spellings, such as Krims’ke Hory (Ukrainian) to Krymskiye Gory (Russian) for the Crimean Mountains.

Mapping reality is tricky and subjective. Do you go with the Russian version, Ukrainian version, or some other version of reality? Also the method of mapping makes a difference. An online digital map can be updated as events evolve; but a paper map can be easily rendered obsolete as time goes by, showing past realities instead of current ones.


The Clash in Crimea

The current clash in Crimea represents a clash of cultures between Russia, Ukraine, and the West. Russia, a controlled democracy marching toward authoritarianism, appears to be stoking Slavic nationalism as it “liberates” Crimea.

Russia purports that the March 16 referendum will show that the people of Crimea want to leave Ukraine, even though the turnout is likely to be small (unless Russian soldiers vote), because Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and even some ethnic Russians will boycott it. In the end, the referendum is merely a façade for whatever policy Russia chooses to pursue.

Speaking of ethnic Russians, it is important to dispel the myth that Russians are in the majority in Crimea. Ethnic Russians may be in a majority, but this is based on an outdated 2001 census. Using “Russians” instead of “ethnic Russians,” a mistake recently made in the Economist (below), fuels Russian nationalism and offers a rationale for Russia’s potential annexation. In fact, many ethnic Russians in the Crimea enjoy Ukrainian citizenship and have intermarried with other ethnic groups.

Ethnic Russian population--not Russian
Ethnic Russian population–not Russian

Russian expansionism has worried other nations for centuries. In an 1877 map (below left), Russia had recently taken the Crimean Peninsula and would threaten Turkey (Ottoman Empire) and Eastern Europe. The last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was also the Grand Duke of Finland, and the titular King of Poland. Historical geopolitics is but one reason why other countries are concerned—if not alarmed—by the current course of events in Crimea.

Russian expansionism in 1877 and 2008
Russian expansionism in 1877 and 2008

The 2008 war with the Republic of Georgia, confirmed Russia’s hold over two satellite microstates, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A third microstate is Transdniestria (Transnistria), located between Ukraine and Moldova. These microstates claim independence, but are dependent on Russia. The 2008 invasion of Georgia generated renewed fears of an aggressive Russia under Vladimir Putin (map above, right).

A symbol for the Crimea, and a major tourist attraction, is the Swallow’s Nest decorative castle (below) near Yalta (a Cold War symbol). The castle was built in the last years of Imperial Russia, and it has seen Soviet, German (World War II), and Ukrainian rule. The earthquake-fractured rock on which it is perched and the overcast skies seem to reflect the uncertain mood and multiethnic culture of Crimea.

Swallow's Nest castle near Yalta: Part of Crimea's culture
Swallow’s Nest castle near Yalta: Reflecting Crimea’s culture






Russia’s Crimea Conquest

Conquering the Crimea: Chapter 1

Congratulations, Russia, you seem to have taken over Crimea in about two weeks! Not a blitzkrieg in the classic sense, but then the Olympics were just ending in Sochi, and you wanted to bask in the glory of winning the most medals. Now, with a heightened sense of Russian nationalism, you can conquer Crimea.

Russian Invasion of Crimea
Russian Invasion of Crimea in 2014

Well, the map above seems to indicate “Mission Accomplished.” Yes, former U.S. President George W. Bush was associated with that phrase, after an initial American victory over Iraqi forces in 2003. But occupying a region is a lot more costly than the initial conquest. A few geographic points to consider:


Population Geography

Yes, we have all heard the propaganda that Crimea is mostly ethnic Russian, but these figures are based on a dated 2001 census. The Sevastopol city-region (eastern limit shown on the map with a red line) is estimated to be 70% ethnic Russian. The rest of Crimea is maybe half Russian, with more than 500,000 Ukrainians and 260,000 Crimean Tatars, out of a total population of 1.99 million people. So, are you planning to win the ethnic minorities over or make them refugees? Remember, if you treat them badly, then you could have a massive insurgency on your hands.

Various reports state that Serbian “Chetnik” fighters are in Crimea to help their Russian brothers. You should keep the Serbians away from Crimean Tatar communities, because Serbians did not endear themselves to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. Both Tatars and Albanians tend to be Muslim, which evidently does not go over well with some Serbian nationalists.


The Geo-Military Situation

Yes, you have disarmed most of the Ukrainian soldiers in the Crimea, but now what do you do? If you hurt them, there is a much larger Ukrainian army to the north. Also, there are still the Ukrainian sailors on more than a dozen warships, who are still quite armed. If you are too decisive in getting rid of the Ukrainian military, then neighboring countries may get a bit anxious, increase their defense budgets, and aim missiles at you.


The Larger Geopolitical Situation

The referendum on March 16 focuses on union with Russia and restoring the 1992 constitution. As the billboard image below shows, you are giving Crimeans a chance to vote between a Nazi-like Ukrainian government and a glorious Russian government. Seems easy.

Propaganda Billboard on Crimea Referendum, March 16, 2014
Propaganda Billboard on Crimea Referendum, March 16, 2014

However, any annexation of the Crimea would violate the 1997 Friendship Treaty you signed with Ukraine. It is not very friendly to invade and annex the territory of a nearby country. Plus, the U.S. and the European Union would use the information, diplomatic, economic, and even military tools of foreign policy against you. This could hurt over time. Yes, China is an ally, but most of your trade is with Europe.


This Chapter is Still Being Written

While it is nice to reclaim the Crimea and have Catherine the Great smile down upon you, the harsh realities of 21st century geopolitics make military conquest difficult. Yes, you got away with it (at the time of the 2008 Olympics) against Georgia; but Georgia was the aggressor when it invaded South Ossetia, and it clearly underestimated Russian resolve.

You have put quite a scare into the Ukrainians and the world community. Perhaps, the best result is to bargain for greater access or autonomy in the Sevastopol region. Maybe you could negotiate sovereign rights to your military bases in the Crimea. How this will end is largely up to you.

Sochi’s Gathering Storm: A Geospatial Look

There is something that makes me anxious about the Sochi Olympics. No, it is not the media hype about security. The press tends to focus on the negative; and they are doing just that regarding the Super Bowl in New Jersey, with topics ranging from security to cold weather to the lack of business for New Jersey’s hotels and restaurants.

My anxiety went from concern to alarm, so being a geographer I started to look at relevant maps to see if there was a spatial or geospatial reason for these feelings. After all, I had just read a Voice of America article about the “Ring of Steel,” consisting of some “60,000 police and soldiers—26 for each athlete,” protecting Olympic venues. What could go wrong?

Freedom index in Europe
Map 1. Established democracies in green, authoritarian governments in purple, and democracies with autocratic trends in yellow.

Freedom in Russia. The map above from Freedom House vividly illustrates countries whose governments are judged to be free (green), partly free (yellow), and not free (purple). As you can see, Sochi is in Russia, a country considered to have an authoritarian government that is not free. Traditionally, security forces in authoritarian countries are concerned about regime safety rather than public safety. While it is true that regime and public safety coincide for the Olympics, the security forces may not have an instinctive feel for public service and safety, which is critical. Also, Russia is known to have systemic problems with police corruption. Lack of training in public safety and problems with corruption could turn the Ring of Steel into a Ring of Swiss Cheese.

Terrain and Trains. A quick look at the physical geography of the Sochi region is possible thanks to a recent map in Canadian Geographic (below). A few observations come to mind when looking at this map. The extreme relief will make it difficult for the Ring of Steel. The Russians built a new high-speed railway line between Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana, high in the mountains, where Olympic ski events will take place. The train takes passengers from a subtropical environment near the coast to an alpine climate, with elevations ranging from 2,000 to 7,800 feet. First, the newness of this rail project may make it susceptible to mechanical and structural issues. Second, Russian trains and train stations were terrorist targets in 2009, 2010, and 2013.

Sochi and railway to alpine mountains
Map 2. Coastal Sochi and the railway to alpine ski events

Border with Georgia. You will also notice that the Olympic sites, especially the skating events at Adler, are next to an international border with the Republic of Georgia, a country Russia invaded in 2008. But this region of Georgia, known as Abkhazia, declared independence from Georgia in 1999—thanks to Russian military assistance. Not surprisingly, Russian security forces control this part of Georgia.

Muslim Threat. Internal threats to the Olympics from Russia’s Muslim population are mentioned frequently in popular media. Russia has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at some 16 million.  The largest Muslim populations, near Sochi, are historically hostile to Russian rule, and the U.S. and British governments advise against travel to these regions, where there are terrorist attacks (map below). Russia is a migration destination for many legal and illegal Muslim immigrants. Moscow holds some 600,000 Muslims, and many Muslim migrants came to Sochi to build the infrastructure for the Winter Olympic Games.

Areas of terrorist attacks near Sochi
Map 3. Regions of terrorist attacks and Muslim extremists near Sochi

Outside Threats. One threat that immediately comes to mind is weather. What if the weather is too warm? This was a problem for the 2012 Vancouver Olympics. However, threats are more likely to come from foreign nationalists or terrorists. A brief review of outside threats would include the following countries:

  • Ukraine. Political instability in Ukraine is high, with large-scale protests in the capital, Kiev, and many western Ukrainian cities. The current Ukrainian government is backed by Moscow, and draconian action by Ukraine against protesters would reflect negatively on Russia.
  • Georgia. As mentioned above, the Republic of Georgia (population 5 million) was invaded by Russia (population 143 million) in 2008. Russia’s victory humiliated Georgia, and Georgians will seek to restore their political dignity at this Olympics.
  • Syria. Russian military assistance and political protection preserves the Assad regime, continuing the bloodbath in Syria. Arab or Kurdish rebels from Syria could look for revenge at the Olympics.

 A Gathering Storm.  Russian prestige is on the line during these Olympics. My hope is that the Russian athletes and people succeed, but I am cautious about the outcome for the Russian government. There seems to be a gathering storm surrounding Sochi, and storm fronts consisting of corruption, political unrest, and terrorist threats are strong.