The focus of the Ukrainian crisis may have recently shifted away from Crimea toward the restive eastern provinces of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, but tensions are still running high over the peninsula’s new status – among cartographers.

Wikipedia's move to update its map of the region sparked an editing war that lasted several days

Wikipedia initially updated its map to include Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. Click to enlarge

The map was then edited by a user to return Crimea to Ukraine. Click to enlarge

After being added to Russia and removed several times, Wikipedia locked the entry and amended the map. Click to enlarge

Source: Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s move to update its map of the region sparked an editing quarrel that lasted several days, with Crimea first included as part of the Russian Federation, then returning to Ukraine, before finally being reassigned to Russia, this time shaded neon green to distinguish it from the rest of the country.­

Even this didn’t save the site from censure, with United Russia Deputy Anatoly Sidyakin submitting a request to the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service asking for Wikipedia’s Russian language map to be reviewed for marking Crimea as a disputed territory, according to Russian daily Izvestia.

Sidyakin didn’t stop there, calling for Google to be investigated for continuing to portray Crimea as a part of Ukraine. The status of the peninsula so far remains unchanged on Google Maps.

Meanwhile, other websites and major publishers are being consistent only in the variety of their responses to the issue, with the U.S. National Geographic Society ruffling feathers in the West by announcing plans to amend its maps as soon as the peninsula was formally incorporated into Russia.

Staking out their positions

The Russian Geographic Society made its position on the matter clear in a statement on its website the day after Crimea was formally incorporated into Russia.

The Society, founded in 1845, said that it “intends to collaborate with Russian cartographers… in the composition of new maps of Russia that will include the federation’s two new subjects – the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.”

The Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society, meanwhile, said in a statement on its website on March 19 that its cartographic policy was predicated on “current reality,” and that Crimea will be shaded gray and its administrative center, Simferopol, designated by a special symbol.

“When a region is contested, it is our policy to reflect that status in our maps. This does not suggest recognition of the legitimacy of the situation,” read the statement.

A cautious approach

Other cartographic authorities have chosen to take a more prudent line, however.

Leading U.S. publisher Rand McNally is in no rush to redraw the lines on its maps and atlases.

“Rand McNally is watching events carefully,” Amy Krouse, the company’s PR director, told RBTH. “While we can't comment on how we plan to address Crimea yet specifically, our policy has been to note disputed areas on maps but not make actual border changes until officially observed by the U.S. State Department.”

UK publisher Collins is also taking a cautious approach. A spokesperson told RBTH that although “Crimea is treated as part of Ukraine” in current maps, Collins was “reviewing this policy in the light of recent events.”

So why is the issue of Crimea causing such heated debate among cartographers? In fact, disagreement over how best to represent a disputed territory is nothing new, and there are numerous “gray areas” on world maps, though much depends on the manner in which the area’s current status was achieved and the degree to which this status is recognized by global organizations such as the UN.

No questions asked  

When a territory votes to secede from a larger political entity with the consent of that entity and there are no questions about the legitimacy of the referendum, the situation is clear.

This was illustrated by the case of Montenegro, which voted in a 2006 referendum to formally separate from Serbia. Since Serbia had permitted the referendum to take place and had no objections to the result, the plebiscite was unilaterally recognized and cartographers around the world went ahead and altered maps to reflect the territory’s new status.

Scotland, which votes on whether to separate from the UK in a referendum on Sept. 18 this year, is also unlikely to cause any serious hand-wringing among mapmakers since there is no disagreement on the legitimacy of the plebiscite, either in the UK or outside.

Different tools, different perspectives

In the case of Crimea, however, such global consensus is lacking – begging the question of how exactly a disputed territory should be depicted – an issue which has always had political implications.

Cartographers have a number of tools at their disposal to highlight that a territory is disputed, including symbols, annotations, colored borders, shading and the use of stripes.

In Russian publisher Astrel’s 2011 world atlas, Kosovo (unrecognized by Russia) is unmarked and remains part of Serbia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in 2008 with Russian backing and are recognized by only three and two states besides Russia, respectively, are marked out as separate nations, with differently-colored borders. However, Astrel does not highlight the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, also backed by Russia.

Astrel also marks the Falkland Islands, a British overseas dependency in the south Atlantic, as a territory of the UK but disputed or claimed by Argentina.

Rand McNally, meanwhile, follows suit on the Falklands but refers to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as disputed areas, yet curiously also highlights Transnistria’s disputed status. On Kosovo, the publisher’s position is clear: “We show Kosovo as a country because the U.S. State Department recognizes it as such,” said spokeswoman Amy Krouse.

Google highlights disputed territories like Abkhazia and Kosovo by using broken bold lines for its Google Maps service.

Pleasing all the people, all the time

Returning to Crimea, Wikipedia may have the best answer for neutral parties – besides its main map, it now offers two alternative maps of Russia for English-speaking users: one “with Crimea annexed”, and one “without Crimea”. Only one map is shown to Russian users, showing Crimea in striped green. This is in line with the site’s policy on territories seen to have been annexed – the region of Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco after the withdrawal of Mauritania in 1979, is similarly shaded.

Russian search engine Yandex represents Crimea as part of the Russian Federation for its Russian users (left), but for Ukrainian Yandex users, Crimea appears as part of Ukraine (right). Source: Yandex.Maps

However, it may be Russian search engine Yandex that offers the most diplomatic solution for the involved parties – its Russian-language site depicts Crimea as part of Russia, while Ukrainian users see it as part of Ukraine.