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In Putin’s War, the Map Is Not the Territory

Depictions of territory supposedly occupied by Russia are misleading.

By , a historian of late antiquity and the Middle Ages.
A map showing Ukraine is pictured at the German Bundeswehr Joint Forces Operations Command.
A map showing Ukraine is pictured at the German Bundeswehr Joint Forces Operations Command.
A map showing Ukraine is pictured at the German Bundeswehr Joint Forces Operations Command in Schwielowsee, eastern Germany, on March 4. Clemens Bilan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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As Russia advances and falters in Ukraine, maps depicting the attack have proliferated online. Such maps feel trustworthy, as maps often do. “Uncharted” means more or less “unknown”—while something that’s mapped out is planned, coordinated, and safe. Because they project a sense of confidence and security, maps assume a kind of cultural authority—and perceived authenticity.

Yet maps have always been projections of power. When looking at maps, we should focus more on seeing them as narratives, particular versions of a story reflecting a specific interpretation and angle. Maps are more novels than photos and need to be read carefully. In a war like Ukraine, closely tied to misrepresentations of history, in which Russia sends a nationalist historical advisor to head a negotiations team, maps of the past and present play a crucial role. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made them an inherent part of his propaganda machine.

Numerous news outlets and analysts produce maps of the war in Ukraine. These maps tend to follow a similar pattern. Areas of Russian advances get colored in red, sometimes augmented with arrows signifying the direction of Russian movements. Those areas are variously described as “areas occupied” or “areas taken.” At face value, these maps tell a story of significant Russian progress and control. But reports from the ground tell a more nuanced story.

As Russia advances and falters in Ukraine, maps depicting the attack have proliferated online. Such maps feel trustworthy, as maps often do. “Uncharted” means more or less “unknown”—while something that’s mapped out is planned, coordinated, and safe. Because they project a sense of confidence and security, maps assume a kind of cultural authority—and perceived authenticity.

Yet maps have always been projections of power. When looking at maps, we should focus more on seeing them as narratives, particular versions of a story reflecting a specific interpretation and angle. Maps are more novels than photos and need to be read carefully. In a war like Ukraine, closely tied to misrepresentations of history, in which Russia sends a nationalist historical advisor to head a negotiations team, maps of the past and present play a crucial role. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made them an inherent part of his propaganda machine.

Numerous news outlets and analysts produce maps of the war in Ukraine. These maps tend to follow a similar pattern. Areas of Russian advances get colored in red, sometimes augmented with arrows signifying the direction of Russian movements. Those areas are variously described as “areas occupied” or “areas taken.” At face value, these maps tell a story of significant Russian progress and control. But reports from the ground tell a more nuanced story.

We know that Russians do not control (in a sense of at least trying to establish their own military occupation) most of these areas. While they have made some attempts in cities like Kherson, even there, the actual control is contested. The red blotches on maps are misleading. Occupation, not to speak of administration, is impossible at this stage. They are not even fully zones of control—areas where the Russian military can deny a Ukrainian presence. This is simply not how this invasion works. Russian columns rushing along main roads and fighting or encircling major settlements do not establish such zones of control. In this situation, terms like “control” and “occupation,” easily used as cartographical markings, are strained to their limits.

This is all rather confusing when it comes to maps. We are used to clear lines in the sand, borders, and blotches of colors. Fronts are supposed to be lines, states are meant to control all their territory—at worst, with some contested areas checkered or painted in a less intensive color. We project this into the past, showing neat borders of medieval or ancient states in epochs when such concepts had little traction. Borders, historically, were permeable and flexible, not lines but zones. Their depiction as lines is little more than a convention and frankly reinforces a misleading picture of how those states administered their peripheries.

Maps have made empires and helped to unmake them. They have always been about conveying a particular view of the world. This is starkly visible in medieval and ancient maps. What is brought to the fore and what is ignored is always an expression of a particular narrative. Maps communicated to their audiences how the world should be seen, not how it was. The 15th-century Gangnido world map showed China in detail and Europe and Africa as little peninsulas to the west. The map communicated clearly both the geographical horizon of its maker and the power relationships as seen from the East. Similarly, although you could not navigate the Mediterranean Sea with the 8th-century Albi map of the world, you could triangulate your place within it—both culturally and religiously. Those maps were not worse than ours. They just had a different purpose.

The advent of modern cartography not only maintained this subjective nature of maps, but it also made it easier to include multiple narratives or serve as propaganda. Scholars of colonialism have long pointed out how the depiction of colonized lands on maps has influenced the narratives of empire and the foundation of new states. The borders of many states in the African continent are a result of lines drawn by colonial authorities, ignorant of history, linguistics, and tradition—a fact recalled by the Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations as he condemned Putin’s invasion. Maps have been crucial elements of occupation, like the one attached to the Soviet-German frontier treaty from Sept. 28, 1939. The role of maps in the perception of worldviews and conflicts has always been paramount.

This is why conveying the message that Putin controls large swathes of Ukraine’s territory is crucial for some of his goals, such as the formation of a puppet government. This is also why Putin continues to try to show that his forces are present in Ukraine’s big cities, even if it means little more than short-term incursions into their outskirts. Not only Kyiv but also Kharkiv is crucial for Putin. Kharkiv used to be the capital of Soviet Ukraine until 1934 and thus can be a bridgehead to a Russian-controlled government. Although military control of those areas is (and probably will remain) contested, being able to produce maps to that effect will matter.

Putin did not invent this strategy. In July 1944, the Polish communist government was initially proclaimed in Lublin, the biggest city near the newly set Soviet border. Its introduction was preceded in January 1944 by the publication of a press communique by Russian News Agency TASS and a map showing which areas the Soviet Union considered “Polish” based on the Curzon Line, reprinted duly in the international press. Putin knows it will be vital to convince public opinion both at home and in the West that he controls large swathes of Ukrainian territory.

Confusion over the available information might transform this attempt from a “facts on the ground” strategy into a “facts on a map” one. Maps to that effect are already circulating, grossly overestimating Russia’s advances and control. Putin will want to color the maps red as much as possible, hoping to influence any future settlement.

In fact, they are already influencing public opinion and serve as a medium to broadcast stances—though not, so far, to Putin’s benefit, as mapping services increasingly cut themselves off from Russia. On March 3, Apple quietly changed its description of Crimea in its Maps app to show it as part of Ukraine. Interestingly, for a long time in Apple Maps, Crimea was Russian when viewed from Russia and de facto stateless when viewed from the rest of the world. Now, Apple used its maps to project its power and convey its own narrative after years of equivocating.

Wars, especially today, are not just fought on the front lines. The speed and range of modern warfare demands a more varied set of mappings. A quick look into medieval history shows us that governing and controlling are fluid terms, more a process than a fixed state, where space not only can change hands quickly but also be controlled (to a different degree) by multiple actors. To say that Ireland belonged to the English king after the Norman invasions of the 12th century, for instance, projects simplified concepts of power and sovereignty. Some territories were claimed by multiple rulers at once or had different forms of authority recognized by different people inside them. Yet, in subsequent centuries, those invasions had a profound impact on the island’s culture and language, complicating the issues of sovereignty beyond simple lines on a map. Modern warfare has made this relevant again, as seen in both wars in Afghanistan and in Syria.

All of this would be hopeless if we had no cartographic alternatives. Maps, after all, remain crucial for our understanding of conflicts. Even if they are abstractions, they remain immensely useful. Fortunately, there are several readily available alternatives. The public can be much more careful when reading maps and their legends. Mapmakers, especially in the media, can write more careful legends and descriptions—and they can make different maps. They can construct maps that focus less on zones of control (and depict them only after we can be sure they have been established) and more on movement and exercises of power. They can craft maps that show uncertainty instead of pushing it out.

To be sure, there are questions of clarity and interpretation. But there is little evidence that people distrust or misunderstand visualizations when uncertainty is communicated clearly or when nuance is expressed. Some news outlets in response to this line of critique have already started to call the areas of Russian presence “zones of Russian offensives.” These labels, as we have seen, matter. The situation might change. Zones of control might coalesce to some extent; their vagueness might be reduced and their narrative representation—maps—will have to adapt.

Mateusz Fafinski is a historian of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin.

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