Note: Most of this was written over the past few days before Russia invaded Ukraine early this morning. I considered revising the introduction, but I am going to leave it as is. My core point remains the same: geographers need to be careful about how we do our jobs. Maps are not facts and are not value-neutral. My gut feeling is that Russia is going to continue this behavior for the future and, in a few years, we are going to be talking about it again vis-à-vis Moldova, Poland, or the Baltic Nations.
From news reports and what the OSInt1 community is finding, the situation in Ukraine looks more perilous by the day. It appears that they are locked into a go-round what I am calling the Putin Cycle: Russia’s method of destabilizing its smaller neighbors that are trying to break away from its sphere of influence. The cycle has been perfected over the last 20 years in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) and is in progress in Moldova and Ukraine, for the second time.
First, you support and ferment separatist groups that are aligned with you. Then, when the time is right, you recognize that group as a country. Naturally, people are not too keen to have the territorial integrity of their country violated so they protest or call up their military in response. You consider that a provocation and sign that the ethnic Russian minority is under attack, so you invade under the guise of being peacekeepers to solve the problems you created. Sometimes this is enough, but other times you annex the territory after a quick referendum. Then you move on to another country, region, or group.
This creates an atmosphere of chaos along your borders. It also prevents new countries from joining NATO. Countries with an ongoing armed separatist campaign are seen as too unstable to be serious candidates for membership.
As cartographers and geographers, we need to be careful to lot legitimize this behavior. A decision that every mapmaker makes, which set of international borders to show, subtly influences how people see the world. The choices that we make legitimize political decisions beyond what we might be trying to say. If enough major publications in the west show Crimea as part of Russia, then the 2014 takeover becomes legitimate in the eyes of the general population no matter what the government may say.
Here is an extract from my map of Europe. I use the international boundaries that the US State Department releases and a break-away regions dataset from Natural Earth, the striped areas. I both show that the area is within Ukraine, but that there are ongoing conflicts. There are some small differences between my map and this one from the New York Times, but we both made very similar decisions. I suggest that everyone that routinely makes maps do something similar until a treaty is inked that changes borders. It is easy to become complacent and say that Crimea is de facto part of Russia. Resist that urge.
We now live in an era where the tools of intelligence collection are much more democratized. Images by Maxar of Russian troop movements were, until a few years ago, something that only a few governments had. To get pictures of this quality you had to fly an SR-71 or a U-2 over the area and hope for the best. Now, a private satellite flys over the area, and photos of the area are on Twitter for the world to see.
There are upsides and downsides to this. I think that it is good that aggressive behavior is now in the sun for all to see. A decade ago, we would be relying on products from western intelligence agencies, now we have no filter between raw intelligence and the public.
The problem with raw intelligence is that it is raw. It is very possible to make it look like there is a much bigger presence in an area on satellite imagery through the use of dummies. Most famously, the Allies concealed the Normandy landings from the Axis powers through these sorts of means. It needs to be taken with all of the rest of the intelligence collected to collate a picture of what is happening. It is important that geographers do not stretch the evidence available because it is all they have access to.
The Grugq jokes that the American Intelligence Community loves to name things because it is how they feel that something can be understood. Following that model, the US has cut intelligence collection into specific disciplines. These are the major ones with their short name and a quick explanation of what they cover:
Signals Intelligence (SigInt) — “I decrypted █████ (FOIA Exemption 1), so I have the documents”
Imagery Intelligence (ImInt) — “I took pictures from space of █████ (FOIA Exemption 1) and now I don’t need documents”
Geospatial Intelligence (GeoInt) — “█████ (FOIA Exemption 1) has a list of places that I put onto a map”
Open-Source Intelligence (OSInt) — “A service member posted the documents to an online forum to make a game he likes more realistic and I found them”
Isn’t intelligence such an easy and straightforward thing!