Ukrainian Maps (and the lies they tell)

In a moment of curiosity I wandered over to bing maps to look at the Ukraine:

Bing Maps of Crimea

Bing Maps of Crimea

I noticed that the BBC’s map is very different to the above:

BBC Map of Crimea

BBC Map of Crimea

Notice that the BBC make out the Crimea to be some sort of large land mass extending in to the Black Sea, whereas Bing show it to be essentially a big island with a couple of major bridges. In one of them, it looks like Russia is taking control of a chunk of country, in the other it looks like they’re taking control of an island. The implications are very different, in that an island is much easier to control and defend.

It’s interesting to consider that these are at best maps of political boundaries yet the geography behind them is what’s actually important for military action. Thus as presented by the BBC and CNN, it’s easy to misinterpret the political boundary for actual landmass.

I’ve been following the BBC’s version of events which turns out to be questionable. Like every source it has a bunch of biases, and some cursory looking around the web will show that the Ukraine has threatened to drop Russia’s Black Sea fleet a few times. I’m no fan of Russian government, but if your neighbor goes unstable and threatens your ~23,000 personnel, 50 ships and a major military base… It shouldn’t be too surprising if they do something about it (which is not to say what’s happening is the best thing to do). This isn’t mentioned much by the BBC.

Of course, the BBC aren’t alone. Here’s CNN’s version:

CNN's map of Crimea

CNN’s map of Crimea

Al Jazeera similarly paint a peninsular story. Possibly the least biased we’ll find will be satellite/aerial imagery. Here’s Googles:

Google's satellite map of Crimea

Google’s satellite map of Crimea

The aerial tells another story, not quite island, not quite peninsular with more crossing points. Sadly there isn’t much streetview availability at the border/choke points between the north and south. Flickr’s map is equally lacking in content, otherwise it might be nice to find some pictures of what these bridges actually look like.

The lesson appears to be not to trust major news outlets for their maps, but to go verify things for yourself.

Map Comparison Tool

Map Comparison Tool

If you want to explore more, try geofabrik’s map comparison tool. Notice at the bottom that even the aerial imagery (Bing on the left, Google on the right) can tell a very different story. The depiction of shallow waters are very different between the two, and Google’s brown blob (top middle of the bottom right image) can lead you to thinking it’s easy to walk across the whole thing. In contrast, notice how Bing makes a much clearer land/sea divide with the dark blue and deeper greens.

Which map is best? That’s up to you.


22 Responses to Ukrainian Maps (and the lies they tell)

  1. Ed Parsons March 2, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    em… seem to be a bit selective with your comparison choices old boy, rather clear here I think…,34.2059667,10z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x40ea1002abd7bd21:0xa581ded16f14eae

    The Map does not lie… the choice of map may do ?


    • Steve Coast March 2, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      No intention to single out google, it was the bbc I found odd.

  2. Chris Pendleton March 2, 2014 at 11:33 pm #

    Sadly, news outlets don’t have the best reputation for getting geographies properly represented, especially as it pertains to geopolitical disputes. Ie. Fox can’t seem to get it right even in their own back yard: Looks like Bing, Google and Yandex have solid representations inclusive with lines to account for Crimea’s autonomy.

  3. Paul norman March 4, 2014 at 11:58 am #

    Perhaps the best case of a bad map is MSNBC, which has re-established Czechoslovakia:

    I have to wonder what all the news agencies are using as a data source for the Crimean boundaries. The shape doesn’t agree with Nokia/Bing/Flickr, OpenStreetMap or Google data.

  4. Laurence Penney March 4, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    The BBC is definitely wrong here. Crimea is only connected by land to the mainlaid by the 5-7km wide Isthmus of Perekop. There are two other “nearly connections”. The Arbatskaya Strelka (or Arabat Tongue) is the spit of land that comes north from the east of Crimea and almost touches the mainland at Henichesk. The 100-200m water gap (bridged) is known as the Velyke Hyrlo river (the northern section of this spit is in fact Russian territory). A little further west, there’s the 100m wide Chongar Strait, also bridged. Compare the BBC and CNN map with any map of Crimea made over the last 200 years (I just looked at about 10) to confirm this.

    Land defence of Crimea rests entirely on Perekop. All other vulnerabilities are from the air or water. (The bridges are hardly relevant for defence or invasion, obviously.) The Crimean Khanate maintained the Or Qapı fortress at Perekop. Its destruction in 1736 by the Russians weakened the khanate considerably, and helped Catherine the Great’s forces take it in 1783.

    The BBC reports that trenches are being dug at Armyansk, just south of the town of Perekop, but very much on the isthmus. The bridges are simply blocked with checkpoints on the Russian side.

    I just bought this commemorative pin that celebrates Perekop as the “key” to Crimea.

    The latest update on this Wikipedia article includes the ominous note: “This article may become very well-read in the next couple of weeks”

    By the way, the tidal range in the Black Sea is tiny, 0.74 to 1.9cm (though some more recent sources say it is increasing), in case anyone’s tempted to hypothesize about changing time of day for the survey. In any case, tidal sands are unsuitable for tanks.

    I would assume that the BBC’s map is based on coastline data that simply doesn’t include waters that are defined as internal.

    STOP PRESS: The BBC improves its Crimea maps!

  5. Laurence Penney March 4, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    The New York Times is just as guilty as the BBC and CNN.

  6. hector March 6, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

    While inaccurate, I doubt there was a conscious decision to depict it that way (i.e. “bias” of the BBC). Just bad stock maps. RT uses the same:

  7. sprech.sucht March 6, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    There’s a big diffderence between an ocean and the Sivash.

    According to Sivash the “lies” become true.

  8. mendel March 6, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    The system of lagoons that seperates the Crimea from the mainland is very shallow. Wikipedia writes: “Sivash is extremely shallow. The deepest place is about 3 m, with 0.5–1 m being the predominant depth. ” These depths can be navigated by many types of military vehicles, some even without fitting snorkels, but of course the ground may be too soft for that. Apparently in WW2 the Russians did manage to cross the Sivash, see File:Sivash.jpg on Wikimedia commons.

    • Laurence Penney March 10, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      Thanks for this — interesting about the Sivash (sorry, maybe just Sivash without the the). I think most generals are happier defending boundaries that you can’t cross with tanks. Probably enough strategic speculation from us armchair generals though.

      • BushmanK March 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

        Indeed, the problem with those “wrong” maps are just in generalization and simplification, because these maps do not show the inland water bodies and streams like rivers or lagoons.

    • grygoriy March 29, 2014 at 8:43 am #

      Also, bolshevics invade to Crimea in 1920x? also crossing Sivash on tachanka’s

  9. Laurence Penney March 7, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    The occupation of Crimea makes a lot more sense when you consider it as an almost-island. Any general given the task of defending Sebastopol would very much want to occupy the whole of Crimea.

    • Jed Bland March 9, 2014 at 5:48 am #

      I also found out from Wikipedia it isnt actually Ukraine. It is an autonomous republic adminstered by Ukraine.

      So its not like Russia taking over the Isle of Wight.

      • Laurence Penney March 9, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

        You’re right — it’s not like the Isle of Wight. Legally it’s more like the Germans taking over the Channel Islands. Also, you should be wary of what you read on Wikipedia during this kind of crisis, as it’s an outlet for strong feelings and propaganda from both sides.

        • Laurence Penney March 9, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

          Strong feelings, propaganda and armchair analysis.

  10. Bryan Hemming March 9, 2014 at 5:31 am #

    Strange how some of your commentators seem to think organisations with huge amounts of public money at their service shouldn’t feel the obligation to make sure their maps are accurate or, at the very least, give some sort of explanation as to why this might not be the case.

    As a former graphic designer, I sometimes had to draw maps, I still do it today for my blog. Even though I’m not under the same obligation as a news service, I still try to be as accurate as I can. I’m sure even a local road map bought at a petrol station would be more accurate than the BBC effort.

  11. Pauline Vernon March 9, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    It is one thing to query the accuracy of maps, but it would greatly help your cause if you referred to the country by its correct name – it is ‘Ukraine’, not ‘The Ukraine’.

    When Ukraine was part of the USSR, it was known as The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic; since 1991 and the break-up of the USSR, Ukraine has taken pride in being simply ‘Ukraine’.

    It might not seem like much, but to Ukrainians, that definite article has a strong political resonance.

  12. grygoriy March 29, 2014 at 8:28 am #

    Bing show it to be essentially a big island with a couple of major bridges – there are no bridges which connects Crimea to Ukraine. There are no at all.

    easier to control and defend – are really sure they want to denfend this “chunk of country”? Does really Russia wants to defend someone? Maybe Putin wants to use Crimea as base for further political pressure and military invasion into Ukraine. Sebastopol was already used for these purposes.

    if your neighbor goes unstable – what you are talking about? For the moment in Crimea 2 death, 1 Ukrainian military man (btw, he serve at Topographic UA military Service) and another one is Crimea tartar who peacefully protest at main square in capital city Simferopol. Both deaths happened AFTER invasion. Who generates instability in Crimea?

    When you are sick your neighbour came to “protect” your bank account, car, young and beautiful wife, that is how it looks like.

    Finally, regarding cartography. Why do you think that physical map with administrative boundaries and simplified administrative map can explain something?

  13. John Thomas April 23, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    I have an 1847 map of Crimea in JPG format. It is quite revealing. Would you like me to send you a copy?

    John T


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