How Should Crimea Be Shown on National Geographic Maps?

The National Geographic Society waits for the Russian parliamentary vote on March 21.

Workers put up a new sign at the local parliament building in Simferopol on March 19, 2014. The sign reads "State Council of the Crimean Republic."

What has been a question for international leaders is now a question for cartographers: How will Crimea be shown on maps?

Depending on whom you ask, it is either part of Russia or part of Ukraine. For mapmakers, the decision to change the status of a region is based on consultations with multiple authoritative sources and extensive research.

The National Geographic Society, one of the only nongovernmental map policy bodies in the world, said Wednesday it had made no formal decision on Crimea, despite erroneous reports claiming it had remade its maps to depict Crimea as part of Russia.

"We are waiting to see the results of Friday's [Russian] parliamentary vote," said Juan Valdes, the Geographer of the National Geographic Society. "If it is formally annexed, our policy will dictate that we shade the area gray, signifying that it is a disputed territory."

Valdes said that change would be accompanied by text explaining the dispute. National Geographic has followed this convention on many occasions, including when mapping Abkhazia, Gaza and the West Bank, South Ossetia, and a number of other disputed territories.

Explaining its policy further, National Geographic released a statement on Tuesday:

"National Geographic Society's cartographic policy is to portray to the best of our ability current reality. Most political boundaries depicted in our maps and atlases are stable and uncontested. Those that are disputed receive special treatment and are shaded gray as 'Areas of Special Status,' with accompanying explanatory text.

"In the case of Crimea, if it is formally annexed by Russia, it would be shaded gray and its administrative center, Simferopol', would be 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."

U.S., European, and other world leaders have said they will not recognize Crimea as part of Russia, following what many have described as an "illegal" referendum earlier this week.

U.S. State Department press spokesperson Peter Velasco told National Geographic: "We reject the Russian attempt to annex Crimea; therefore, we have no plans to change U.S. government maps." He says the annexation is "a threat to international peace and security and against international law. Crimea is part of Ukraine. We reject Russia's military intervention and its illegal land grab, both of which plainly violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

According to National Geographic's long-standing cartographic policy, while a map "strives to be apolitical," the Society's policy "is one of portraying the world from a de facto point of view; that is, to portray to the best of our judgment the current reality."

William Pomeranz, an expert on Russia and Eurasia and deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, says the current situation is a "conundrum" for mapmakers.

"Russia is going to legally incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation very fast and claim it is Russian territory, and yet no one will recognize it." When it comes to illustrating that current reality on a map, Pomeranz says, "You're not going to get everyone happy."