Markos has already written at length on lies, damned lies, and battlefield maps. There’s a great tendency in this war to reflect Russian control not as something restricted to a few villages tagged in passing along the highway, but as if it extends to all the towns, fields, and woods lying in between. On some maps, it’s as if each Russian truck passing down the highway represents a enormous paintbrush, coloring all the area behind it red.

But there’s a bigger problem built into these maps than just how the represent areas of control. They also contain an enormous prejudice about conditions on the ground, and even the course of the war. 

This thread from cartographer Levi Westerveld looks at the evolution of the maps used by the New York Times over the last four weeks. Starting with this map, two days into the war, it’s easy to see how the map suggests Russia is spreading out rapidly and forcefully, overtaking large areas of Ukraine and securing them. It’s not just that it colors all the area between and around the positions of Russian forces as if they’re already locked down, even the graphics used to show Russian movements suggest power and speed.


What’s completely missing from that NYT map? Any sign of the Ukrainian forces. There’s not a single indicator to show where the Russian advance might be meeting resistance, or to show cities under Ukrainian control. This map is a story about Russia — active and strong — and Ukraine as an utterly passive victim.

NYT maps showing how Russia movements are emphasized.

A week later and Russia still has those large areas under control and all those moving arrows. However, now the areas of control are just a little less authoritatively colored, and there are lines that show limits of advance — even if these limits are still described entirely in terms of what Russia is doing.

It takes another week for Ukrainian forces to actually appear on the map. A week after that, Russian forces and Ukrainian forces are finally show with symbols of equivalent sizes and intensity. The shaded areas of Russian control have been replaced with red dots showing cities and towns occupied by Russian troops, and there are also some towns shown in Ukrainian blue. 

Those New York Times maps tell a story — but it’s not the story that the Times graphics department set out to tell. They give a visual approximation of the way pundits, both in the pages of the NYT and elsewhere, have treated Putin’s war from the outset. First as an inevitable Russian walkover, then with snide assurances about Russia’s inevitable victory, and finally with a grudging admittance that Ukraine is actually playing a role in its own future.

To get another sense of just how much is cooked into these maps, this is the latest map of Ukraine from @War_Mapper on Twitter. That account has regularly produced some of the most accurate, up to date maps of action in Ukraine, bringing in updates from each day’s reported action. 

Map of Ukraine from @war_mapper on Twitter

Now, look down on the far lower right of that image and locate Mariupol. Then look just a tiny bit west to find the port city of Berdyansk. That location — solidly in the “red zone” since day two of the war — is where, on Thursday morning, a Russian warship was sunk, two others damaged, a warehouse of supplies and ammunition was blown up, and Russian armored vehicles on the docks were damaged or destroyed. All of that took place in the area that was supposed to be under Russian control.

That’s why, of all the maps of activities in Ukraine, this remains the most accurate map.


Listen to Mark and Markos talk about Ukraine on this week’s The Brief podcast!

Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 · 3:24:25 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

Another view of the Orsk going down and two other Russian ships tanking damage. How this was accomplished is going to be one of the great stories of a war that’s already manage to cram a dozen astounding battles into four weeks of conflict. 


Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 · 4:12:41 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

On Wednesday, Russia announced that it was only going to sell oil and gas in rubles. However, that ignores the fact that almost all of Russia’s production is already under contract — in dollars (oil) or euros (gas). So far, no one seems in a hurry to bend those contracts to give Putin the currency boost that he wants, and Russia doesn’t seem to be willing to risk its absolutely vital source of outside currency. The ruble is setting at exactly a penny on Thursday, down slightly from Wednesday. If Russia isn’t able to enforce the fossil fuels in rubles only demand, the currency could swiftly give up the gains it made over the last few days. 

Meanwhile, oil prices — which has spiked above $120 on Wednesday based in part on the instability created by the Russian demand and the possibility of a crack in the “petrodollar” agreement — has fallen sharply and is currently trading around $111 / barrel.

Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 · 4:30:09 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

What isn’t visible in this image of events in Berdyansk: Any sign of a missile or plane initiating the explosions. Russian accident? Deliberate sabotage? Stealthy crew of Ukrainian forces who will all be played by Hollywood A-listers in the inevitable movie? It remains utterly unclear.


Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 · 4:42:56 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

Poland making it official. If Putin wants people to pay in rubles, he’s going to have to be willing to turn the taps off and take the monetary hit. Which seems exceedingly unlikely. No one is going to feed dollars, or euros, into his token machine.


Thursday, Mar 24, 2022 · 4:59:04 PM +00:00 · Mark Sumner

For those who take their conspiracy theories in classic flavors as described by World War II movies, here’s yet another view of Russia’s disastrous morning in Berdyansk. The first smoke is visible near the ships seconds after the video begins, and the first explosion comes about 30 seconds later.

Then, just over three minutes into the video, two men in black appear paddling a black rubber dingy. They beach the craft about 8 minutes in, then drag it away from the beach. Of course, the men would fit the dauntless infiltrators mold a bit better if they weren’t doing this in full view of people strolling on the beach. And if they didn’t walk back down to the water a few minutes later to watch the show.

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