War Between Russia and Ukraine Includes Dueling Maps of Territory Control

In the first month of the Russia-Ukraine war, maps of the conflict mostly presented an image of rapid Russian advances. Then, as Ukrainian forces spent recent weeks successfully counterattacking in the north, the revised picture raised hopes in some circles of an outright military victory for Kyiv.

In both cases, the collective story told by changing facts on the ground has been too complicated for any two-dimensional representation to communicate in full.

Early on in the conflict, Russian forces did succeed in establishing a physical presence in the areas around Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv. However, their hold on such territories was never as secure as the control exerted over Ukrainian territory in the eastern Donbas region, where Russian-backed militias had been fighting a lower-level war with the Ukrainian army since 2014.

Since the start of the full-scale Russian assault on February 24, map makers have become more adept at contextualizing such ambiguities.

Russian Soldier Mariupol 18-May-22
A Russian serviceman patrols the destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on May 18, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

"The early maps I produced didn't distinguish between the types of control, which would then result in a misleading picture of the situation," the person behind the popular Twitter account @War_Mapper, who asked to be referred to only by their Twitter account name, told Newsweek.

"Showing these areas as occupied by Russia would give the impression of much greater numbers of troops and a solid hold of the terrain," @War_Mapper said. "On the other hand, not marking the area would give the false impression of there being no Russian presence at all."

Maps that fill in the spaces between towns occupied by Russian troops can create a false picture of Russian success. In order to communicate this reality more clearly, @War_Mapper's depictions of Russian advances in the north colored in only those areas where Russian troops had established a firm presence.

According to @War_Mapper, such an approach can "highlight the fact that Russia doesn't have sufficient numbers to have forces present in all of the Ukrainian territories which they have passed through."

This approach was validated in late March, when Ukrainian forces succeeded in pushing Russian forces out of the north of the country entirely.

The status of the Russia-Ukraine War on March 8, according to @War_Mapper.

One of @War_Mapper's key innovations was to distinguish between Ukrainian territory that was already occupied by Russia before February 24 and areas that have since come under some degree of Russian control.

"Having a different marker gives a clearer view and can be used to show where Ukrainian forces will be better dug in and explain why the frontline there is relatively unchanged," @War_Mapper explained. "It's also helpful for those who weren't aware of or didn't closely follow the conflict prior to the recent direct Russian invasion."

@War_Mapper's depiction of the state of the conflict as of May 23.

When analyzing the status of the conflict, it is also important to understand that not all territory is created equal. The person behind the Twitter account @AggregateOsint, who also asked to be referred to only by their Twitter account name, explained this reality to Newsweek.

"There is a lot of land in Ukraine that has zero strategic or tactical value, such as the plains west of Kherson, even though both sides are fighting fiercely to defend or attack it," @AggregateOsint said.

"But then, on the Donetsk axis, the loss or gain of a single square kilometer along the Donets River could have dire consequences for either side. This is also true of high elevation areas, where the terrain provides observation, concealed firing positions, and advantages with artillery and other heavy weapons."

It is these shifts in strategically vital eastern areas — rather than of larger territorial changes in the north or west — that will determine how far any sustainable Russian advance might yet reach. Popasna, a small town in the Luhansk region, provides an illustrative example.

"Recent Russian advances west of Popasna put Ukraine's ability to maintain supply lines into doubt. If Russia can use its position to trap and capture tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops in the area, the political consequences and the impact to morale could be detrimental," @OsintAggregator explained.

In a May 21 Twitter thread, @AggregateOsint used a topographical map in order to explain the relative importance of Popasna, a small town in the Luhansk region.

While many mapmakers and analysts have taken the temporary nature of early Russian advances as a cue to add context to their pictures of the conflict, there are those who still seek to obscure the reality of recent Russian setbacks.

In the opening days of the war, as Russian troops raced ahead of their supply lines in an attempt to encircle Kyiv, Russia's state-controlled First Channel frequently showed a map that depicted much of northern, eastern, and southern Ukraine as being "under the control of forces of the Russian Federation."

Even as Russian troops have been pushed out of several of these areas, the channel continues to use maps which suggest that these territories are the site of "military activity," as if all of them are still being actively contested.

In the early days of the conflict, Russian state television channels used red to depict Ukrainian territory that it claimed was "under the control" of Russian troops. As Ukraine successfully counterattacked, these areas have been recharacterized as "zones of military activity."

While the fighting in the Russia-Ukraine War remains fierce, especially in the eastern Donbas region, maps have also been used to depict the shrinking likelihood of further Russian military successes. As Russian forces shifted their focus away from Kyiv in March, the talk in Moscow was of an operation to encircle the Ukrainian army in the east.

However, as Russian offensives in April and May failed to make substantive advances against Ukraine's fortified, pre-February 24 positions, a new map of Russian ambitions has appeared. On May 16, Telegram channel Donbass Case published an illustration of Russia's revised operational goals.

A map posted by Telegram channel Donbass Case on May 16 made light of Russia's revised operational goals in eastern Ukraine.

As the conflict continues in and around the area of the pre-February 24 line of contact, the resulting picture is likely to be one of hard-fought, minor shifts rather than of sweeping territorial gains and losses.

@OsintAggregator summed up the situation: "Going forward, this conflict will likely become a slugfest, characterized by heavy weapons, elaborate defenses, extensive casualties, and small incremental gains."