National Geographic has since clarified its position: In a statement, it announced that Crimea would be treated "shaded gray" to show that it was now an "Area of Special Status."
To put it simply, Crimea is now a gray area.
What other gray areas are there in the world? Well, according to National Geographic's Atlas of the World (ninth edition), quite a few. Here are the ones we could find (with National Geographic's notes):
- Abkhazia: "Separatists defeated Georgian troops to gain control of this region 1993 -- negotiations continue on resolving the conflict."
- Abu Musa: "Claimed by Iran and U.A.E. and jointly administered by them."
- Cyprus: "DIVIDED CYPRUS," according to National Geographic. "Cyprus was partitioned in 1974 following a coup backed by Greece and an invasion by Turkey. The island is composed of a Greek Cypriot south with an internationally recognized government and a Turkish Cypriot north (gray) with a government recognized only by Turkey. The UN patrols the dividing line and works towards reunification of the island."
- Dokdo: "Administered by South Korea. Claimed by Japan."
- Ilemi Triangle: "Administered by Kenya. Conflicting claims by Sudan and Ethiopia."
- Kashmir: "India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir -- a disputed region with some 10 million people. India administers only the area south of the line of control. Pakistan controls northwestern Kashmir. China took eastern Kashmir from India in a 1962 war."
- Kosovo: "On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared its independence, but Serbia still claims it as a province. Some places show the Albanian name with the Serbian name in parentheses."
- Nagorno-Karabakh: "Since a 1994 cease-fire between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, ethnic Armenians have controlled Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding areas (gray). Azerbaijan continues to claim this disputed region."
- New Moor Island: "Claimed by India and Bangladesh."
- Paracel Islands: "Occupied by China in 1974, which calls them Xisha Qundao; claimed by Vietnam, which calls them Hoang Sa."
- Senkaku Shoto: "Administered by Japan. Claimed by China and Taiwan."
- Somaliland: "In 1991 the Somali National Movement declared Somaliland an independent republic (in gray) with Hargeysa as the capital. It is not internationally recognized."
- South Ossetia: "A 1992 cease-fire ended fighting between Ossetians and Georgians, but with no political settlement."
- Spratly Islands: "The scattered islands and reefs called the Spratly Islands are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Phillipines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The Spratleys possess rich fishing grounds and potential oil."
- Taiwan: "The People's Republic of China claims Taiwan as its 23rd province. Taiwan's government (Republic of China) maintains that there are two political entities."
- The Falklands Islands: "Administered by United Kingdom (claimed by Argentina)."
- The Kiril Islands: "The Southern Kiril Islands of Irurup (Etorofu), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan and the Habomai group were lost by Japan to the Soviet Union in 1945. Japan continues to claim these Russian-administered islands."
- Transdniestria: "Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian and Russian minorities have been struggling for independence from Moldova."
- Tunb Islands: "Administered by Iran (claimed by U.A.E.)"
- West Bank and Gaza Strip: "Captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, a 1993 peace agreement gave areas of the West Bank and Gaza limited Palestinian autonomy. The future for these autonomous areas and 3 million Palestinians is subject to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations."
- Western Sahara: "Western Sahara (in gray) is in dispute and has been administered by Morocco since 1979. Fighting between Morocco and a Western Sahara independence movement called Polisario ended with a UN-brokered cease-fire in 1991, but no agreement on the area’s status has been reached. Morocco built a 1,500-mile-long sand wall to confine Polisario to the sparsely populated southeast."
National Geographic's list is far from exhaustive. For example, it could be argued that Tibet should be included over questions about China's sovereignty over the land. And the independence referendums due to be held this year in Scotland and Catalonia could lend themselves to the "gray area" tag, too. Really, we're only scratching the surface here: Wikipedia lists hundreds of territorial disputes. The world is a very gray place.
Looking over these gray areas, how does Crimea fit in? First, these disputed areas span almost all parts of the world, from the Falkland Islands at the very tip of the South American continent, to the Kiril Islands between eastern Russia and Japan. Many date back decades, if not centuries. Like Crimea's own complicated situation, the fall of the Soviet Union seems to have played a big role in a number of them, most notably in the cases of Transdniestria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
These are also, almost without exception, places of conflict. The gray status of the West Bank and Gaza strip, Kosovo and Taiwan, is indicative of those areas' places at the center of the biggest and bloodiest international issues of the last century. What's more, these gray areas are remarkably resilient. For example, the dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falklands Islands goes back hundreds of years, and despite a bloody war over the islands in 1982 hasn't settled the situation. Argentina only recently announced it would not respect the results of the Falklands' own referendum on the islands' status.
Even those gray areas that seem relatively innocuous now could become problems in the future: The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) are expected by many to be a potential source of conflict in the coming years.
That's why, in many ways, National Geographic's decision on Crimea makes a lot of sense. The United States and other countries may not want to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, but the facts on the ground speak for themselves. On Saturday, Russian troops stormed a Ukrainian naval base on the peninsula. The ruble will soon be implemented; the clocks will even be put on Moscow time. Crimea has joined the ranks of the world's "gray areas." It may not be a good thing to be gray, but there's little anyone can do about it.
Correction 3/24/2014: The post originally said implied the Falklands War was in 1983 rather than 1982, and has been updated to fix that error.