Apple app showing an annexed Crimea satisfies Russia but leaves Ukraine anguished
By ROBYN DIXON AND DAVID L. STERN | The Washington Post | Published: November 28, 2019
MOSCOW — The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has opened another front: apps on iPhones and other Apple devices.
Russia's annexation of Crimea more than five years ago was like having a piece of your heart stolen by your worst enemy, according to Ukraine Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko. But Apple's recent decision to label Crimea as part of Russia in its Russian apps made Ukrainians feel that "somebody ignorant doesn't give a damn about your pain," he tweeted.
Russian's 2014 seizure of the territory is not recognized by the United States, the Europe Union and much of the international community. Apple's move to do so — at least within Russia — was announced by the chairman of the Security and Anti-Corruption Committee of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, who gloated Wednesday that the committee got exactly what it wanted from the company.
Committee chairman Vasily Piskaryov said Apple agreed to make the change after negotiations going back to May, with the State Duma insisting that labeling Crimea as part of Ukraine was a crime in Russia.
He said Apple initially sought to portray Crimea as belonging to no one, which was unacceptable to Russia.
"Our situation with Apple has now been resolved. We see that everything has happened the way we wanted it," Piskaryov said after meeting Apple's representative in Russia, Daria Ermolina. The chairman said Apple provided Russia with visual proof of the changes. But he warned that the committee would continually monitor Apple's map and weather apps.
"We will continue seeing to it that there is no going back," Piskaryov said.
Russia deployed "little green men" — as Ukrainians dubbed the Russian troops without insignia — to seize Crimean government buildings in 2014 in an operation that led to U.S. and European Union sanctions. A controversial referendum in Crimea that year endorsed Crimea joining the Russian Federation but was rejected by most of the world because of the Russian military intervention.
The change, which shows no international border between Russia and Crimea, applies on Apple apps inside Russia. In Crimea, the Apple apps show the region as part of Russia. In Ukraine and other countries, the Apple apps do not mark Crimea as part of any country, showing no international border with Russia or Ukraine — mirroring action taken this year by Google Maps, when it moved to not identify Crimea as belonging to any country.
That did not make it any less painful for Ukrainians, according to Prystaiko.
"Let me explain in your terms," he tweeted to Apple. "Imagine you're crying out that your design & ideas, years of work & piece of your heart are stolen by your worst enemy but then smb ignorant doesn't give a damn about your pain.
"Seriously, though, @Apple, please, please, stick to high-tech and entertainment. Global politics is not your strong side," he added, using the hashtag #CrimeaIsUkraine.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington added that Crimea was under Russian occupation, not sovereignty, tweeting, "We guess Ukrainians not giving any thanks to @Apple this #Thanksgiving!"
Accompanying the post was a photo of a man and woman looking at a cellphone with devastated expressions, and the caption: "Your reaction when Apple marks Crimea as Russia."
On Facebook, the embassy also announced it had "immediately urged the leadership of the US company #Apple to correct the false designation of Crimea as part of Russia in the company's applications," adding that it had addressed the U.S. State Department and "other competent US departments."
Soviet-born former world champion chess player Garry Kasparov, chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, condemned Apple's move as "a huge scandal."
"Regionalization of facts is unacceptable appeasement," he tweeted. "Software is soft power. American tech companies should stand up for the values of innovation that made their success possible, not bow down to dictators for a little extra cash they don't even need. Call Putin's bluff."
Crimea is not the only flash point between the two countries. Pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine have fought Kyiv's forces since 2014 — a conflict repeatedly mentioned during the impeachment inquiry in Washington.
Apple has not commented on the changes, but its move comes with global corporations facing pressure to tweak their apps in geopolitical disputes elsewhere, notably in China, where international airlines and other companies acceded to Chinese pressure to remove references to Taiwan in dropdown lists of countries.
Several clothing companies including Gap, Versace and Coach recently apologized to China: Gap and Coach made T-shirts that did not show Taiwan as part of China. Versace and Givenchy produced T-shirts that did not refer to Hong Kong and Macao as part of China.
The scandals caused a flurry of resignations by luxury brand ambassadors in China and groveling corporate apologies.
Apple's decision might protect its market in Russia, with its 146 million population, but could cost it support in Ukraine.
Former Ukrainian foreign minister Volodymyr Orgrysko called on Ukrainians to boycott Apple products, with #CrimeaIsUkraine and #Apple trending on Twitter in Ukraine on Thursday and many tweeting calls to #BoycottApple.
This is not the first time that Kyiv officials have confronted a U.S. tech giant in their information war with Russia.
In 2015, Petro Poroshenko, then Ukraine's president, called on Facebook to appoint a Ukrainian office to moderate content, amid complaints that pro-Russian moderators were blocking comments that were critical of the Kremlin or pro-Ukrainian.
In June, the tech company finally named a Ukrainian as moderator of Ukrainian Facebook content.
Stern reported from Kyiv.