Ukrainian forces have taken control of Snake Island in the Black Sea, which was occupied by Russia very early in the war. Western commentators said on Thursday (June 30) that the retreat of the Russians marks a major setback, and likely weakens their control over shipping routes that are key to Moscow’s strategic objectives.
Last week Ukraine had said it had caused “significant losses” to Russia in airstrikes on the island. That hit was believed to be the second major military success using missiles given to the regime in Kyiv by the West.
The Ukrainians had earlier claimed a first successful use of Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Reuters had reported, quoting British Military Intelligence.
Both Moscow and Kyiv confirmed the Russian retreat. The Ukrainians said the Russians had caved in to sustained targeting of the island and Russian supply lines by missiles and artillery fire for more than a week.
The last Russian soldiers had left on two speedboats during the night, the Ukrainian military said. “There are no more Russians on Zmiinyi (the Ukrainian name for the island),” The New York Times quoted Andrii Yermak, the head of the presidential office of Ukraine, as saying.
The Ukrainian military had said on Tuesday (June 28) that it had destroyed three anti-aircraft missile systems that were recently installed by the Russians on the island. The radar had been knocked out, as a result of which Russia could no longer assist its soldiers on the island.
The Russian defence ministry too said it had left the island, but sought to paint it as “a gesture of goodwill” that would “not allow Kyiv to speculate on the impending food crisis”, The NYT report said.
Russian warships and submarines in the Black Sea have blocked Ukrainian grain exports, which averaged 5 million tonnes per month before the war. The crucial port of Odessa in the western Black Sea is still under Ukrainian control, but Western analysts were saying the Russian withdrawal from Snake Island did not necessarily mean traffic from the port would be more secure against Russian attacks.
Snake or Serpent Island, called Zmiinyi in Ukrainian, is a rocky outcrop that extends less than 700 metres from end to end, and is often described as being “X-shaped”. It is located 35 km from the coast, to the east of the mouth of the Danube and roughly southwest of Odessa.
The island has been known since ancient times. Tales about it go back to the mythological Trojan war, Reuters reported. It has a long association with Achilles, the mythical Greek warrior who was invincible but for his vulnerable heel.
Today, the island is marked on the map by the tiny village of Bile that is located on it. The island is close to the coast of Romania, with which Ukraine has had a dispute — and which was settled in 2009 by the International Court of Justice, which drew a new maritime border between the two countries, a Reuters report said. Parts of the Black Sea around Snake Island are believed to hold significant oil and gas reserves.
On February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion, two warships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Vasily Bykov and Moskva, attacked Snake Island, followed by Russian troops landing on it. A Ukrainian soldier’s salty response — “Russian warship, go f**k yourself” — quickly became the stuff of war legend. Ukraine issued a postage stamp celebrating his defiance, and in April, destroyed the Moskva, the 600-foot flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, which had attacked the island on day 1 of the war.
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