Following a series of Ukrainian strikes, the Russian garrison on Snake Island in the Black Sea on June 30 was forced to retreat back to Crimea – four months after the island was initially captured by the Moskva, Russia’s now-sunken Black Sea Fleet flagship.
In an attempt to save face, Russian Defense Ministry has described the retreat as “a goodwill gesture,” claiming the move demonstrates that “Russia is not interfering” with UN’s efforts to establish a safe maritime trade route to export Ukrainian grain to the rest of the world.
Ukraine disputed Russia’s statement:
“There’s a lot of talk from Russia about pulling out from Snake Island being a goodwill gesture,” said Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine.
“Allegedly, this means Russia does not interfere with humanitarian corridors to export Ukrainian grain. That’s absolutely false.”
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny posted video footage of Ukrainian strikes on the Snake Island, highlighting the effective use of Ukraine’s own Bohdana self-propelled 155mm artillery.
The size and composition of the Russian garrison at the island remain unclear, just as how much of this force Moscow managed to evacuate.
NV has compiled an explainer on the history and strategic value of the island, as well as the timeline of its capture and eventual liberation.
Controlling the north-western Black Sea
In 19th century, Snake Island belonged to the Russian Empire, before becoming Romanian territory, and eventually being transferred to the Soviet Union, to be used as a radar base. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the island was part of Ukraine, although Romania maintained a claim on it.
In 2009, UN’s International Court of Justice ruled that Romania was entitled to 80% of the continental shelf around the island, with Ukraine being given the remaining 20%. This area has substantial oil and natural gas reserves.
Although the island is only 0.2 square kilometers in area, it’s strategically valuable for control over western Black Sea.
“Should Russian forces manage to occupy Snake Island and install long-range anti-air defenses there, it would net them control over the sea, air, and land in north-western Black Sea and southern Ukraine,” military expert Oleh Zhdanov told the BBC.
Zhdanov also said the island could become a second front in the war.
“If Russia manages to get their long-range anti-air defenses there, they would be able to protect their (naval) squadron, as it reaches Ukraine’s coastline,” he said.
The Snake Island could have enabled Moscow to establish sea and air control over southern Ukraine and even perform naval landings in Transnistria (a region in Moldova under Russian proxy control), head of Ukraine’s military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov told Ukrainian TV broadcasters.
“Whoever controls the island can halt all shipping to southern Ukraine,” said Budanov.
“Snake Island is Ukrainian territory, and we will fight for however long it takes to liberate it. It’s strategically important (to the efforts) to open shipping lanes, bring in weapons (to Ukraine), and prevent Russia from doing anything in Transnistria – like attacking western Ukraine.”
Snake Island timeline
Feb. 24: Hours after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva approaches the island and demands that the Ukrainian garrison surrender. Their response, telling the Moskva to leave in no uncertain terms, has since become the iconic rallying cry of Ukrainian resistance. But by the end of the day, the island is captured.
March 28: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says that some of the Ukrainian sailors on the island had died, while others has been captured by Russia, and were later returned to Ukraine in a POW exchange.
April 13: The Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva sinks after being hit by two Ukrainian Neptune missiles.
April 26: Ukraine strikes a command-and-control post on the island, and destroys a Strela-10 anti-air defense system.
May 1: Three more Strela-10s on the island are destroyed, along with 42 Russian troops.
May 2: A Ukrainian Bayraktar TB-2 UAV destroys two Russian Raptor-class patrol boats.
June 17: The Russian tug boat Spasatel Vasily Bekh, with a TOR anti-air defense system onboard, is destroyed en route to Snake Island.
June 20: Fire breaks out at the island after a series of explosions. Media reports suggested it could have been the first instance of U.S.-made HIMARS MLRS being used by Ukrainian forces. Official Ukrainian reports did not disclose the exact weapons used to deliver the strike.
June 21: A Ukrainian strike on the island eliminates 49 Russian troops, a Pantsir anti-aircraft system, two Msta-S howitzers, an electronic countermeasure system, an ammo depot, and five other pieces of armored military equipment.
June 23: Another Russian Pantsir anti-aircraft system is destroyed. Budanov says Russia has deployed rocket artillery to the island, protected by additional anti-aircraft defense systems.
“There’s also a squadron of speedboats there, and special operations units,” said Budanov.
June 27: Over 10 precision strikes at the island are conducted overnight; another Pantsir anti-aircraft system is destroyed.
June 30: The Russian garrison flees from the island after coming under a sustained Ukrainian attack.