Snake Island: The small piece of land that plays a major role in Russia’s war against Ukraine


It is only 46 hectares of rocks and grass without fresh water (nor any snakes), but Snake Island in the Black Sea has acquired a totemic significance in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

The island – known as Zmiinyi Ostriv in Ukrainian – is located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the coast of Ukraine and close to the sea roads leading to the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean.

Moscow has never claimed Snake Island, and it is far from any part of the Russian mainland. It is over 180 miles from Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. In no geographical or historical way could Russia claim it as their own.

But history must be cursed because it has strategic value, and the Russians clearly thought it would be easy to choose. Even before the conflict, Ukraine knew it was vulnerable. Last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky flew to Snake Island, where there are no voters but some sheep, to emphasize that it meant something. “This island is like the rest of our territory Ukrainian land and we will defend it with all our might,” he said.

The Russians went to Snake Island on the very first day of the war in late February, when a now famous exchange between its Ukrainian defenders and the Russian navy took place. Ordered to surrender, the small detachment of sailors on the island sent back, “Russian warship, go yourself,” an exchange that became a motive for Ukrainian resistance.

But Snake Island has far more than a symbolic meaning. Allow the Russians to establish facts-on-the-rocks there, and Ukraine would no longer be able to guarantee the freedom of the sea routes between the port of Odesa and the rest of the world. It is through Odesa that much of Ukraine’s agricultural wealth travels to global markets.

Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said on Friday that the person holding Snake Island was checking “the surface and, to some extent, the air situation in southern Ukraine.”

“Whoever controls the island can block the movement of civilian vessels in all directions towards southern Ukraine at any time,” Budanov added.

For that reason alone, Ukraine has promised that even if it cannot immediately recapture the territory, it will deny it to the Russians.

In a series of attacks in the last 10 days, its drones and other assets have attacked Russian units trying to consolidate their presence on the island.

Satellite images from May 12 show a landing ship sunk near the island’s only quay, and Ukraine says it also hit two patrol boats nearby.

Over the weekend, other photos showed two columns of smoke rising from the island. One is believed to be from a Mi-8 helicopter that had picked up Russian Marines. It was targeted by a missile, according to a drone video released by the Ukrainian military, which has also released footage of anti-aircraft fire facilities on the island being attacked.

A fire on the island in a drone video on May 8.

The Odesa Regional Military Administration claimed on Thursday that a Russian support ship, the ‘Vsevolod Bobrov’, was on fire and was being towed to Sevastopol from the Snake Island area. The claim remains unconfirmed by CNN, and Russia has denied any loss around the island.

So why are the Russians using so much force to keep Snake Island? Because it has the potential to be an unsinkable, albeit static, aircraft carrier, crammed with electronic warfare and anti-ship features. On Thursday, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said that the Russians were trying to “improve their position on the island in an attempt to block Ukrainian maritime communications and capabilities in the northwestern Black Sea, especially towards Odesa.”

Budanov also pointed out that Snake Island could also be useful to the Russians if they wanted to reinforce their presence in the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, which is run by a pro-Russian administration and where about 1,500 Russian troops are based.

Snake Island has actually been turned over before, but only in the courts. Romania and Ukraine had a protracted territorial dispute over the island and the surrounding seabed, which may contain hydrocarbon potential. The International Court of Justice finally ruled the island’s status and the borders of Ukraine’s and Romania’s exclusive economic zones in 2009.

This time, it seems highly unlikely that Snake Island’s fate will be decided in a court of law.

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