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

The island – known as Zmiinyi Ostriv in Ukrainian – lies about 48 kilometers off the coast of Ukraine and close to sea lanes 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 more than 290 kilometers from Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. In no geographical or historical sense could Russia claim it as its own.

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

The Russians headed for 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 occurred. Ordered to surrender, the island’s small detachment of sailors radioed, “Russian warship, fuck you,” an exchange that became a motif of Ukrainian resistance.

But Snake Island has much more than symbolic importance. Let the Russians establish facts on the rocks there, and Ukraine would no longer be able to guarantee the freedom of the sea lanes between the port of Odessa and the rest of the world. It is through Odessa that much of Ukraine’s agricultural wealth is channeled to world markets.

Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Friday that whoever holds Snake Island controls “the surface and to some extent the air situation in southern Ukraine.”

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

For this reason alone, Ukraine has sworn that even if it cannot immediately retake the territory, it will deny it to the Russians.

In a series of attacks over the past 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 submerged landing craft near the island’s only pier and Ukraine says it also hit two nearby patrol boats.

Over the weekend, other images showed two columns of smoke rising from the island. One of them is believed to have come from an Mi-8 helicopter that had brought in Russian marines. He was targeted by a missile according to drone video released by the Ukrainian military, which also released footage of anti-aircraft installations on the island being attacked.

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

The Odessa regional military administration said on Thursday that a Russian support ship, the “Vsevolod Bobrov”, was on fire and towed to Sevastopol from the Snake Island area. The claim remains unverified by CNN and Russia has denied any loss around the island.

So why are the Russians working so hard to hold Snake Island? Because it has the potential to be an unsinkable aircraft carrier, even if static, packed with electronic warfare and anti-ship capabilities. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Russians were “attempting to improve their position on the island with the aim of blocking Ukrainian communications and maritime capabilities in the northwest Black Sea, particularly towards Odessa. “.

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

Snake Island has been disputed before, but only in court. Romania and Ukraine had a long-standing territorial dispute over the island and surrounding seabed, which may contain hydrocarbon potential. The International Court of Justice finally determined the status of the island and the borders of the exclusive economic zones of Ukraine and Romania in 2009.

This time around, it seems extremely unlikely that the fate of Snake Island will be decided by a court.

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