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POLITICS

Mysterious Island. How Snake Island became a stumbling block in the war between Russia and Ukraine

Anatoly Voinov

One of the most striking and at the same time tragicomic stories of the war between Russia and Ukraine is the story of the confrontation over the tiny Snake Island. The Russian army lost nearly $1 billion worth of armaments there, and it is where the legendary slogan “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” was first uttered. After surrendering the island, the Russian Defense Ministry thought of nothing better than calling the inglorious departure a “gesture of goodwill.” The Insider found out why the warring sides fought fierce battles over the island for four months, what was really at stake and what the “sacred geography” had to do with it.

ALL CARDS
  • What kind of an island is it?

  • Capturing Snake Island

  • Russia's true objectives

  • Why Russia withdrew from Snake Island

  • What is next?

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What kind of an island is it?

Snake Island is a piece of land with an area of about 20 hectares, located 35 km off the Romanian coast directly opposite the mouth of the Danube and the same distance off the coast of Ukraine.

The island lies near the drilling platforms for oil and gas production on the Black Sea shelf and the shipping routes connecting the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Nikolaev and Kherson with the Mediterranean basin.

Snake Island has been known since ancient times but has never been of any significance because of its peripheral location and generally not so favorable conditions: there are no minerals, no rich flora or fauna, no opportunities for agriculture or other useful economic activities.

In the early 2000s Romania tried to prove that Snake Island was not an island but a rock, an argument that could pose a threat to the exclusive economic rights of Ukraine with regard to the adjacent water area. The International Court of Justice did not find that argument convincing but drew a maritime border delimitation line taking into account Romanian interests.

After Russia's annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol in 2014, the Ukrainians turned Snake Island into an outpost for monitoring Russian military activity not only on the Crimean peninsula but also on the drilling platforms of Chernomorneftegaz which too had been seized by Russians.

Back in August 2021, U.S. analysts Andrew D'Anieri and Doug Klain noted that Snake Island was one of the potential “hot spots” in the event of a war between Russia and Ukraine:

“If Putin succeeds in capturing Snake Island, Russian troops would be in a strong position to cut off all maritime access to Ukraine and increase their control over the northern Black Sea.”

The military base on the island, which has a radar station and anti-ship artillery, is capable of blocking the northwestern part of the Black Sea, and the medium-range air defense systems installed there are capable of covering a part of Romania and almost all of the Odessa region together with Odessa.

Capturing Snake Island

At the beginning of the war the capture of Snake Island, to all appearances, was considered by the General Staff of the Armed Forces as stage one of the preparation of a landing operation in the Odessa area. On the evening of February 24, the island was taken by a Russian landing force backed by the Moskva missile cruiser and the patrol ship Vasily Bykov, after missile and air strikes from the sea and air. Soldiers of the 810th Independent Marine Guards Brigade, including conscripts, took part in the operation.

Because the Russian Navy had undivided control of the sea and Snake Island was within reach of the Russian aircraft based in Crimea, the Ukrainian command did not expect any prolonged defense and maintained there a token garrison of fewer than 100 people without heavy weaponry.

On the same day, the flamboyant Russian publicist Alexander Dugin, who is considered in the West to be an ideologue and inspirer of the Kremlin's current confrontational foreign policy line, wrote that the capture of Snake Island had a certain mystical dimension, because in terms of “sacred geography,” whoever controlled Snake Island controlled the course of world history.

According to Dugin, Snake Island was a place of historical significance due to the shrine of Apollo located there. True, in that case we must admit that the course of world history for 70 years was determined by Romania, which owned the island from 1878 to 1948, and then, from 1991, by Ukraine.

The loss of Snake Island, however, was a symbolic matter for Kiev. During the Crimean Platform diplomatic forum in August 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his speech given on Snake Island:

“Snake Island is an island, which is symbolic. Any island, however small, of Ukrainian land we will defend with all our might.”

In addition, the Ukrainian authorities got into an awkward position by hastily declaring the defenders of the island dead and awarding them posthumously the titles of Heroes of Ukraine. Subsequently, it turned out that 82 marines and border guards from Snake Island had surrendered.

However, the war against Ukraine did not go the way the Kremlin had planned from the very first day, and Russian propaganda was unable to use Zelensky's words. Nor was it possible to use the blunder with the posthumous awards given to surrendered Ukrainian servicemen. Everything was overshadowed by the famous recording of the Russian sailors being told off.

As a result, the Ukrainians succeeded in transforming an abject failure in the defense of the island into a loud and successful information campaign. The myth of the “heroic deed” on the Snake Island, as well as the catchy slogan about the “Russian warship,” reached the people, playing an important role in working with Western public opinion and propaganda inside the country.

The “Russian warship,” portrayed in the video by the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the cruiser Moskva, sank on April 13, 2022 after being hit by anti-ship missiles (probably not by Ukrainian Neptuns, as is commonly believed, but with Western missiles) off Snake Island.

Today the use of the Moskva for capturing Snake Island and its subsequent presence near the Ukrainian coast (obviously, in reliance on its S-300F sea-based anti-aircraft missile system) appears to have posed an excessive and unnecessary risk.

A missile cruiser is in fact intended for destroying enemy aircraft carriers and is armed with P-1000 Vulkan anti-ship missiles with the firing range of up to 1000 km (they can carry nuclear warheads). There were no matching targets for the Moskva in the Ukrainian theater of military operations.

After the loss of the flagship, the Black Sea Fleet began to act more cautiously. Its ships tried not to enter the range of Ukrainian anti-ship systems or to minimize their stay in the area. Yet, the Navy continued to suffer losses from Ukrainian UAVs while supplying Snake Island and delivering equipment needed to create a stable air defense system there.

The vulnerability of the garrison and the weapons delivered to the island was demonstrated several times by successful air strikes with Bayraktar UAVs and Su-27 fighters. When the Ukrainian Armed Forces started receiving long-range artillery and modern anti-ship weapons from their Western allies, Snake Island ended up well within range of Ukrainian artillery fire from the coast. On June 30, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that the garrison was leaving Snake Island.

Russia's true objectives

Apparently, the blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports could be carried out without occupying Snake Island due to the superiority of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and aviation. And the safety of the permanent garrison on the island can be secured by controlling the coast of the Odessa region where Ukrainian artillery systems can be deployed.

The desire to maintain a presence on Snake Island at all costs can hardly be explained by any reasoning. If we proceed from Putin's real goals of the war, i.e. the capitulation of Ukraine, seizure of the entire Ukrainian territory and establishment of a puppet government there, then the question of who controls Snake Island by the time of ceasefire is of no importance: the Kremlin's proxies in Kiev will anyway offer the island to Russia for a military base.

Moscow's desire to maintain a presence on Snake Island at all costs can hardly be explained by any reasoning

Likewise, the presence of a Russian garrison on Snake Island won’t matter if Ukraine wins the war, i.e. restores the status quo as of February 23. Then, of course, no one will offer Snake Island to Russia.

Holding Snake Island at any cost is justified only if the war ends in a prolonged cease-fire along the borders of the territories occupied by the warring sides. Then Russian troops, having kept the garrison on the island, could begin to establish a full-fledged military base there. However, so far both Russia and Ukraine, as well as its Western allies, are against such a compromise option of ending the war.

The tenacity in the battle for Snake Island can only be explained by the fact that the strategic importance of the island has been exaggerated by Russian generals and admirals, who continue to think in terms of World War II. Indeed, in those years, the island, located near the Danube delta itself, offered reliable control of all vessels leaving the Danube for the Black Sea.

But since then, the capabilities of both the navy and the tracking devices, including satellites, as well as anti-ship defense and air defense systems have increased by an order of magnitude. Today it is possible to control navigation in the Danube delta or, for example, to blockade Odessa from the sea without the need to occupy Snake Island, keeping ships outside the range of the Ukrainian anti-ship systems.

Thus, the actions of the Russian command in the vicinity of Snake Island were, most likely, influenced by the desire, inherited from the Soviet times, to hold on to any captured territory, no matter what the cost.

Why Russia withdrew from Snake Island

Just days before the Defense Ministry announced the departure of the Russian garrison from Snake Island as a “step of goodwill” (the exact phrase used instead of the customary “gesture of goodwill”), “having fulfilled its tasks”, pro-Kremlin media had published a whole slew of materials in which loyalist experts and officials explained how important the island was to Russia.

Vladimir Yevseyev, a military expert and head of the department of Eurasian Integration and Development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at the Institute of CIS Countries, in an interview with the Ukraine.ru portal (owned by the state news agency Russia Today) argued that Snake Island was absolutely necessary to control the Danube delta and the delivery of weapons to the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria.

Capt. of the 3rd rank of the reserve, military expert Maxim Klimov told Vzglyad, an online publication close to the presidential administration:

“Some members of the expert community have said that the island should be surrendered, that it is not important and that it’s too much trouble to hold it. However, Snake Island should definitely be kept. Judging by satellite images, our forces have been considerably strengthened”.

Military expert Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the National Defense magazine, said in an interview with the Tsargrad TV channel owned by the odious Orthodox businessman Konstantin Malofeyev that Snake Island was important for controlling maritime “sea routes to Odessa.”

Yuri Shvytkin, deputy chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, told the pro-Kremlin Lenta.ru about the need to hold on to the island so as to counter the threat against the military facilities and Russian Black Sea Fleet ships in Crimea posed by the anti-ship systems supplied to Ukraine.

The most incredible story, filled with genuine but unsung heroism, was posted by a State Duma deputy and former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army Andrey Gurulev on his personal Telegram channel. According to him, Major General Mikhail Yasnikov, deputy commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet for logistics, mastered the profession of floating crane operator within an hour in order to solve the most important task - to deliver the Pantsir SAM system to Snake Island, as the civilian crane operator refused to participate in the risky operation.

Gurulev ended his post this way:

“Mikhail Yasnikov's determination and courage to take full responsibility, to lead the men, and the courage and heroism of all the crew members and the deck crew made it possible to save all the servicemen guarding Snake Island. We need control over this island, it is a strategically important facility, so let us thank our heroes from the bottom of our hearts.”

In spite of such serious media attention, the Russian Ministry of Defense has downgraded Yasnikov's feat and the reputation of the pro-government experts with its “gesture of goodwill.”

One must assume that the Russian command has finally realized that the war has taken a prolonged character and may continue for many months or even years. Accordingly, the attempts to gain a foothold on the Snake Island will lead to even greater losses in personnel and especially in combat equipment (boats and ships, electronic warfare and air defense equipment).

According to the calculations of the Ukrainian edition of the Forbes magazine, Russia has lost almost $1 billion worth of armaments and military equipment on and around Snake Island: the missile cruiser Moskva worth $750 million, at least eight destroyed air defense systems worth $100 million, three sunken boats and an auxiliary ship worth another $50 million, plus at least one helicopter ($8 million) and one radar ($6 million).

The use of the island's garrison in the current operational situation is impossible, as an amphibious operation aimed at Odessa seems hopeless because of the loss of the missile cruiser Moskva and the presence of anti-ship systems supplied by the Western allies of Ukraine.

Without the task of preparing an amphibious assault, a Russian garrison on the island only made sense in the event of a prolonged cease-fire along the lines taken by the sides. Persistent attempts to fortify the island were consistently thwarted by UAVs and Ukrainian aviation strikes. After the AFU received and deployed long-range artillery systems on the coast, it finally became clear that constant protection from air or sea and grueling counter-battery combat would be required to eliminate the threat.

What is next?

It is unlikely that the Russian command will try to retake Snake Island in the foreseeable future. At least not until the offensive in the direction of Mykolaiv, which would threaten the Odessa operational area from the land.

The deployment of an AFU garrison there will also be difficult, as Russia still has overwhelming superiority in long-range weapons and aviation. After the withdrawal of the Russian garrison, Su-30s from the Belbek airbase in Crimea were used for strikes on Snake Island (with phosphorus bombs according to the Ukrainian side).

Oleksiy Arestovich, adviser to the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, said that the AFU are not going to repeat the mistakes of the Russian military and will not try to station a garrison on the island or even conduct a flag-planting mission there.

Most likely, Snake Island will remain “no man's land” and, accordingly, uninhabited until one of the sides succeeds in changing the situation “on the ground” in its favor.

Either the Ukrainian Armed Forces will push the Russian troops back to Crimea and threaten the aviation and naval forces deployed there, in which case it will really make sense to deploy anti-ship systems on Snake Island.

Alternatively, the Russian Armed Forces will launch an attack on Mykolaiv and Odessa and manage to restrain or distract the main forces on the southern flank of the Ukrainian defense, as well as significantly limit the coastal area, from which it is possible to bombard Snake Island, which will create conditions for a new attempt to gain a foothold on the island.

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