This small, rocky island in the northwest of the Black Sea was captured by Russia on the first day of its invasion of Ukraine and has played a major role in the war ever since.
After bombarding Ukraine for more than four months, Russian forces abandoned Snake Island (known in Ukraine as Zmiinyi Island).
Russia says it has withdrawn its forces here as a “goodwill gesture” to prove it is not hindering grain exports. But Ukraine denied this allegation, as Moscow continued to bombard grain warehouses.
hard to defend
Military experts describe the small garrison (first the Ukrainians, then the Russians) tasked with defending it as an “easy target”, as the island is vulnerable to attack from all directions, from the air and sea.
Snake Island, captured by the Russians on February 24, is 35 km from the Ukrainian coast; that is, within range of missile, artillery and drone attacks from the shore.
The Ukrainian army did the same, launching attacks on the island and on ships carrying troops and heavy weapons there.
With the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva in April, Russia’s anti-aircraft capabilities in the northwestern Black Sea were significantly weakened.
This explains the Kremlin’s efforts to bring anti-aircraft systems and radio-electronic warfare systems to Snake Island. However, because it was so far from its main naval bases in the Black Sea, defending the island turned into a logistical nightmare for Russia.
Despite all his attacks, Ukraine’s naval capacity was very limited, so it could not land its own forces on the island.
Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov says deploying troops to Snake Island doesn’t make sense for either side, as they would become easy targets. Instead, he argues, the island should maintain its ability to hit any target approaching.
This will also provide greater security to Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port, and to the northwest region of the Black Sea.
an important reef
Russia currently controls most of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, as well as the Crimean Peninsula and the entire Sea of Azov. The holding of Snake Island facilitated the effective blockade of Odessa and made the export of Ukrainian grain impossible.
This also meant that the Black Sea coast was vulnerable to attack, and military experts in Kiev expressed concern that Russia could build long-range air defense systems such as the S-400.
Russia’s control of the island was also a threat to NATO member Romania in terms of both the port of Constanta and the traffic at the mouth of the Danube River.
This strategically important region is also rich in oil and gas reserves.
a potential change
Russia’s withdrawal from the island is not just a symbolic victory for Ukraine, but a strategic success. For Russia, it is both a setback and an embarrassing defeat.
However, this development would not significantly change the course of the war. Russia is focused on capturing the entire eastern part of the Donbas and holding other southern areas it had captured at the beginning of the war.
Snake Island is in a very strategic part of the Black Sea and an ideal spot for installing sophisticated missile systems, but ultimately it’s a small cliff.
The real question is whether Ukraine will resume grain exports to revive its war-ravaged economy once the Russians are driven out. While Russian warships maintain their dominance in the Black Sea, Ukraine, which does not have an effective navy, has little chance yet.
Ukraine rejected Russia’s offer to accompany grain convoys from Odessa, as it would require clearing mines outside the port.
Turkey is actively trying to reach an agreement with both Russia and Ukraine, but at this stage, the possibility of that too seems remote.
The next few weeks are considered crucial for Ukraine’s exports; because the new harvest starts in July.
Analysis: *Steve Rosenberg**,* BBC Russia Editor
We’re used to this now: Russia puts forward a very different version of developments than that offered by Ukrainian or Western governments.
In the statement made by the Russian Ministry of Defense, it is claimed that the Russian troops only completed the “assigned missions” and left the island. He also describes the departure as a “goodwill gesture” to show that Russia is not blocking food exports from Ukraine.
Considering the strategic importance of Snake Island, which has been fought for for months, and the fact that Russian forces have not made “goodwill gestures” in Ukraine since the invasion, this narrative will hardly be believed outside of Russia.