A tiny Ukrainian islet has held the key to control for dominance of the eastern Black Sea since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.
Situated 48km (30 miles) off the coast, Snake Island, or Zmiinyi, was seized by Russia on the opening day of the full-scale invasion.
The occupation of Snake Island is of vital strategic importance as it enables the control of approach waters to Ukraine’s last three remaining commercial ports – including its main Black Sea port of Odesa, where a Russian blockade has prevented grain exports from one of the world’s main suppliers.
The island is also well known for an incident in which Ukrainian sailors stationed there reportedly told a Russian warship to “Go f*** yourself!” when it called on them to surrender on February 24, the day Moscow invaded Ukraine.
Yet after months under Russia’s control, Russian forces announced on Thursday that they had abandoned Snake Island – a significant victory for Ukraine.
Russia had long struggled to hold onto the island, as Ukraine launched repeated attacks to attempt to dislodge Russian forces.
Russia’s initial efforts to reinforce its presence on the island were partially successful. Air defence radar and anti-aircraft missiles helped fend off Ukrainian attacks as Russia tried to build the island up into a fortress capable of dominating the region’s air space and sea lanes.
Ukrainian air attacks on the island, while successful, proved costly as Russia shot down several TB2 armed drones.
So Ukraine turned to its complement of anti-ship missiles which have been used to great effect against Russian warships, most notably when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the pride of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, on April 14.
This forced Russia to pull back most of its ships out of range but left Snake Island exposed as it needs resupply by sea. A ship carrying valuable stores, ammunition, weapons systems and personnel was hit and destroyed by Ukraine, forcing Russia to rethink its position on the island earlier in June.
Despite its heavy defences, regular Ukrainian attacks were making Russia’s position on the island untenable.
Russia’s defence ministry described the decision to withdraw as a “gesture of goodwill” that showed Moscow was not obstructing United Nations efforts to ship grain from Ukrainian ports.
But the abandonment of Snake island is a major reversal for Russia in the battle for control of the Black Sea, and shows that – despite Russian gains elsewhere – the war is far from over.
Ukraine claimed it had driven out the Russian forces after an enormous assault on Wednesday night.
“KABOOM!” Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter. “No Russian troops on the Snake Island any more. Our Armed Forces did a great job.”
There is now every possibility that Ukraine’s minuscule navy will turn the naval war against Russia. Anti-ship cruise missiles, both foreign and Ukrainian, plus armed drones, have made it increasingly risky for Russia’s remaining Black Sea Fleet to operate.
Routes to and from Odesa, still under Ukrainian control, will now be safer for foreign shipping to navigate and ensure larger exports of much-needed grain.
For the moment, Russia’s dream of dominating the Black Sea is over.