Russian forces have withdrawn from Snake Island in the Black Sea in a move Ukraine hailed as a victory and Russia said showed Moscow was not seeking to hinder the United Nations’ efforts to organise a corridor for the export of Ukrainian food products.
Ukraine’s military claimed on Thursday that it had forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats following a barrage of Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes.
Snake Island is a rocky outcrop that overlooks sea lanes to Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port, where Russia is blocking food exports from one of the world’s leading grain suppliers.
“The most significant aspect is that this could open the door to Ukrainian grain exports from Odesa, which is critical for Ukraine’s economy and for the global food supply,” said Rob Lee of the United States-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Lifting the Ukraine ports blockade has been a primary goal of the West.
But several military experts said that driving the Russians from Snake Island would not by itself be enough to unblock the ports.
Russia could still intercept cargo ships at sea.
Here are five things to know about the island and its strategic importance.
Battle for the Black Sea
- A rocky outcrop about 35 km (22 miles) off the southwestern tip of Ukraine, Snake Island sits near the Danube Delta and close to the sea border with Romania, a NATO member.
- It has strategic value for the control of the northwestern Black Sea, its coastal cities, and shipping routes that form part of the world’s grain supply chain.
- Russia’s withdrawal from the island may ease its blockade on Ukrainian exports that feed some of the world’s poorest countries.
Achilles and the Trojan War
- Stories about the island stretch back millennia to the ancient Greeks’ mythological Trojan war.
- Snake Island has a long association with Achilles, the great warrior in Greek myth considered invincible but for one vulnerable spot on his heel.
- Covering just 0.17sq km (0.07sq miles), about the size of 20 football pitches, Snake Island achieved worldwide fame in the first hours of Russia’s February 24 invasion when Ukrainian border guards stationed there rejected a Russian warship’s demand for their surrender.
- “Russian warship, go f*** yourself,” one Ukrainian soldier was recorded as saying.
- The refusal to surrender was immortalised on a Ukrainian postage stamp.
- The day the stamp was issued, Ukraine sank the same Russian vessel, the Moskva, which had demanded the island surrender and which had been the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Russia’s slipping hold
- Last month, the United Kingdom’s defence ministry said that if Russia were able to consolidate its grip on Snake Island with air defence and coastal defence cruise missiles, it could dominate the northwestern Black Sea.
- Russia had defended the island since February, but Ukraine increasingly claimed to inflict severe damage, sinking supply vessels and destroying Russian fortifications on the island.
- New weapons sent by the West made the Russian garrison on Snake Island even more vulnerable, especially the high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) supplied by the US that Ukraine began fielding last week.
Dispute with Romania
- The International Court of Justice drew a new maritime border between Romania and Ukraine in 2009 to settle a dispute focused around Snake Island over parts of the Black Sea believed to hold significant oil and gas reserves.
- At the time, Ukraine said Snake Island was inhabited and economically active, home to around 100 people including military personnel, lighthouse keepers, scientists and their families.