December 3, 2023

Russian forces withdrew from Snake Island in the Black Sea after repeated attacks by Ukrainian forces, a move that represents a setback for Moscow’s forces and may undermine their control of vital shipping lanes.

The withdrawal came after sustained Ukrainian attacks—including with powerful newly arrived Western weapons—that made it impossible for Russian forces to hold the island, a small patch of land 20 miles off the coast of Odessa that played a huge role throughout the war.

Just a week after the Kremlin boasted of repelling a Ukrainian attempt to retake the island, the Russian withdrawal appeared to be another example of Moscow curtailing its military ambitions in the face of Ukrainian resistance.

Both the Russians and the Ukrainians confirmed the withdrawal on Thursday, which the Ukrainians said came after a military campaign launched more than a week ago, which has repeatedly targeted the island and Russian efforts to resupply the garrison there with missile and artillery fire.

The Ukrainian Army’s Southern Command reports that the last Russian soldiers on the island, which is called Zmini in Ukrainian, escaped overnight in two speedboats.

“There are no more Russians in my time,” said Andrey Yermak, head of the Presidential Office of Ukraine. The armed forces carried out an excellent operation.

The Russian Defense Ministry, in a statement, sought to describe the withdrawal as a “goodwill gesture” that would “not allow Kiev to predict an impending food crisis,” since control of the island is vital to securing shipping lanes in the northwestern corner of the Black Sea. The Russian naval blockade de facto prevented Ukraine from exporting most of its pre-war monthly supply of five million tons of grain.

Despite the Russian statement, there was no indication that the Kremlin was willing to allow the safe passage of Ukrainian ships leaving the port of Odessa.

On Tuesday, Natalia Homenyuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Army’s Southern Command, said Ukraine had destroyed three anti-aircraft missile systems recently installed on the island. She said the latest attack left the radar station inoperative, making it impossible to provide assistance to Russian forces on the island.

The fortified island has been a target for the Russians from the very first day of the invasion, when the Russian flagship, the Moskva, arrived in the Black Sea to order the surrender of the soldiers guarding the small Ukrainian outpost. The soldiers’ salty refusal turned into a rallying cry for the nation.

The sinking of the Moskva River in April, one of Ukraine’s most famous victories of the war, increased the island’s importance to both Ukraine and Russia.

Russia has moved to bring powerful surface-to-air missile systems to the island to support its ground forces. The Russian Navy has also begun to operate farther from the Ukrainian coast, far from the range of land-based anti-ship missiles.

But the danger to Russian ships increased with the arrival of stronger Western anti-ship systems in late May. Around June 20, Ukrainian forces launched their renewed offensive on the island, striking a Russian tugboat while it was on a mission to deliver weapons and personnel to the island.

The Ukrainians almost certainly used the newly delivered Harpoon missiles in the attack, according to the British military, which said it was their first apparent use.

But the fight for the island continued. Satellite images released over the past week have shown the results as seen from space – large new scars spread across 46 acres of rock and grass rising from the sea.

In the latest attack announced by the Ukrainian military on Thursday morning, the Ukrainian military said it used missiles and artillery to destroy another Russian anti-missile system. “Snake Island is full of fire, and explosions are heard,” the Ukrainian command said.

The last Russians were seen there getting into two boats and speeding away. But due to its weakness, it was not clear whether the Ukrainians would try to restore their own garrison on Snake Island.

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