Black Sea’s Snake Island emerges as crucial in Russia-Ukraine war
This WorldView-1 satellite black and white image from Maxar Technologies shows the northern end of Snake Island in the Black Sea on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. AP

Snake Island, a tiny piece of land in the Black Sea near the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, has taken on symbolic importance for both sides in the conflict. Ukraine said last week that it had won a major military victory on the island, an account Moscow disputes.

Authorities in Kyiv said Ukrainian forces had launched missile strikes and drones from the coast on June 21, destroying Russian military vehicles, anti-aircraft defenses and a radar system on Snake Island, a piece of rock smaller than 0.7 square kilometers located about 40km southwest of Odesa.

The Russian military denied the claims, saying its defenses held up as its forces on the island intercepted all the Ukrainian missiles and shot down 13 of the 15 drones.

This ferocious contestation of the narrative says a lot about how important Snake Island is to both Kyiv and Moscow. While it is difficult to discern where the truth lies, it is certain that “Ukrainian missiles did, indeed, hit military targets” on the island, according to Sim Tack, an analyst at the US military consultancy Force Analysis.

Tack studied satellite images of Snake Island after the offensive. “We can see the impact of the bombing,” he said. “We can also see the Russian Pantsir anti-aircraft vehicles that were supposedly destroyed, although it’s difficult to see whether or not they’re still operational.”

It was not the first time Ukraine has targeted Russian positions around the island. On June 17, Kyiv claimed it had sunk a tugboat transporting munitions to Russian troops.

This came after Ukraine launched several offensives in May trying to recapture Snake Island. In response, the Russian military reinforced its presence there.

‘A battle cry for Ukrainians’

Nevertheless, some analysts raise their eyebrows at the fighting over Snake Island. “It has very limited strategic importance in terms of who controls the Black Sea”, said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian military issues and a non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical research centre.

Snake Island’s most significant quality is its proximity to Odesa; it has often been described as a gateway to Ukraine’s pre-eminent port. In theory, whoever controls this piece of land also controls access to Odesa. Snake Island could thus be vital to preventing a full-blown global food crisis, given that Ukraine once exported some 4.5 million tons of food per month through Odesa before the port was blockaded by Russia.

But Tack suggested Snake Island’s strategic value is overestimated in this regard: “The military equipment stationed there is essentially defensive and has a very limited range,” he said.

Snake Island first came to prominence in the first days of the Russian invasion with reports that the Russian warship Moskva had demanded Ukrainian soldiers on the island surrender. “Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” came the reply, which quickly became a pro-Ukrainian slogan.

Snake Island has become “a kind of battle cry for Ukrainians, who see it as a symbol of their resistance to an enemy most people thought was stronger than them”, Hawn said.

Taking back Snake Island would therefore be a “major propaganda coup” for Ukraine. It would suggest to many that Kyiv had reversed the war’s tide in its favor. Moscow is all too aware of this, and so the Russians will do “everything they can to hold onto it”, Hawn said.

Snake Island has thus become a poisonous prize for Russia. Moscow seized it because it was “part of the battle for control of the Black Sea”, as Tack put it. However, Russia did not expect to have to devote so many resources to defending such a tiny piece of land.

“The problem is that it’s very difficult to keep this island properly supplied because any boat that goes there is within range of Ukrainian rocket-launchers,” Tack noted. And these are resources that Russia must divert from the war’s other theaters – most prominently the Donbas.

Snake Island has more than just symbolic value. After the sinking in late April of the Moskva, which was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Snake Island can also be seen as a “static warship that cannot be sunk”, said Hawn.

Like a warship, Snake Island provides an observation post from which to detect enemy movements in the area and can be used to bombard passing ships and planes. Ukraine must also keep an eye out to ensure that Russia does not launch an amphibious assault using Snake Island as an outpost.

“The international community sees Snake Island as a well-defined target for Ukrainian artillery. So by striking it over and over again, Kyiv is showing that its army can challenge Russian supremacy in the Black Sea,” according to Hawn.

This article was adapted from the original in French.