On Snake Island, Ukraine defiance leads to Russian withdrawal

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On Feb. 24, the day Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, a small group of Ukrainian border guards made a defiant stand against an encroaching Russian warship bent on capturing their rocky island.

“I am a Russian warship,” boomed a voice from the sea, according to a recording posted by the Ukrainian news outlet Ukrayinska Pravda. The voice called on the Ukrainian guards to surrender or “you will be bombed.”

The now-famous response: “Russian warship, go f — yourself.”

The Russians opened fire.

Ukraine said initially that its guards on Snake Island, a tiny piece of land about 25 miles off Ukraine’s southeastern coast, had been killed. It later emerged, however, that at least some were taken captive. Roman Hrybov, the Ukrainian soldier who reportedly cursed at the Russians, was released in a prisoner swap in March and given a medal for valor.

On Ukraine’s Snake Island, a defiant last stand against Russian forces

News of the salty verbal exchange between Russian forces aboard the Moskva and the Snake Island guards ricocheted around the world. It was invoked in internet memes, on T-shirts and in speeches on the floor of the US Senate. Ukraine rolled out a commemorative postage stamp depicting a Ukrainian soldier, gun lowered and middle finger raised, standing in front of an approaching warship.

The expletive became a rallying cry for Ukrainians and their international allies – a symbol of the willingness of Ukrainian fighters to face down Russian aggression.

Four months later, the war continues to inflict a heavy toll. But Snake Island, at least, is back in Ukrainian hands.

Russian and Ukrainian officials acknowledged Thursday that Russian forces had left the island, called Zmiinyi in Ukrainian, after occupying the strategic Black Sea outpost for months. They offered significantly different accounts of the events that led to that outcome, however.

Russia called its retreat from Snake Island a “goodwill gesture” at a time when Moscow faces global ire for obstructing grain exports from Ukraine that are key to mitigating a global food crisis. The island, which covers just 0.06 square miles, sits on a major shipping lane and access point to the key port of Odessa. Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that its forces had “completed their assigned tasks” on the island.

“[We] demonstrated to the world community that the Russian Federation does not interfere with the efforts of the UN to organize a humanitarian corridor for the export of agricultural products from the territory of Ukraine, ”the ministry said.

Ukraine offered a different story. A blitz of Ukrainian artillery, rockets and airstrikes this month forced the Russians to pull out, Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, wrote in a Facebook post. He shared video footage of missiles hitting the island and the surrounding waters. Ukraine had pounded the island for days and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said earlier this week that it had taken out Russian antiaircraft systems there. Russia, meanwhile, denied its systems had been destroyed.

Russian forces tried unsuccessfully to stymie the assault with nighttime fighter jet attacks on the coast of the Odessa region, the Ukrainian military’s southern command said on Facebook. As the Ukrainian military operation continued, Russian troops remaining on the island “hurriedly evacuated” the garrison on two speedboats, the statement added.

“On Snake [Island] there are no more Russians, ”Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, wrote on Telegram. “The Ukrainian Armed Forces conducted a wonderful operation and knocked them out.” He added, inserting a Ukrainian flag emoji: “All will be [Ukraine]. ”

Satellite images taken Thursday morning by Maxar Technologies and provided to The Washington Post show smoke rising from the northern part of Snake Island as structures burn.

Zaluzhny thanked fighters in the Odessa region “who have taken maximum measures to release a strategically important area of ​​our territory.” He praised builders and manufacturers of the homemade, self-propelled Bohdana howitzer, “which played an important role in the liberation of the island.”

He also thanked foreign allies for weapons that aided the fight. The British Defense Ministry said on June 21 that Ukrainian forces had successfully used Western-supplied anti-ship Harpoon missiles to sink a Russian tugboat en route to deliver weapons and personnel to Snake Island.

Thursday’s withdrawal of Russian troops drew jubilant reactions in Ukraine and around the world.

“KABOOM! No Russian troops on the Snake Island anymore, ”Yermak tweeted.

“Congratulations Ukrainian warriors on your liberation of Snake Island!” Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, tweeted.

Strategically, the pullout of Russian forces from the island means Moscow loses a Black Sea base from which its forces could threaten important sea lanes along the Ukrainian coast south toward Romania. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief, said in May that whoever controls Snake Island controls “the surface and to some extent the air situation in southern Ukraine,” CNN reported.

“Ukraine’s expulsion of Russian forces from Snake Island is a significant accomplishment for Kyiv and an important defeat for Russia,” Mason Clark, Russia’s team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, said in an emailed statement Thursday. “Ukrainian forces are unlikely to reoccupy Snake Island themselves, but they don’t need to – they needed to get the Russians off it, and they did.”

Nonetheless, Russia has not lifted its naval blockade – and it can still threaten ships sailing to Odessa with its Black Sea fleet and land-based anti-ship weapons systems in Crimea and other parts of southern Ukraine, Clark said. It’s also unclear whether Ukraine will send troops back to the island.

For Ukraine, the Russian retreat from Snake Island may prove more significant as a symbolic victory.

Ukrainians got their first dose of revenge for Russia’s takeover of the island in April, when Ukraine sank the Moscow. In addition to being the offending ship in the original Snake Island standoff, it was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and an irreplaceable maritime asset in the Black Sea. The Post reported in May that the United States had provided Ukraine with the intelligence that helped Kyiv attack and sink it.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry made clear Thursday that it saw the Russian flight under Ukrainian bombardment as comeuppance.

“Operational Command South confirms, the russian occupiers have left the Snake Island. They couldn’t stand the weather – the ground was burning under their feet, the sea was boiling, the air was too hot, ”the ministry tweeted. “PS russian warships go f — yourselves!”

David L. Stern in Kyiv, Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, and Adela Suliman in London contributed to this report.

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