Russian forces retreat from Snake Island, defence ministry says

·3 min read
Snake Island has been a strategic location off the coast of the Black Sea  (Planet Labs PBC)
Snake Island has been a strategic location off the coast of the Black Sea (Planet Labs PBC)

Russian forces have withdrawn from Snake Island off Ukraine’s coast in the Black Sea as a “gesture of goodwill”, the defence ministry said on Thursday.

The ministry said the move showed Russia is not impeding United Nations (UN) efforts to organise a humanitarian corridor to export agricultural products out of Ukraine.

The tiny outcrop, seized by Russia on the first day of its invasion, achieved worldwide fame when Ukrainian border guards stationed there at first resisted a Russian warship’s demand for their surrender.

Ukraine denied the withdrawal was a gesture of goodwill, saying Russian forces were pushed out.

Boris Johnson, at the Nato conference in Madrid, praised the “amazing ability of the Ukrainians to fight back, to overcome adversity, and to repel the Russians”.

The head of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, said on Twitter: “KABOOM! No Russian troops on the Snake Island anymore. Our Armed Forces did a great job.”

Ukraine’s southern military command wrote on Facebook that following a successful operation involving missile and artillery units, Russian forces had evacuated from Snake Island in two boats.

A view of the Snake Island on Thursday (Reuters)
A view of the Snake Island on Thursday (Reuters)

Snake Island became infamous after a group of Ukrainian soldiers defending the island told a Russian warship “go f**k yourself”. Russian soldiers onboard the vessel told the guards to lay down their weapons or be “bombed”, according to audio clips of the incident picked up by local media and shared online.

Two Ukrainian guards can be heard engaging in a brief exchange, saying, “Should I tell them to go f*** themselves?” – before responding with: “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.”

An earlier statement by Ukraine suggested they were then killed by air and sea strikes – which Russia denied, saying the troops surrendered. Ukraine’s interior ministry said the audio recording was authentic. The Ukrainian soldier involved, Roman Hrybov, was awarded a medal in March for his services.

Initial reports said 13 border guards on the island had died after refusing to surrender, with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine saying each guard would be posthumously awarded the title Hero of Ukraine. But just days later, Ukraine’s state border guard said that the soldiers were still alive and had been taken captive by Russia.

Mr Hrybov is now home in the city of Cherkasy, and shared a video in which Mr Hrybov is seen receiving a medal for his actions from the local authorities.

Snake Island sits off the coast of the Black Sea and was one of the first areas attacked by Russia (Alamy)
Snake Island sits off the coast of the Black Sea and was one of the first areas attacked by Russia (Alamy)

Ukrainian armed forces commander Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said Ukrainian-made Bohdana howitzers played an important role in driving out the Russian forces and thanked foreign partners for their support.

The loss of the island gives Ukraine a freer hand to use military drones and operate in the western Black Sea, but it is unlikely to help ease the crisis over Ukraine’s blockaded grain, Kyiv-based analysts said.

Ukrainian service member Roman Hrybov, who was captured by Russian troops on the Snake Island was awarded a medal for his services (Reuters)
Ukrainian service member Roman Hrybov, who was captured by Russian troops on the Snake Island was awarded a medal for his services (Reuters)

It was also unlikely that Ukraine would itself take up positions and deploy anti-ship weapons on the island to try to beef up its coastline defences because the island remained within the firing range of Russian forces, Oleg Zhdanov, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said.

Mathieu Boulegue, an analyst at Chatham House, said Russia’s pullback might be part of a plan to let the Kremlin strengthen its military forces elsewhere in the Black Sea.

“We should not be fooled by it ... It might be short-term relief but there will be long-term pain.”