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Russian Military Throws Up Hands, Abandons Snake Island

  • Russia has withdrawn from Snake Island, a strategically important island in the Black Sea.
  • Moscow says it’s leaving “as a symbol of goodwill,” but it’s a retreat by any other name.
  • Holding the island cost Russia dearly, including lost ships, a helicopter, missile systems, and troops.

    Russia officially withdrew its military garrison from Ukraine’s Zmiinyi Island, also known as “Snake Island,” on June 30, according to Russian state media. The site of a sign of defiance in the early hours of the war, the island has been the subject of repeated attacks by the Ukrainian military, causing heavy casualties to occupying Russian troops. Rather than admit defeat, Moscow has declared that its troops have accomplished their mission and that it is withdrawing in a magnanimous act of goodwill.

    Ukraine’s Operational Command South, the military headquarters responsible for the war’s southern front and Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, issued a statement on Telegram that “the enemy hastily evacuated the remnants of the garrison in two speedboats and probably left the island.”

    Ukrainian Bayraktar drones, shown here in 2021, allowed the country’s military to observe and strike Russian forces on Snake Island.

    Future PublishingGetty Images

    The withdrawal is a setback for Russia’s invasion effort. Snake Island—situated in the Black Sea, just 30 miles off the coast of Ukraine—was in position to monitor, and if necessary block, Ukrainian shipping, especially grain and other goods bound for overseas. It was also in a position to block Ukrainian aircraft flying over the Black Sea, especially those seeking to avoid Russian air defenses.

    The Russian government cast the retreat as a goodwill gesture, stating it “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.”

    snake island moskva

    The defiant stance of Ukrainian marines on Snake Island was commemorated in a stamp issued by the state postal agency. The Russian Navy cruiser Moskva, which was involved in the capture of the island and later sunk, is depicted.

    SOPA ImagesGetty Images

    Russia captured Snake Island in the early hours of the war. A garrison of Ukrainian marines, ordered to surrender by the Russian cruiser Moskva, defiantly refused. The act of defiance set the tone for the entire war, and in one of its many ironies, Ukrainian anti-ship missiles sunk Moskva a month later. Members of the garrison survived and were later repatriated.

    Russia installed its own garrison on the island, a garrison that was bombed and attacked repeatedly.


    ✅ Get the Facts: The Sinking of Moskva


      Valeriy Zaluzhniy, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, thanked the developers of the Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer, Bodogan, stating it “played an important role in the liberation of the island.” He also thanked “foreign partners for the provided means of destruction.” The Bodogan is a truck-mounted 155-millimeter howitzer compatible with advanced Western artillery shells.

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      A video shared by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense on Twitter (above) strongly implies the Bodogan was paired with TB-2 Bayraktar drones to successfully strike Snake Island; the video depicts an attack on the Russian garrison on June 21. After the first artillery round falls into the ocean, live video from the Bayraktar allowed Ukrainian artillerymen to quickly adjust their aim, landing the second shot on the edge of the island. The third shot clearly hits the center of the island.

      Ukraine has attacked Snake Island with fighter bombers and Bayraktar drones, but Russia’s installation of surface-to-air missile systems on the island has made bombing it a tricky proposition. The island is out of range of older Ukrainian artillery. Bodogan, however, is compatible with new western artillery shells and artillery technology.

      Zaluzhniy’s thanks to “foreign partners” is likely a reference to long-range artillery shells provided by the West, either using base-bleed or rocket-assist technology, to finally reach Snake Island. Base-bleed artillery shells expel a gas into the pressure cavity behind an artillery shell in flight, reducing drag. Rocket-assisted projectiles (RAP) are artillery shells with a rocket motor in the tail, providing extra thrust. Both methods reduce the shell’s high explosive payload, but provide a useful boost in range.

      ukraine howitzers snake island

      Ukraine’s older artillery, including these 122-millimeter 2S1 self-propelled howitzers, could not reach Snake Island. It appears likely, however, that its newer-generation guns, provided with Western munitions, could.

      GENYA SAVILOVGetty Images

      Once the island was within range of land-based artillery, occupying it was no longer a viable proposition. The island, just .079 square miles, provided Russian troops no room to avoid shelling. Ukraine also received shore-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles from Denmark that could sink any ship approaching the island.

      Ukrainian forces repeatedly attacked the island and ships and aircraft sent to resupply it, causing heavy casualties among Russian forces. According to Ukrainian military sources, Russia has lost a command post, two 9K35 Strela-10 (NATO code name: “Gopher”) surface-to-air missile systems, two Tor surface-to air-missile systems, four Raptor patrol boats, a Serna-class landing craft, an Mi-8 “Hip” transport helicopter and Russian special forces, the tugboat Spasatel Vasily Bekh, and yet another unidentified air-defense system. An unknown number of Russian military personnel were also lost in the siege.

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