How something starts, often determines how it finishes. Never was this truer then with the tug of war between Ukraine and Russia for control of Snake Island. The battle for that strategic speck of rock in the Black Sea ended a few days ago when Russian abandoned their occupation of it. This came after over a week’s worth of attacks from Ukrainian forces armed with precision missiles provided to them by their western allies. The final Russian forces fled from the island by speedboat to avoid another devastating attack by the Ukrainian military. It remains to be seen whether the Russians will return, but it would probably be in their best interests to stay away from Snake Island for the rest of the war.
While Russian president Vladimir Putin has not yet lost the war in Ukraine, his military forces have lost the power and prestige he covets. Many point to defeat in the Battle of Kyiv or the failure to subdue Kharkiv as the reason for Russia’s loss of reputation. Snake Island might be just as important. It is a stunning defeat for the Russian military and a morale booster for the Ukrainians. It also begs the question of how Russia will win the war if they cannot even hold an island in the Black Sea where they enjoy overwhelming naval superiority. The battle for Snake Island is symptomatic of the Russian military’s failure to subdue Ukraine.
Island Fortress – Holding On & Holding Out
The fall of Snake Island to Russian forces should have been quick and easy. In a sense, it was. On the first day of the war, Russian ships radioed Ukrainian forces asking them to surrender. The Ukrainians replied with their now famous retort, “Russian warship, go f*&k yourself.” This vocal symbol of Ukrainian resistance has become the most famous incident in the entire war. A larger point though was missed by many who only focused on this incident. The Russians still took the island and began to militarize it. At only 17 hectares (47 acres), Snake Island may be small. but it was much more important to Russia’s war effort in the Black Sea, then it was to Ukraine’s military forces.
Ukraine hardly has a navy and Russia has one of the world’s largest navies, but when it came to holding onto Snake Island conventional military forces were at a disadvantage. Taking Snake Island was deceptively easy, holding it proved to be extremely difficult to the point that it finally proved impossible. Russia believed that its naval superiority would allow them to fortify the island and protect it. This seemed like a rather simple task since Ukraine did not have the naval forces to take it back. As Russia discovered, Snake Island was vulnerable to asymmetric warfare. Rather than naval battles where large ships oppose one another in open water, the battle for control of Snake Island was fought by stealth.
The Ukrainian’s made it difficult for the Russians to flex their naval muscle after they sank the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, the Moskva. Other Russian ships proceeded to move further offshore instead of risking the same thing to happen again. They were right to be wary of Ukraine’s ability to launch stealth strikes against the Black Sea fleet. Proof of this occurred on June 17th when one of their supply ships, the Vasily Bekh was unloading an air defense system on the island that would protect it from attack. Suddenly, two western anti-ship missiles shot by the Ukrainians struck and subsequently destroyed the Vasily Bekh. This made the Russians even more skittish about resupplying the island after they stationed marine commandos to run a reconnaissance station. The Russians were able to install rocket launchers on the island. Nevertheless, the island became increasingly isolated which made it vulnerable to further Ukrainian attacks which were soon forthcoming.
Under Attack – Nowhere To Hide
During the final week of June, Ukrainian attacks with advanced precision weaponry escalated against Snake Island. The Russians could not adequately defend against such attacks. They also knew that the Ukrainians were now getting consistent supplies of these weapons from their western allies which meant attacks on Snake Island would become more common than they already were. At first, the Russians stated they had been able to defend against these attacks. Whether that was so hardly mattered because the island’s size meant that any rockets which get past Russian defenses had a high likelihood of hitting targets. For the Russian commandos there were only so many spots on the island where they could hide from these attacks.
As the Ukrainian attacks became more devastating it did not take long for the Russians to realize that their positions on Snake Island were indefensible. The decision was made to flee the island before the commando unit could be destroyed. The Russians tried to sell their departure in the media by stating that they were being magnanimous by leaving. Official sources stated that they did not want to block shipping lanes. According to the Russians, Ukraine was now free to use the Black Sea in order to transport their grains to markets which might otherwise suffer from famine. Not surprisingly, this skewed the truth and distracted from Russia’s failure to hold the island. Shipping on the Black Sea is still not safe from Russian attack. Furthermore, Ukraine would have to de-mine the waters around their ports. Something, they will not do without iron clad security assurances from their allies. Otherwise, Russia could use them to attack Odessa, Ukraine’s largest and most strategically valuable port.
Point of Access – An Island’s Importance
Now that Russia has been run off Snake Island, do not expect the Ukrainians to reoccupy it. They would struggle to hold it for any length of time. Their victory at Snake Island is still of great importance. It robs the Russians of a landform that controls a critical point of access in the Black Sea. The Russians know Snake Island is off limits to them unless they are prepared to incur greater losses. The saga of Snake Island has ended for now, but the war goes on. Ukraine should be rightfully proud of their ability to resist Russian occupation of the island. That resistance on Snake Island began on the first day of the war and continued until Russia’s defeat was assured. If only Ukraine could be so fortunate in other theaters of the war.
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