Russia’s withdrawal from Snake Island is unlikely to change the course of the war all that much, but the Ukrainians have reason to celebrate: the rock in the Black Sea is important for the defense of the port city of Odessa.
The name Snake Island alone has what it takes to tell 1000 and one heroic story about the war, at least when it’s finally over. The 17-hectare rock in the Black Sea became well-known when Russia invaded Ukraine: On February 24, Russian cruisers appeared off the coast and demanded that the border guards stationed there lay down their weapons. The 13 Ukrainians respond with the now legendary sentence: “Russian warship, fuck you.” The objections did not help, Moscow’s troops occupied the strategically important Snake Island – but now they withdrew their soldiers again. Why?
Will grain be exported again?
The Russian Defense Ministry describes the withdrawal as a “goodwill gesture”. He should show that Moscow does not hinder the export of grain and agricultural products from Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia are among the largest wheat exporters in the world. With Russia blocking Ukrainian ports and thus grain exports across the Black Sea, more than a billion people could face food shortages. Mainly in Africa, but also in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Ukraine mainly exports its grain by sea, especially via Odessa. To protect the city and its port from Russian attacks, the country has mined the waters, which also prevents ships from exiting. And this is where Snake Island comes into play again. It is in front of Odessa, from where the important port city could also be attacked with the help of long-range missiles if the sea route is not accessible. According to military observers, one of the Kremlin’s war aims is to cut off the neighboring country from the Black Sea. Numerous port cities are already under Russian control. If the invaders want to make Ukraine landlocked, they need Snake Island.
Recently, satellite images had shown how Russia had brought more and more vehicles to the small island, but their purpose was not clear. According to British intelligence reports, Ukrainian attacks have repeatedly prevented Russian ships from bringing supplies to Snake Island. The troops there were also regularly shot at with Ukrainian rockets. The Ministry of Defense in London therefore doubts Moscow’s justification for the withdrawal: “The soldiers there were probably too isolated and at the mercy of the attacks from Ukraine,” says a report.
“Withdrawal changes situation significantly”
Russian withdrawal from Snake Island alone will not end the grain blockade. Nevertheless, he clears an obstacle out of the way. “The West could build on this momentum by launching an operation to escort merchant ships out of the Black Sea,” writes the Wall Street Journal. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Russian withdrawal would put his country in a better position: “Snake Island is a strategic point and that significantly changes the situation in the Black Sea,” he said in a video address.
The small triumph in Ukraine is unlikely to change much in the course of the war, but the Russian military’s options for action are now more limited, “even if this does not guarantee security,” says Zelenskyj. The reconquest of the island is above all a symbolic success, good for morale.
Some observers believe that arms deliveries to Kyiv are also a factor in the withdrawal of Russian troops. According to “ntv.de”, the shelling by French Caesar-type howitzers may have posed problems for the occupiers of the island of snakes. Last week, the Ukrainian armed forces also received Himars multiple rocket launchers from the United States. The mobile weapon systems can fire multiple missiles simultaneously at targets up to 80 kilometers away.
Sources: DPA, AFP, Sky.com, BBC, “Spiegel”, United Nations